Location: Brussels, Belgium
Number of days since last beer-tasting session: 43
Emotional state: very serious, studious
Reaction to emotional state: empowered
Eyebrow behaviour: furrowed, could cut through diamonds
I, the Curious Cockroach, feel that I need to get down to business sometime or another. After reading my previous posts, one might have the impression that I don’t do anythinguseful here in Brussels. How can I rave on and on about some rotating toilet seat, and, worse still, my latest attempts at conceptual art, when I am supposed to be here to study? Is this, or is this not, an academic exchange?
It is, it most inevitably is. But I can reassure you that I have indeed done a fair amount of studying while in Brussels. Studying serious — no wait — worldly things. And after a considerable amount of research, observation, and experimentation, I dare say that in some domains, I’ve become somewhat of an expert. Which is why (brace yourself) I’ve dedicated this post to sharing with you a fraction of my accumulated knowledge of the city’s outdoor food markets. You’re welcome.
The food-market system
On any day of week, you can stumble upon a food market in Brussels. At first these markets may seem to pop up magically, when and where they please, but eventually you’ll learn that the food-market system functions with a clockwork-like precision. All is planned, orderly, reliable. A market may be small, with two or three vendors, or it may be a monster sprawling across an entire neighbourhood, across roads and railways, interrupting all land and air traffic within a two-kilometer radius.
Each market is like a living being. It expands, contracts, grows a limb here and there, and has its own set of complexes and vices. Over the years, it develops a certain character as a function of the clientele it attracts. So if you live in Brussels long enough and are a food fanatic like The Curious Cockroach, markets cease being just markets. They become, oh, so much more!
The Midi Market: commotion
Schedule: 06:00 – 13:00, Sundays
Location: poor immigrant neighbourhood surrounding the Gare de Midi (South Train Station)
What you’ll need: a map, a pair of earplugs, reusable bags, and a cart with wheels
Warning: this market is not for the faint of heart
Behold! Rumour has it that this is the largest market in Europe. Here you can find just about anything: vegetables, spices, exotic fruits, books, undergarments, squid, Moroccan movies, fabrics, and organs you never even knew existed. It’s a feast for all the senses: for your eyes, there are the bright colours and patterns; for your ears, there is the chant-like dialogue emanating from the vendors (“one-euro-one-euro-one-euro for kilo of onions! Mademoiselle, Mademoiselle, one-euro-one-euro-one-euro!”); for your taste buds, there are the freshly-fried Morrocan crêpes filled with feta and delectable olives; for your nose, there is the curious combination of all sorts of odours (the smell of fried chicken from the tent to your left, the smell of urine from the concrete wall to your right); and for your sense of touch, there is the crowd of shoppers pressing against you on all sides. Be careful, because in such a state you might easily be hypnotized into buying copious amounts of … well, just about anything!
The people you see at this market are fierce shoppers, in the midst of a serious weekly affair, so do them a favour and get out of their way. Don’t go around all dewy-eyed trying to take pictures of every olive that rolls your way. But you’ll be glad to discover that there are other markets in Brussels that are suited for that very purpose.
The Châtelain Market: extravagance
Schedule: 14:00-19:00, Wednesdays
Location: Place du Châtelain, a boho-chic neighbourhood (and a bit of a celebrity hot-spot, too)
What you’ll need: time, fame, money, and lot’s of it
Still recovering from the Midi Market? Phew! Now you can breathe deeply, take out that camera, and relax. At the Châtelain Market, the produce is a veritable art-form: it’s meantto be scrutinized and photographed. The fruit and vegetables here are not just organic but glistening. The delicate Liège waffles are made right before your eyes. The French and Italian sausage is to die for. But despite all of this, the Châtelain regulars aren’t really here to shop. What a silly idea, going groccery shopping in an expensive suit! No, they’ve just finished a hard day’s work and they’re here to unwind with a glass of wine, good company, and an oyster or two.
The Flagey Market: moderation … with a twist
Schedule: 07:00-13:30, Saturdays and Sundays
Location: Place Flagey
What you’ll need: a moderately-sized basket, a moderately-sized wallet, and, if you happen to have one in your disposition: one child. The cuter, the better.
Is the Châtelain Market too expensive for you, and the Midi Market too chaotic? Then you’ve come to the right place. Here at Place Flagey you’ll find all the elements that make for a nice, wholesome market. There’s a waffle van, a honey stand, a cheese stand, a vegetable and fruit stand, a rotisserie truck, and one or two vendors selling flowers. Here the shoppers stroll around with their woven baskets, stopping to chat to each other here and there. And once they are done shopping and chatting, they go lounge at one of the cafes surround the square, or go feed geese at the Ixelle ponds, or simply go home to make brunch. Personally I’ve tried each option, and quite approve of them all. It’s a lovely market – European quaintness at its finest.
There is, however, one thing to add. At the outskirts of the Flagey market, right at the edge of the Ixelle ponds, there’s a sight that might catch your eye. Overlooking the jolly bustle of the market like a lonely kid at a playground, there stands a sorry-looking metal kiosk. At first glance it looks like the type of place that sells cigarettes and dirty magazines — certainly not somewhere you’d let your children go. But first impressions can be deceiving, dear Reader, because at this particular kiosk there is a long line-up of people. All sorts of people. The young, the old, the locals, the tourists, each of them patiently waiting their turn. And inside this tiny kiosk, you will see a thin balding man. Bustling, yelling, and furiously frying, he is one of the legends of Brussels, a man whom some secretly call The Fry Nazi.
Oh yes. Here you can taste none other than the best fries of Brussels — if the Fry Nazi let’s you buy them, that is. There is a strict ordering procedure to be followed, just like the one described in the infamous Episode #116 of Seinfeld: “no extraneous comments, no questions, no compliments.” Just place your order in perfect French, give the man exact change, and wait patiently. A well-behaved child firmly placed on your hip may prove to be a key advantage. Should you fail, you risk walking away from the kiosk empty-handed and traumatized, with your back aching from the hour-long wait.
Sometimes, when the planets are aligned a certain way and the wind conditions are just right, none of the above rules are enforced because the Fry Nazi happens to be in a good mood. Heck, you can go crazy and even ask him a question or two. As long as it’s fry-related.
So you want to learn about Brussels and the locals? Go visit the markets. Repeatedly. Laboriously. With a keen eye for observation, and a keen tongue for consumption. You’ll be surprised at how much you learn. I mean, isn’t that what an academic exchange is all about?