Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Queso del Chimay

I bought Chimay cheese from a garden variety supermarket tonight. It came in a cheap plastic container. Whatever remained of their trappist mysticism has been purged forever.

Delhaize and Confused

Delhaize is the Food Lion of Leuven. I am not speaking figuratively: Delhaize was founded in Belgium and owns Food Lion in the US, and uses the same logo.

It is also the highest quality supermarket in Leuven. This is not relative; it is actually a high quality store here.

Sorry, North Carolina: that store at which you would never deign to shop is actually the offspring of a fancy European market.

Chew on that.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Dislikes #1: Crazy-ass bikers

"If you leave for work early to beat the morning bicycle traffic ... you might be a Leuvener"
-- Jeff Foxworthy

Ok, ok. Jeff Foxworthy was not responsible for the above quote. (He'd be a southern pariah for even knowing what a Europe is.) But the quote is spot on.

A bit of role-reversal here: Cars in Leuven are the most harmless large objects in the world. They approach bikers with sheer timidity: "No, you first. Yes, I insist. Please go now. Don't make this harder than it needs to be".

No, cars are not the danger here. The bikers are lunatics from which the fear-of-God was purged long ago.

Bikers travel with a cruel efficiency that expends individuals for collective expedience. Games of chicken are as common as lanes, as one hurried biker attempts to pass another to gain a single forward placement. Corners are taken with little hesitation or deceleration. A few inches are considered a safe lateral distance for passing, even when the "passee" has no awareness of the passer. Helmets are non-existent, night or day. It is a lawless frontier.

I am very, very scared.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Beer #2: Signature Glasses

Pairing glass to beer is simply not done in the US. I've considered the bartender's serving of my Yuengling in a Yuengling glass to be a kitschy novelty. The pint glass is pro forma, and logo alone accounts for all perceivable differences, with most of them involving whether or not the Bud Light label has a backdrop of the Nascar checkered flag.

In Belgium, there are as many glass shapes as there are beers. And I'm beginning to see why.

There are some physical qualities to the glass which influence both the objective and subjective perception of the drinker. For instance, a curled lip delivers more beer to the tip of the tongue where bitterness is perceived, while a flat lip bridges the beer to the sweetness detectors on the back of the tongue. Round chalices collect aromas, while flatter walls offer a more uniform foaming.

As I think about it, I believe there is much more to it. Beers like Chimay, Westmalle, and Duvel have been around for ages, and are almost universally served from bottle, ensuring that a fixed amount is poured each time. The glass, then, is designed with the understanding of the amount being poured (as well as the shape of the vessel pouring), and seems to perfectly account for this in delivering color and foam to the glass. The images of Duvel-in-chalice for the ads, with the top half covered in heavenly foam, are in no way doctored to enhance the appearance. Duvel, poured into its signature glass, will appear that way every time, even from a bad pour. This experience has been carefully choreographed. For a pre-estimated time (which is nearly invariable among pours) the beer remains undrinkable as the foam hesitates to subside. It is a calculated delay that beckons the drinker to pause, inhale, and reflect upon the drink they will soon enjoy. The Westmalle Tripel pour, on the other hand, seems to absorb and accumulate the various strands of light within the room, reflecting them back to the drinker as a divine, ambient glow.

It is a part of an overarching philosophy. Beer is not the liquid that was poured into the glass before you. It is a work of art, being presented to you in the way the artist conceived it.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Beer #1: Duvel

I will use this category to describe the various beers I encounter in Belgium.

Today's offering is Duvel.

Duvel is one of those entities that achieves both elite credibility along with the love of the masses. Like the Beatles of beer, perhaps. It is easy to see why it's so popular: it tastes great, and, at least in Belgium, is about as cheap as water. It is also omnipresent: it's featured as the sign on more places than Coca-cola in the US, and can be purchased at nearly any restaurant, convenience mart, bar, or even school cafeteria.

Duvel is a very lightly colored, clear beer, with a mild-to-medium hopping, and finishes drier than just about anything. The dryness allows for a very cool finish: the alcohol actually manifests as sweetness. So, we get the (contradictory, by some definitions) heavenly mix of dryness and sweetness. The Belgian yeast is also apparent with the cloves on the finish.

Unfortunately this beer is a bit strong while being highly drinkable, meaning you should switch beer if you want more than one. In this case, I would suggest the Leffe Blonde, the subject of a future post.

Thursday, November 19, 2009


I played with the advanced ultimate club team last night. Wow! Talk about some great ultimate, and super athletic players. Practice is every Wednesday night under the lights. It was primarily drills and lots of running. Suicides/laps/cuts, even punitive pushups during the throwing drill. I am hoping my performance was due in part to a lingering cold; I was having trouble keeping up in the running drills. In the end, we had a scrimmage, with an interesting half vertical/half horizontal stack.

After the game we went to the park bar (yes, the park has a bar) for multiple rounds. Everyone is really friendly and seem to be a tight-knit, but welcoming, group.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


I knew of Belgium's reputation for fries in advance, and after a week of exposure I feel equipped to help my readers get to the truth of things.

Belgian fries are ubiquitous, but they are neither particularly "Belgian" nor a delicacy. They are certainly tasty, but in the way that all fries are, and not lacking in any critical fry quality. They also lack any qualities of excellence. They are simply tasty and plentiful; a daily (or hourly) serving of fulfilling mundanity.

In the US, we have ways of exoticizing European cuisine due to our undeserved inferiority complex in realm of culinary culture. At Milltown, for example, they serve fries with various sauces that are embellishments far beyond typical Belgian serving styles. In Belgium, mayonnaise is the dressing of choice, its primacy yielding -- only on occasion -- to tarter sauce and ketchup.

At the school cafeteria I frequent, fries seem to be the most popular item, and they are also freely refilled upon request (this request occurs frequently by the students -- how they retain their fitness astounds me). They are often seen with an ice cream-scoop sized glob of mayonnaise. At the outdoor food stands, there are two fry sizes; I always opt for the smaller, and am always served a massive coneful which I could not dream of finishing alone.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Store organization

Beer and soda share a shelf.

Wine and liquor share a shelf.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Likes #1

This will be my running thread of likes and dislikes. So, Like #1:

The nice extras

When you order a coffee, they bring you a nice cup but always with something else, like a 1-ounce cup of chocolate mouse, a slice of pound cake, or a little toblerone chocolate. It really hits the spot with coffee, and is such a nice surprise addition.

At a restaurant, you get a nice appetizer like olives or bruschetta. Afterwords (at least in the Italian restaurants), they offer a free apertif, like Amaretto.

These things really round out your order, like icing on the top!

Thoughts on Leuven

So far things have been nice but as typical with traveling solo, a little lonely and a little boring.

Leuven is quite a pretty town but a mix as well. Some parts of very historic with cobblestone roads and beautiful old cathedrals. (I wish I had a better camera here because my iPhone images do no justice.) Other parts are more mundane shopping areas, which, though also pretty, don't have quite the same jaw dropping appeal.

I've walked through most of the downtown several times and have a good mental map for the place. Just enough that I can usually intuit my way to the center, from which I know my way to other parts. I like to guess about shortcuts because even though I'm usually wrong, it takes me to some place new. A bike will be great here.

There's a lot of restaurants and shops here, including an H&M :) So far I haven't found a good stop-and-go coffee place but maybe one does not exist here. There's some nice parks as well. I'll try to post more pictures soon.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

First days in town

I arrived in Leuven in on Tuesday morning. I easily found the train station since, during landing, JetAirways played a video describing the airport. Train took about 20 minutes to get to Leuven. On the way there was some nice scenery: lots of farms that seemed to be embedded in neighborhoods, and steeples everywhere.

The first thing one sees at the train stop is the Stella Artois factory. Once out of the station I
was greeted with the following scene:

Walked to town center, hotel, then to work. All with a nap and some serious jetlag!