"Do you use the word convivial in English?"
"Urm, maybe my Mum does?"
It's 26 degrees and we've just been given our first beers of the day. It's three o'clock on a Friday afternoon and we'd all usually be behind a desk or in uniform at this point. Along with our beers, we have hummus, sliced crusty bread, olives, a bowl of cheese cubes and celery salt. A waitress nips by our table and gives us a Chouffe, on the house, in exchange for a cube of cheese.
"This is what we call convivial."
Belgians take conviviality very seriously. There's no place for that very East London brand of aloofness, or the general English frostiness of entering anyone's premises when they don't totally want you there. Across four days in Belgium, and mostly in Brussels, it felt like every single person that served us just wanted us to drink and eat as much as possible. So we basically did.
Unsurprisingly, being a vegan in Belgium isn't easy by any shot, but it's possible. It does seem like every country in Europe has its easier parts and its trickier parts to veganising things (with Italy it's that everything is basically too cared for- all with eggs, cheese or butter. In Spain it was the fish-with-everything, in Poland the sausage). In Belgium it's the chips. For traveling vegans, chips become a food group in themselves when you're on holiday- but in Belgium the majority are cooked in beef dripping, so they're not even vegetarian. Apparently they are a lot tastier because of this, but just be warned if you're headed over- chips won't be on your vegan menu. Thankfully there's a LOT else that is.
First off- let's talk chains, as these will probably be your first port of call above all else if you're travelling without a local. Exki is like a cross between Pret and Whole Foods- Amelie, my bff and travelling guide said the food can be quite hit and miss, but I just came here for coffee and smoothies which were all amazing. I've been going on about the banana and orange one (above) ever since I got back, it was the tastiest breakfast ever. I can also recommend grabbing a coffee here before 11am, as lots of them are only one euro as some kind of AWESOME drive to get everyone to drink even more coffee than normal before lunch. Like I said, so convivial.
If you head to Brussels, you'll notice a nice McDonalds gap in the city ( I think I only saw one on the entire trip). Instead there's Quick, which doesn't have any veggie burgers on offer, but does seem to be the only place in Brussels that doesn't cook its fries in beef fat, so if you just full stop need chips, head here.
As with most countries in mainland Europe, all the supermarkets we went into had an even better soy and dairy-free alternative offering than the UK- I stocked up on soya yoghurts on the first day so there'd always be some breakfast to hand and soy milk was easy to come by. We also seemed to drop by loads of health food shops, so supplies of tofu, vegannaise and vegan sausages were never that far away. There was an especially great one on Elsensesteenweg, just opposite Le Pantin, if you can't find any elsewhere!
In cafes and restaurants, things were definitely trickier, because like Italians, Belgians like to make their food rich and tasty, (so lots of parmesan, cream, butter and extra dairy things) but if you like hummus and falafel you'll be in luck. Late one night after a gallery opening we caught the tram across town to a Lebanese restaurant that served up one of the best dinners I've eaten in months. I never know if it's because I'm a certain type of hungry or if the food is just totally sublime, but I do know the hummus at Voyage au coeur de mon Liban(above) on the Parvis de la Trinite was amazing. It doesn't look too different from any of the other takeaway places in the city, but beats 90 per cent of the Lebanese or Turkish food I've eaten in London hands down.
Elsewhere, Mamma Roma pizza proved to be an absolute god-send for a hungover Sunday morning at the start of a day of sight seeing. I didn't think I was hungry when Amelie ushered us into this Belgian pizza chain that began in Brussels, but that had all changed by the time my vegan selection arrived. There's quite a few of these dotted about the city, and the plain pizza with tomatoes is delicious, as is the antipasti selection (above)- it comes with extra focaccia too but I couldn't handle so much bread!
Amelie pulled one out of the bag with this. While I overslept, she found a vegan, raw cafe in Antwerp thanks to a To Happy Vegans review. Eten Vol Leven was the perfect place to stop after the train from Brussels to Antwerp's city centre, and I could have spent all day in there reading the vegan food and lifestyle magazines and sipping on smoothies. The food was a little more expensive than what we'd been paying on previous days, but this was a one-off, and it was all delicious.
I could have chowed down on anything, but I'd been eating a lot of pasta in the evenings so decided to go with a gluten-free wrap, with shredded leeks, walnut butter, cucumber and apple. It was incredible. It had a similar flavour to a Waldorf salad, and eating something raw and vegan after days of beer and hummus (as great as that is) just made it taste even better.
But the very best place to eat in Belgium? At a Belgian's. We were lucky enough to stay at Amelie's sister Delphine's flat, meaning we were able to cook and eat homemade Belgian food. Even better, Delphine also happens to be vegan, so not only did I get to hear a lengthily vegan debate in French one night, but she also cooked us an amazing vegan feast after a long day in Antwerp. Homemade vegan quiche, courgette salad and Pimms might not be the best-known Belgian culinary fare, but it damn well should be.
On our final day, Amelie and Delphine took us to their family's village in Namur, outside of Brussels, where they make an AMAZING beer, live in stunning countryside and basically know what's what. I haven't got any photos of the meal Amelie and Delphine's Mum prepared for everyone that day, because it was one of the few occasions where I draw the line at food photography, and to be honest I was too intent on eating as much of the delicious, vegan pasta sauce set in front of me as possible to be thinking about recording it. But it was the perfect end to a lovely holiday, and so kind of Amelie's family to not only host and cook for us but to make it vegan, so thank you very much!