Friday, January 30, 2015

In Search Of Mustard In Ghent

Mayonnaise or mustard? For me, unless it is with frites, or French fries (an oh so tasty but not so good for you habit I've developed since moving to Belgium), the answer is always mustard. But of course not just any mustard will do. French's mustard, the standard bearer that is synonymous with mustards in the United States, will never cut it for me. Now give me a smooth and tangy Dijon or a rustic mustard filled with tiny seeds that pop when you bite into it and I'm a happy camper. Actually, with the exception of the afore mentioned French's, there are few mustards I've tried and not liked and I'm always open to trying a new version. So when I heard about a little mustard shop in the Belgian town of Ghent I knew I had to check it out. After all, two of my favorite food and travel resources-- the New York Times and AFAR magazine -- have all written and raved about the mustard. I did and now not only do I know what all the hype is about, I can say I am a fan.

The Tierenteyn's have been making their mustard in Flanders since 1790 and today the tiny Tierenteyn Mustard shop is centrally located on Ghent's Groentenmarkt. Two Tierenteyn brothers started producing the mustard and a popular story has Napoleon and his soldiers discussing its virtues. Who knows if this is fact or urban legend but the mustard's popularity has transcended centuries with the secret recipe has since been passed down from one generation to the next. Made of dark mustard seeds as opposed to the light ones found in Dijon mustard, the seeds were originally hand ground, making the cost of the mustard accessible only to the wealthy residents of Ghent. Today the process is automated but the resulting product is just as delicious and coveted by mustard lovers from all walks of life.

Walking in the door of Tierenteyn is like stepping back in time and reminded me of visiting an old fashioned pharmacy. The mustard "factory" is located in the basement of the building with the small shop above it at street level. As I discovered it can quickly become crowded when a hoard of mustard seeking tourists descends. Floor to ceiling shelves are lined with blue and white crocks of various sizes. You can select the size you want and a friendly shop clerk will fill it with mustard. Or you can opt for a plain glass jar with a screw top but splurge on the crock since it is just so pretty and really adds to the experience.

So what does the mustard taste like? The mustard is smooth and golden but unlike most American style mustards it is tangy and hot; almost biting if you are too eager in your first taste. My initial reaction was that it had the heat of a good Chinese mustard or even included horseradish (which it doesn't). It isn't quite Dijon but it is close; Colman's mustard is similar but again, not quite the same. For me, this is what makes Tierenteyn mustard unique and oh-so good; I've never had anything quite like it. I've slathered it on sandwiches, added it to homemade salad dressings and even used it as a marinade for meat. Any way I use it I love it.

Made without added preservatives it doesn't have a long shelf life but will reportedly keep in the refrigerator for about two months. They don't ship and the only place to buy it is at their shop. So if you're in Ghent stop in with cash in hand (they don't accept credit cards) and try some for yourself. As I've almost finished with my crock I know I'll be heading back soon. After all, I need to get my fill while I'm in Belgium since that's a long trip from the U.S. to buy mustard.

If you go:

Tierenteyn Mustard Shop
Groentenmarkt 3
Ghent, Belgium
 +32 92 25 83 36

Open Monday-Friday 0830-1800; Saturday 0900-1230 & 1300-1800
Cash only; no credit cards accepted

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Mons 2015: This Year's European Capital of Culture

In yesterday's blog post I shared pictures from this past weekend's opening event for Mons 2015. Today I'm going to explain what Mons 2015 is and some of the things I have to look forward to in the coming year. (Again I keep telling myself that it is just so cool that I have all of these great events taking place literally blocks from my house!).

So what is a European Capital of Culture? Simply put, it is a cultural initiative within the European Union that annually showcases the cultural heritage of selected cities.

Since 1985, the EU Council of Ministers has been selecting between one and five European cities to carry the title for a one year time period. The first city to carry this designation was Athens, Greece and since then cities large and small, capitals and provincial outposts throughout Europe have worn this designation with pride. This designation has been used as a tool for urban renewal, job creation and economic growth as well as an opportunity to highlight the sometimes neglected artistic and cultural aspects of a community. In a 2004 study the European Commission found that being selected as a European Capital of Culture has created longterm transformation for chosen cities. Simply put, this designation is a big deal. And that brings us back to Mons.

Yes, Mons. This little city is the southwestern part of Belgium, often overlooked and neglected is a 2015 European Capital of Culture. (Mons shares this year's title with Plzen, Czech Repubic). I had known about this designation when we first moved here a year ago. At the time people were referencing it but the details were vague. We heard that the year would be filled with activities but that was all we really knew. A new train station was being built in anticipation of all of the visitors who would be descending. We've been watching the construction's progress, or lack there of, over the past year and wondered if the station would really be completed in time. (It turns out our doubts were founded with the projected completion date now being the "end of 2015"). A large wooden piece of public art by Belgian artist Arne Quinze went up...and then came down. As residents of the city center a month ago we received a notification informing us of street closures, residential parking bans and driving restrictions within the city. I began to wonder if this designation was going to be more of an inconvenience for us than anything else.

But then, Mons 2015 officially opened. As the weekend approached the streets looked cleaner and more litter free than usual. Barriers and no parking signs were placed on corners and intersections. Roads began to be closed. In anticipation of the parking and driving ban we made plans to hunker down for the weekend and enjoy the festivities by foot. (Again, this is the great thing about living right in the center of the city). The theme for the opening festivities was "Illumination". As in lights. And sure enough, after a snowy then rainy morning the weather cleared up and illuminated art displays filled the city's squares, parks and open spaces. I'll admit the silver foil ponchos that were handed out to make the audience a part of a "living mirror ball" were a bit weird and perhaps I didn't see enough of them to truly appreciate their intended effect. But the larger than life, multi-colored sculptures that filled the Belfry park were spectacular. (We can see the belfry from our house and have been watching its changing color displays for weeks but it was great to finally be able to see it up close). Then there was the fantastic fireworks display that we could actually view from the second story of our house. But our favorite exhibit of all was the one involving fire. Located in Place du Parc, impressive displays involving fire and water filled the streets and green spaces. There were the giant flame filled balls that were suspended from a crane, candle lit arches over all of the park's walkways, giant fire pits that served as both warming stops and art and artists playing with fire and flames. A band performed under and flame filled stage. It really was a spectacular sight to behold.

I'm not sure what I expected to see but I must say I was impressed by all of the evening's events. Sure the crowds (not as bad as I had anticipated) and blocked streets were an inconvenience but it was all worth it. I've always loved the way Europe embraces public art, both the traditional and envelope pushing displays, and the Illumination event highlighted the best of public art. I'm now excited to see what the rest of this year of culture holds in store. And apparently others feel the same way. CNN's travel section named Mons as one of the top ten destinations to visit in 2015 and Britain's The Guardian has been covering this year's activities in Mons. If the media hype is to believed, the crowds are going to come. Am I ready? Yes. I can't wait. It really is a great time to be here in Belgium.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Mons 2015: Illumination

This year Mons is a European Capital of Culture. Here are a few pictures of the opening festivities of Mons 2015. The theme was "Illumination".

Friday, January 9, 2015

Counting My Blessings

If you asked me to sum up this week I'd say that it has been blah. For the past few days I've felt as thought I've been walking around in a fog that no amount of caffeine can jolt me out of. After the hubbub of the holidays its been back to normal around here (whatever that is). It is the first week back to work and school after a long break and it has simply dragged. I've been struggling to find the motivation to do everything from go to the gym and grocery shop to put away the rest of Christmas and simply get organized. I've been in a writing funk and been unable to really sit down and put a complete thought to paper. There have been lots of partial ones but not much else. Of course the weather hasn't been helping. We've experienced a few blinding glimpses of sun but it has been mostly rainy, gray and windy in these parts. I affectionately call it "Belgian weather" but I'm over it now.

And then there has the been the news. After weeks of not really keeping up with current events I've been inundated with horrifying and heart wrenching news. Yet another plane crash with over one hundred still unaccounted passengers makes me realize that life can literally change in an instant. This week's terrorist attack in Paris that killed twelve people who were doing their jobs has simply made me sick to my stomach. Add in a shooting at a Veteran's clinic in Texas, lethal bone chilling temperatures over much of the East Coast of America and the seemingly endless suicide bombings in Afghanistan, Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries and it is all enough to make even the happiest person feel depressed. I mean, what is our world coming to when tragedy and violence are becoming the hallmark of how we live?

But all of this news does put my own complaints in perspective. The long week? The weekend is now upon us and as bad as the week has seemed I am grateful that my family and friends are all safe, healthy and well....alive. The packing and getting organized? It will all happen in good time--perhaps even this weekend. The weather? It may be unpleasant but its nothing a good raincoat and pair of boots can't handle. After all, this is Belgian weather and if I let it stop me from getting out I would never be able to leave the house. And the writer's block? Perhaps this little piece has helped me break through it. If nothing else, writing this has gotten me thinking and made me realize that in this increasingly scary world, I have a lot to be thankful for.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

What Goes Up, Must Come Down

....and in this case, it is the Christmas tree. You know the routine; whereas everyone is excited about putting up the tree and decorating the house no one is as enthused about disassembling and packing everything up once January hits. I'll be honest, the task doesn't excite me much either but much like Christmas itself, it is a tradition that must be abided by. (Unless you are "those" people who leave their outside lights strung across the eaves of their house year around but that is another story.......).

Last year, on the cusp of packing up the entire house and moving, the tree came down the minute the presents had been unwrapped. This year, however, we're just getting around to disassembling our Christmas tree this week. I blame it on a combination of traveling after the holiday, guests from out of town and the fact that because it is an artificial tree that doesn't shed needles, a general lack of urgency. Besides, I love the way it looks and as long as it is up I can justify playing Christmas music. But the time has come.

Yesterday marked the return to our routine. After two plus weeks of having both boys home all day long, they have respectively returned to work and school leaving me alone in the quiet solitude of the house. So slowly, while listening to the afore mentioned holiday music, I'm taking each ornament off of the tree and carefully putting it away for the annual eleven month hibernation. As I wrap each one I try to remember where we bought it or who gifted it to us. From the hand painted glass balls we purchased in Prague and the ornament commemorating our first Christmas together to the tattered but sweet angel my own mother gave me years ago and Sidney's own first ornament, each one carries with it a memory. And it is these memories, and the knowledge that we will only continue to make new ones with each passing year, that makes this disassembling process a little easier.

By the end of the week there will be a void in the living room where the tree once stood. The mantles will (temporarily) be blissfully empty of the clutter that seems to grow on its own. And another holiday season will be behind us. But not to worry, because there are just 353 days until Christmas 2015!

Friday, January 2, 2015

All Eyes On London

The London Eye, illuminating the London
skyline since 1999
Just about every city has a distinctive landmark that dominates their skyline and in recent years London's landmark has been a giant ferris wheel perched on the banks of the Thames River. Alternatively called the Millennium Wheel then a series of corporate sponsored names tacked onto the term "London Eye" and at the moment simply called the London Eye, Europe's tallest ferris wheel has been a mainstay of this city's skyline since 1999. At 443 feet high and with a diameter of 394 feet it was the tallest ferris wheel in the world when it was completed (this record has since been surpassed by wheels in Singapore and Nanchang). Each of the wheels 32 climate controlled capsules can hold up to 25 people and allows passengers to sit or walk around during the 30 minute revolution. Once in motion the wheel only stops to allow handicapped passengers to enter and exit; all others hop on and off during its slow, almost motionless revolution. Today the London Eye is the largest tourist attraction in the United Kingdom, welcoming upwards of 3.5 million visitors each year.

The capsule ahead of us
The prospect of actually riding on the London Eye left me simultaneously apprehensive and excited. I was apprehensive because I have a fear of heights. A narrow flight of stairs is enough to make my head spin and send my heart plummeting into my stomach so the thought of being suspended that high in the air made me think twice. (I've been known to remain grounded while my family climbs through Europe's many towers and spires). But the thought of riding the Eye also had me excited because, simply put, it was so cool and was really a rare opportunity to see London from a bird's eye perspective. Before our trip I spent hours trolling the internet gauging just how bad the trip up might be for me. With the exception of a few outliers it seemed like the ride was both large enough and stable enough not bother most people who feared heights. Reassured that you essentially didn't feel any movement while on board I decided to take the plunge and join my family. And I wasn't alone......

London was packed with tourists during the week between Christmas and New Years and it seemed like everyone in the city had the same idea we did. The queue to board snaked forever with the wait time being several hours long. But we were in London so decided to join the throngs and hope for the best. As we waited in line I watched the capsules slowly make their way up and back down around the wheel and much to my relief the movement did seem negligible. When our turn came we hopped aboard and I can now honestly say the wait was so worth it. I really couldn't feel the movement as we slowly crept our way up and over the top of the wheel before making our way down. In fact, the only time I was the least bit nervous was when we came to a (short) but complete stop to let someone board when we were at the very top of the wheel. But the views? Oh my goodness were they impressive. Because we were on board after dark, we were rewarded with a panoramic view of the entire city of London illuminated below us. The iconic image of Big Ben and Westminster Bridge reflected onto the Thames while Christmas lights from "ordinary" buildings only added to the atmosphere. The other capsules both above and below us looked as though they were suspended in the air. The images were surreal.
Looking out over London

So if you get a chance to take a spin on the London Eye, do so. Even if you are fearful of heights, the ride is worth it and you won't be disappointed.

and looking the other way...Big Ben and Westminster Cathedral

If you go:

The London Eye
Westminster Bridge Road
London SE1 7PB
Walking distance to the Charing Cross, Westminster, Waterloo and Embarkment Tube Stations

Open daily from 10.00-20.30 (later during the summer)

29.95 BP for adults and children over the age of 4, group discounts combination tickets available

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Hey Hey Its A Resolution

I usually don't make New Years resolutions. I used to but quickly learned that many of the things I hope to do or change simply weren't realistic. Hence, years of not making resolutions but rather trying to live my life as I wanted to. Last year I toyed with making them but with yet another move on the horizon and all of the logistics and upheaval that entailed, I held off. But this year I'm going to once again give it ago. We're settled; probably the most settled we have been or will be for quite some time. So it just feels right. Do I think I'm going to accomplish them all? Probably not but I'm going to give it my best shot. And as I found out during November's NaBloPoMo, if I say I'm going to try to accomplish something, I'm more apt to complete my goal.

So here I go with my top ten goals for 2015:

  • I'm going to write more. Not just for my blog but I'm going to get better about submitting all of those articles I've written but are just sitting in files on my computer. They aren't going to get published by sitting there. And if I make a dollar or two off of my efforts, all the better.
  • I want to finally learn how to make a proper pie crust. I can cook and I can bake but making one of those tasty and picture perfect pie crusts continues to elude me. Other people do it and so can I. And while I'm at it, if I'm feeling really ambitious I might also take a cake decorating class. That would make those birthday cakes and class parties so much easier.
  • And finally I want to learn about wine. Not just which varieties and vintages I like to drink but I want to be able to buy it, order it and speak about it with a bit of knowledge.
  • I will return to yoga class. Its been too long but when I went I enjoyed it and more importantly, both my body and my mind thanked me. Enough said.
  • I want to master the French language. Ok, maybe not master it but speak enough to move about comfortably. Or at a minimum keep up with my five year old.
  • I want to Facebook less and read more. My Kindle is loaded with books that I want to read yet it has been months since I've even turned it on.  So less reading of status updates and more of literature.
  • I want to be a better mom. Instead of being the parent at the playground sitting on the sidelines reading my iPhone I'm going to get out there and play with Sidney. (The yoga might come in handy for this).
  • I want to be a better wife. This means nagging less and perhaps making more of an effort to make peace with my in-laws. Enough said.
  • I want to be a better friend. This means staying in touch with people both far and near and touching base just to say "hi". When is the last time you received an email (or better yet a hand written note) just saying hi? It is pretty nice.
  • I will be more patient in 2015. I will stop, take deep breaths before reacting and be better about giving people the benefit of the doubt. It will make everything that much easier.
So here's to accomplishing a lot in 2015.