Dining in the capital of Europe

Four Brussels restaurants have launched an initiative aimed at using only tasty local produce while helping to save the environment. So Tony Mallett felt obliged to pop along to one… Later, he tries truffles at the famous La Truffe Noire, too

‘One hundred percent Belge’ is hardly a new idea, but that doesn’t make it any less worthy. Or tasty. Those behind the move describe it as a way to introduce diners to the flavours and products of Belgium’s different regions while, at the same time, allowing them to play a part in a concept that also has its roots in the environment.

All of the suppliers to these four hotel restaurants are located in Belgium, meaning that transportation of the produce is kept to a minimum. So not only will customers be eating the freshest and best that this gastro-mad country has to offer, they will also be contributing – at least in some small way – to a better environment.

The four hotel chefs (Vincent Masson, Dominique Gaudemer, Christian Tirilly and Jeroen Demuydt) have sourced local producers – some of them really not much bigger than smallholders – in a search for the finest foods, which they then combine with flair and imagination if the Sheraton Crescendo, in Place Rogier, is anything to go by.

‘Fun Times In Europe’ clearly had to drop by for lunch and a chat with ‘Slow Food Movement’ fan Christian Tirilly

Reaching a Crescendo: 'Slow food' fan Tirilly Christian

and came out a lot more inspired – and a little bit fatter…

According to Christian: “It’s my creativity in the dish but, of course, I search for the best local produce. I always go to meet the supplier personally and I’m now cooperating with eleven-or-so.

“For example, the butter we use at Crescendo is churned in the wood by a very small supplier in Lens. I asked to see his butter and he just opened one little fridge! Also, of course, I use bio products if I can get them.

“Meantime, I go to the local marchés (markets) three times per week to see what the product is here and now, and figure out how we can use it creatively.”

As for the environment, well, it’s one small step – or bike ride – according to Christian: “Well, maybe we don’t use our bikes every day to go to work but maybe we can leave the car at home one day each week. It’s the same with food. If we can eat at least one meal per week that helps the environment – and local business – then it’s a start.

So, have the diners noticed a difference? Says Christian: “From a customer point of view, of course the first thing they notice is that the food is good. Then they realise that ‘Oh! It’s local too!’ So you can have both.”

Just for the record, we tried small snails from Namur firmly planted in a Brussels sprout muslin – basically a mousse of sprouts, butter and potato. This was truly amazing and the normally dreaded sprouts will never be thought of in the same way again.

This amazing starter was followed by roasted codfish with bacon and seasonal vegetables. Now, cod these days normally tastes of nothing at all – but this dish was extremely flavoursome – although how one can ensure that a cod is ‘locally sourced’ is a bit of a mystery. It also goes surprisingly well with bacon.

For pud, well, it just had to be chocolate. Belgian, of course. As Christian pointed out: “In this country it is impossible not to use chocolate and biscuit.”

Amen to that, we say.

100% Belge cooking is available at:

Crescendo, Sheraton Hotel, 3 Place Rogier, 1210 Brussels, Tel: 02 224 34 20

Also at:

L’Epicerie, Le Méridien Brussels, 3 Carrefour de l Europe, 1000 Brussels, Tel. 02 548 4211

Le Gullivers, Sheraton Brussels Airport Hotel, Brussels National Airport, 1930 Zaventem

La Fourchette, 15 Rue Paul Spaak, 1000 Brussels, Tel: 02 645 6111

More info at
http://www.centpourcentbelge.be

Truffle Fan Luigi is a Real Funghi

‘Fun Times In Europe’ paid a visit to Luigi Ciciriello’s splendid restaurant, La Truffe Noire, which not surprisingly given its name specialises in serving truffles – both the black and white varieties (the white truffles from Alba are only available throughout December, so book ahead!).

The establishment is to be found just a little way off swanky Avenue Louise and the smartly dressed and talkative Ciciriello meets and greets every customer – once you get past the friendly doorman, of course.

Luigi founded the restaurant back in his 30s, some 22 years ago and says: “Good food is good food. It was good 22 years ago, it’s good today and it will still be good in 22 tears time.”

He once held a coveted Michelin star but that has gone, at least for the moment. He doesn’t seem too upset,

The trouble with truffles: Luigi at the table

though: “Food techniques change all the time. It’s just a matter of current fashion.”

Due to the restaurant’s glowing reputation, he certainly attracts the top-end customers. The night before our visit, the former Belgium premier and now leader of the Liberal group in the European Parliament – Guy Verhofstadt – dined there. In fact, over the years, Ghent’s Verhofstadt has been a regular guest at Ciciriello’s tables.

Says Luigi: “The dinner table is the heart of conviviality. Only there the body, mind and soul are being restored.” Well, we certainly felt restored after trying one of the host’s self-confessed ‘weaknesses.’

Prepared at the table by the man himself, we had Carpaccio of Bleue des Prés and parmigiano with sliced black truffle. The truffles are weighed at the table so that everyone gets exactly what they expect. This dish was fantastic – very Italian-tasting and benefitting from the personal touch.

As Luigi points out: “The truffle is the authentic jewel of the gastronomic universe – an initiation for some and a ritual for others.” It was, indeed, an initiation for this writer who, until that moment had lived a completely truffle-free existence, but it would be pretty easy to see it becoming a ritual too…

And what about the aromatic white truffle – or ‘Alba’? Well, it comes from the Langhe area of the Piedmont region in northern Italy and, most famously, in the countryside around the city of Alba.

To give you some idea of how esteemed these truffles are, the record price paid for a single white truffle was set in December 2007, when a Macau casino owner paid US$330,000 for a specimen weighing 1.5 kilograms, discovered by Luciano Savini and his dog Rocco. It was one of the largest found in decades and unearthed near Pisa.

That’s serious, stuff. Enjoy!

La Truffe Noire, 12 Boulevard de la Cambre, 1000 Brussels, Tel: 02 640 44 22

http://www.truffenoire.com

Maldon – Salt of the Earth

Tony Mallett (just about) avoids the Essex-girls jokes and spends some quality time in and around Maldon

Being a northern lad, I don’t know Essex very well, although I do know a few gags. OK, I have a great old mate in the Romford/Gidea Park area, so have fettled a few ‘Times’ crosswords with him in various locals, but that might as well be a London suburb to my mind.

Maldon, on the other hand, is deep into the county and can be found between Chelmsford and Colchester – and what a great little place it is, too. Not so far away is Mersea Island, but more of that later.

Your correspondent pitched up in Maldon due to the fact that another dear friend (originally from the north) now runs a thriving pub there. Any old excuse, eh? Guilty as charged…

But before I bang on about the delights of the Rose and Crown, here’s a bit of local history and ‘colour ‘…

Making a ‘Mael’ of it

Maldon – whose name comes from Mael meaning ‘meeting place’ and dun meaning ‘hill’ – was peopled by Saxons in the fifth century. The area to the south is known as the ‘Dengie’ peninsula after the Dæningas tribe. By the time of the eleventh-century Domesday Book there were 180 townsmen, yet there are about that, these days, in The Rosie on a busy Friday night…

The main part of Maldon sits on top of a hill, and the small-but-lovely, be-churched High Street is a great change from the too-busy city boulevards I’m used to in Brussels these days.

The Hythe: Ship out and visit the estuary

Even better, a ten-minute walk down the hill at the bottom of the main drag will eventually bring you to The Hythe – essentially the local port.

With two pubs, a lake, gardens, boats and more, it’s a great spot on a sunny day, whether the tide is in or out. In fact, so great is it that you might want to visit in the early morning as it gets choc-a-bloc with mums ‘n’ kids during the warmth of summer.

Here’s Mud in Your Eye

The Hythe was, once upon a time, a separate hamlet nestling under the tower of St Mary’s Church. Back in the day, Thames barges would carry food and bedding straw to London and sail back with other cargoes. There was even a boat-building yard.

Fishermen, meanwhile, ventured into the muddy estuary in search of eels, plaice, sole, whelks and winkles.

These days the area is probably best known, among discerning chefs, for its sea salt and, among the clinically insane, for its annual ‘mud race’. No, trust me, you really don’t want to know how badly that mud stinks…

Whole Lotta Rosie

Now, while this writer was staying as a guest at the Rose and Crown (better-known locally as ‘The Rosie’), the early-16th century pub has no letting rooms these days. But I’ll point you in the direction of somewhere that does take paying guests later.

Come on down: The Rose and Crown pub

What The Rosie does have, though, is a warm atmosphere, excellent live music, some of the best and friendliest bar and kitchen staff I’ve ever come across (and I’ve been around), proper grub and more-than-acceptable ale. Plus, it boasts genuinely welcoming locals who treat the turned-around pub as a hub of the community.

And what an entertaining community it is: rub shoulders (and occasional other bits) with tattooed pagans, pregnant teenage beauties, charmingly bonkers wine guzzlers, dizzy blondes, frankly mad boat dwellers, talented musicians of every type and sexual preference plus a whole host of, erm, ‘normal’ folk. It makes the term ‘eclectic’ a bit redundant, frankly.

Whose Round Is It Anyway?: Some of the 'friendly' bunch

Be My Valentine: Yes, this really IS the landlady!

So, mate of mine or not, it’s safe to say that landlady Sheena Valentine has done a brilliant job in her three years of tenure. If only they could speak with ‘proper’ accents, innit?

Anyway, there’s a beer garden to the rear, often policed (in a very docile manner, so don’t be alarmed) by two other residents – a couple of gorgeous chocolate Labradors named ‘Henry’ and ‘Scooby’. They’re playful and harmless, but they’ll certainly nick your scarves and/or shopping if you leave them lying about! You have been warned…

Ale and Hearty

A bit higher up the High Street is another pub, The Swan, which I popped into occasionally to watch the football. There’s food available here too and it always seems busy.

Even further up the road, on Silver Street, is a delightful pub/guest house called the Blue Boar. It has a gorgeous Georgian frontage and the buildings to the rear, through the coaching archway, are even better. Oh, and the real ales available are pretty fantastic too (try Puck’s Folly, for example). This is no real surprise as the excellent Farmers Brewery is located onsite.

Something Blue: The Blue Boar pub and hotel

Something Fishy Going On

Before heading to Essex, I was told by a fellow Brussels-based journalist that I must – MUST! – visit the oyster shack on Mersea Island. Having persuaded Sheena to take an afternoon off, we were driven by our delightful and accommodating friend Claire (with the assistance of sat-nav, natch) for 40-or-so minutes and reached the famous place by early lunchtime. It was already packed.

The shack’s official name is The Company Shed and it’s a brilliant ‘eatery’ – the owners won’t hear of it being called a ‘restaurant’ as its primary business is as a fishmonger’s. Basically, posh it very, very isn’t. Think formica tables, and customers sitting on benches outside, waiting to be called in from the often-bracing breeze.

Good Company: Tell your mates you've 'gone fishing'

So, this is no five-star experience. Except that it is. The exquisite seafood is second-to-none and comes almost exclusively from local fishermen who land their catches daily. You can’t get fresher than that.

There are no fancy recipes and diners bring their own bread and wine but, if you like oysters, lobster, crab, smoked salmon, prawns, local cockles and more besides, you’ll be in heaven. Believe me, that lobster will not die in vain.

By some bizarre ‘accident’, on the day of the Mersea trip, I was suffering from an Adnams-induced hangover (or maybe it was the Jack’s) and didn’t really do justice to my share of the monster, three-way seafood platter.

I See Food!: A seafood platter down the shed

But, thankfully, the girls were ravenous. Now, there’s probably an Essex-girl joke lurking here somewhere if I tried hard enough but, let’s just say, they were up for it, big time.

It must be all that sea air…

The Rose and Crown

109 High Street, Maldon, Essex.

Tel: 01621 856767

http://www.roseandcrownmaldon.co.uk

The Blue Boar

Silver Street, Maldon, Essex.

Tel: 01621 856202

http://www.blueboarmaldon.co.uk

Farmers Brewery

The Stable Brewery, The Blue Boar Stable Yard, Silver Street,

Maldon, Essex

Tel; 01621 851000

http://www.maldonbrewing.co.uk

The Company Shack

129 Coast Road, West Mersea, Essex.

Tel 01206 382700

The nearest railway station to Maldon is Hatfield Peverel, reachable from
London’s Liverpool Street station. Trains are frequent in both directions

Brussels’ Best Friteries

Hughes Belin picks out his favourite – and least favourite – friteries in the capital of Europe

It’s crazy how we’re capable of dropping our standards when we’re partying or going out in town. I mean gastronomic standards, of course.

We all discuss finding a restaurant that meets everybody’s ideas of quality, ethnicity, choice, atmosphere and perhaps location. But often we fail to question the quality of the friterie we may end up in at midnight.

But what if the fries could be a great gastronomic experience, even in the middle of the night? And for very little money?

A while ago, I took my fiancée by surprise…to a great friterie in Brussels. And, believe me, she appreciated the place as much as if I‘d picked a nice restaurant – a Valentine’s dinner for just €4. The friterie was Chez le Grec, in Anderlecht, a place where people are friendly and talkative and where there’s excellent fries, value for money and a choice of some classical Greek snacks.

Le Crunch: Enjoy the best of Brussels' frites

Chez le Grec is centrally located in a well-populated area. It’s been there for so many years that it’s now part of the local culture. But, for a foreigner like me, eager to discover this Belgian must-eat, there were plenty of as-of-yet tried friteries.

Most visitors will probably have heard about Chez Antoine (Place Jourdan), Frit-Flagey (Place Flagey) or Friterie du Parc (Barrière de St Gilles). To me, these have long-outlived their usefulness. They belong to yesterday and, in my view, are still living undeservedly on past excellence.

Instead, try La Friterie du Bourdon, close to Brussels crematorium. These fries are close to perfection and the owner knows it. TV channels and newspapers pay him regular visits for good reason. He wants to remain number one in Brussels, so we can trust his constant dedication to quality.

Not that far from Le Bourdon is chez Clémentine – located in the middle of St Job square in Uccle. Excellent fries and a great sauce tartare maison await: everything is fresh, served with a smile and there’s plenty of space to park.

Back in the centre of Brussels are two great friteries just behind la Bourse: Fritland and Tabora. It’s a surprise to have two excellent outlets right in the centre, where you would normally expect low quality for innocent tourists.

However, at Fritland, they peel and cut their fries, ensuring the freshest in Brussels. Who else could afford to have some staff dedicated to making fries ready to cook, when you can get, like most friteries do, daily peeled and cut fries delivered in vacuum bags? The fact that they sell a quarter-of-a-tonne on average each day is perhaps the answer. First opened in 1978, this fast-food restaurant was fully refitted in 2005 and is now perfectly clean and modern.

Some 50 metres further, just behind la Bourse, the 35-year old Tabora is much, much smaller. Its speciality is the fat it uses. Most good frites in Brussels are cooked with blanc de boeuf – the inside fat of beef. Here, they cook them with veal’s fat, which gives them a much more fruity taste, a perfect golden yellow colour and plenty of crunchiness.

In the bag: The best fries in the world are arguably made in Belgium

So what makes for great frites? I asked Jean-Pierre Jacquet, from Karikol, Brussels’ slow-food chapter.  J-P said: “They must have a yellow colour, with slightly ‘coppery’ edges and be, at first, crunchy then immediately afterwards crispy, to finish soft when the teeth get to their heart, giving a nice taste of potato, nut and a very slight flavour of meat broth.”

My god, it seems some Brusseliers are qualified in potatology!

J-P and I then had dinner at Friture René, which is not a friterie, but an excellent and picturesque restaurant created in 1932, serving a handful of Brussels’ specialities and of course, excellent fries. Dirk Pilon, owner since the 80s, knows his job. He explains that there’s only one good potato for fries: the bintje. This is the most-floury and allows for perfect heat penetration. In Winter, the taste of fries changes, as they’re harvested until late Autumn with the next batch only available in Spring.

Fries should be cooked twice, Piolon says, first at a temperature of 150°C. Then the fat has to escape and, less than one hour afterwards, they must be cooked a second time, but at a much higher temperature (165-172°C) to give them their great crispiness and their definitive colour.

But temperatures and times differ from one shop to another, which makes each unique. Also, the potatoes come from different places in Belgium and Holland. But one thing is certain: no truly great fries are delivered frozen or cooked with vegetable oil.

Fries are inevitably part of the Brussels culture, although little help comes from the authorities to enhance quality and preserve the best places. The friterie Martin, perhaps the city’s best, closed its small door in place St Josse in late December, after almost 50 years.

“When an old man dies, it’s a library that dies”, so they say. Let’s add that: “When a great fritkot disappears, it’s a piece of Brussels which disappears too.”

Chez le Grec, Square des Vétérans coloniaux, 1070 Anderlecht,

Tel: +32 476 56 18 39

Open Monday-Saturday 11.30am-11pm

Maison Antoine, 1, Place Jourdan, 1040 Etterbeek, Tel: +32 2 230 54 56,

http://www.maisonantoine.be

Open Sunday-Thursday 11.30am-1am, Friday-Saturday 11.30am-2am

Frit-Flagey, Place Flagey, 1050 Ixelles

Open Tuesday-Sunday 11.30am-00am

Friterie du Parc, 156, avenue du Parc, 1060 St Gilles

Open Sunday-Thursday 11am-5.30am, Friday-Saturday 11am-7am

Friterie du Bourdon, 1142, Chaussée d’Alsemberg, 1180 Uccle,

Tel: +32 2 332 04 48

Open Tuesday-Saturday 12am-2.30pm + 6pm-00am, Sunday 12am-10pm

Chez Clémentine, Place St Job, 1180 Uccle, Tel: +32 2 374 08 86,

http://www.chezclem.be

Open Sunday-Thursday 11.30am-1am, Friday-Saturday 11.30am-6am

Fritland, 49 rue Henri Maus, 1000 Bruxelles,

Tel: +32 2 514 06 27

Open Sunday-Thursday 11am-1am, Friday-Saturday 11am-5am

Friterie Tabora, 2 rue Tabora, 1000 Bruxelles

Open 7/7 11am-6am

Friture René, 14-15, Place de la Résistance, 1070 Anderlecht,

Tel: +32 2 523 28 76

Open Wednesday-Sunday 11.45am-2.30pm + 6pm-9.30pm

(also open Mondays from October-July)

Leaving the Stress Behind

Irena Ober Leicmanova takes a few trips outside of Brussels for chill-out purposes…

The green belt – an uninterupted circle of more or less thick forestry around Brussels – was first pointed out to me and my husband by a Canadian friend who noticed it from an airplane while coming to visit.

He was also the first one to venture into it fearlessly and reemerge, after a few hours of determined walking, on the wrong side of Brussels.

I have grown to like the belt and exploring some part of it has become a sort of a weekend ritual. Despite the obvious popularity, I surprisingly often end up having a path to myself. Here‘s a selection of various facets of the green belt that you might want to explore.

The closest there is to a real forest around Brussels is the well-known Forest de Soignes, which boasts the largest Belgian reservoire of beech trees. It‘s situated just 6km from the city centre. If you’d like to get better acquainted with the forest before setting out, use the access point on the dreve du Rouge Cloitre for the valley and monastery of the same name.

The monastry complex includes an information centre with a scale model of walking paths. Another way to enter the woods is via the chemin des Trois Fontaines, a starting point for the pilgrimage to the Notre-Dame de Bonne Odeur chapel. Legend says the journey was taken by young girls eager to find a good husband. Should that no longer be a concern and your pre-existing good husband comes along, encourage him to use his sense of orientation to find the small chapel, somewhat hidden among the omnipresent beeches.

The Forest de Soignes also contains the beautiful lakes of Watermael-Boitsfort and the domaine Tournay-Solvay, accessible by the dreve de Comptes. The Horseshoe Lake at the end of the drive marks the starting point of numerous walks through the surrounding woods and their lakes.

The Sentier des Endymions leads to the most picturesque of all – the Lake of the Drowned Children. Here, it is said, three sons of a local lumberjack drowned trying the save each other. Thankfully, in the ensuing 300 years, no equally dramatic events have been reported.

Another neat spot featuring small lakes is Hazendal, best accessed across the road from the old Groenendaal train station. This is an ideal place to wonder around with a dog, even if he is unruly like our chocolate labrador Apollo.

And of course, let us not forget the man-made Genval lake, whose waters were historically used for the healing of stomach ailments. The surroundings of Genval are nostalgically reminescent of past glory and grand intentions, which, like many other projects in and around Brussels, simply were not sustainable on the scale originally intended.

Get arty at Folon

Another gorgeous starting point for an afternoon walk is the park around the Chateau de la Hulpe. The beautifully laid-out park is an enjoyable place in itself, and said to feature more than 450 varieties of wild plants and 115 different bird species. Beyond admiring the versatile flora and fauna it is worth visiting the chateau farm which now houses the Folon Foundation museum.

300-plus representative works of muti-talented Walloon artist Jean Michel Folon are on display here, including paintings, posters, stamps, statues as well as moving installations. Folon’s art is visually simple, focusing on the essence of the subjects at hand, and contains a deep humanist and symbolic message.

For more nature walks, continue beyond the exit of the park at dreve de la Ramee and take successively le chemin du Fond des Ails, du Pachy and the promenade du Val d’Argent, which will take you past a lovely 17th century farm – the Hameau de Gaillemarde.

Of several castles around Brussels built for the defence of the city, the one in Gaasbeek has retained much of its original lay out, including a moat. The history of the castle can be traced back to 1236 when the first stone citadel was built on the site. Since then, the castle has been adjusted numerous times to correspond to the requirements and tastes of the successive owners, sometimes even leaving the owners bankrupt by over-ambitious refurbishment and upkeep.

Their legacy today (besides a comprehensive collection of medieval objects) includes a huge park-like domain featuring artificial lakes, a separate chapel and amusement pavillion as well as a working vineyard.

The surrounding woods themselves merit further exploration. Crossing the Kasteelstraat beyond the entrance to the Gaasbeek grounds, continue straight before turning left at the first fork to reach the natural park of the Groenenberg chateau. This contains more than 70 tree species, often in remarkable settings.

The more manicured part of the park contains gardens abundant in narcissus, rhododenrons, hydraengeas and rose bushes – a spectacular sight when in bloom. Enjoy!

Learn to Love that Passport Pic

“If you look like your passport photo, you probably need the journey. “

Tony Mallett says stop whinging and learn to love your dodgy passport photo

What is it with passport photos? They’re invariably crap.

So crap, in fact, that I was recently told by a customs officer at Hull Docks that “it doesn’t even look like you”. She didn’t seem at all happy when I grinned and said: “Thank God for that.” Christ, how can anyone look at passport pix all day and NOT have a sense of humour?

In her defence, it’s almost ten years old and, during the trip, I was sporting a goatee – although I was clean-shaven in the pic. This was obviously a portrait from the days when razor blades were purchasable without a hefty bank loan.

Anyway, isn’t there some divine rule that states that everyone must hate their passport photo?

I had mine taken ‘professionally’ in August 2000, rather than choosing to sit like a lemon in a kiosk at a railway station in the middle of nowhere. But the ‘photographer’ in the shop still managed to get the shadows wrong, so in the image it looks like I have two sets of ears. And with ears like mine, one set is enough, thanks.

And the eyes – if they’re supposed to be the windows of the soul then, come Judgment Day, this boy is in the lift going down…

One good thing to come out of the photo, though, was that I noticed I still posses the shirt I was wearing almost a decade ago. At least it still fits but high fashion it ain’t. The offending item will now be dispatched to the bin as no self-respecting charity shop would even cut it up for dusters.

See? I even paid extra cash to look crap. Although I guess not everyone’s the same. But show me a traveller with a decent passport photo and I’ll show you someone with enough foundation to build a cathedral and near-terminal piles due to having sat through ten rolls of Kodakprint.

It just isn’t worth it.

I'll pass, thanks: Passport covers hide a multitude of sins

These days, it’s not just passports. Crap portraits are creeping with depressing regularity into other areas, too. On my temporary Belgian ID card, for example, I looked like the kind of weirdo that puts firework bangers up frogs’ bottoms.

Fortunately, the card disappeared – along with my wallet – when I was manhandled, literally, by two young, cute, pert-breasted and totally unscrupulous female pickpockets in a Prague alleyway. Suffice it to say, I’ve never replaced the ID card. The Chick Republic can do what it will with the old one.

Also, my EU press pass has me looking like a smack addict, which is perhaps understandable given the nature of the job, while most European Parliamentary pass cards I’ve seen have the bearer looking like a deranged inbred with occasional sheep-shagging tendencies (men) or akin to the type of woman whose image and number you’ll find stuck to the inside of a phone box at King’s Cross.

And I should know, I’ve met plenty of both.

Given that I’m running a travel blog I’m now faced with the prospect of getting a new passport before the end of August. These documents, I find, tend to help with the ‘travel’ bit.

And I’m already looking forward to seeing how terrible the photo is. In fact, just to ensure that it’s utterly shite, I think I’ll hold on to that ten-year-old shirt for a couple more months…

Yorkshire Hospitality in History’s Shadow

Fun Times In Europe editor Tony Mallett made the most of his stay in one of England’s great heritage cities

Flying into Manchester Terminal One, courtesy of Ryanair from ‘Brussels South’ airport at Charleroi, it was only right that I was greeted by a veil of tears in the form of heavy, depressing rain. ‘Cos it’s grim Oop North, you know…

After a stay at a friend’s pub under the dark, dank witch-strewn and wind-blown Pendle Hill, I travelled next day on a top-end rail ticket with First TransPennine Express – the upgrade got me free coffee, near silence and a very comfy seat with table. During the journey it became clear that one thing hadn’t changed while I was away; the splendour of the Lancashire and Yorkshire countryside, perhaps the finest in England.

As York rolled into view – the view of the Minster dominating the skyline could not be more different visually than the sight of the Brussels Midi Tour, yet both instantly say to me “I’m home” – I ran over my plans: meeting as many old friends as possible for lunches, dinners, drinks, chats and more drinks, plus the chance to see the city I’d lived and worked in for on-and-off two decades through new eyes. That meant strolls by the river (in the rain, unfortunately), boat trips, museum visits…and bars.

York from above: OK, it's not always raining...

Speaking of which, I soon found myself getting re-acquainted with an old favourite, The Maltings. This is an award-winning real-ale house with proper pub grub, no background music (except on ‘live’ nights) and bags of local colour. Not least of which comes in the shapes of gaffer Shaun and his missus Maxine.

If you like your beer served properly, with just the right amount of irreverence from the staff, this is the place to visit.

But before your writer starts banging on about all the bars he got to know all over again, there are a few other important things you should know about this wonderful, historic city: the Romans knew the settlement as Eboracum, to the Saxons it was Eoforwick, and the Vikings called it Jorvik.

Unavoidable is the magnificent Minster (or ‘Big Church’, as the Americans annoyingly call it). This took 250 years to build and, judging by the ubiquitous scaffolding, they’re still ‘finessing’ it.

In the city centre and beyond you can find medieval architecture, stunning Georgian buildings and a much-filmed awesome Victorian railway station. The city walls, meanwhile, are largely walkable and as well-preserved as Joan Rivers, but without the plastic surgery.

York is also the UK’s most haunted city, if you believe that stuff, has famous ‘ghost walks’, more museums than you could chuck a Yorkshire Pudding at, its own river (the Ouse), the world’s most gorgeous medieval street (Shambles) and one of Europe’s most expensive shopping lanes, real-estate wise, called Stonegate.

What a Shambles: The city's most famous street

York is also the alleged birthplace of gunpowder-plotter Guy Fawkes and, more recently, Dame Judi Dench. It hanged the notorious sheep-stealing highwayman Dick Turpin, saw hundreds of persecuted Jews commit suicide in Clifford’s Tower – in the Eye of York – and, on Knavesmire where Turpin was hanged, it now regularly hosts dressed-to-the-nines horsey types on a racecourse dubbed ‘the Ascot of the north’.

In the King’s Arms it boasts a world-famous flooding inn, there’s  a ‘Millennium Bridge’ that failed to open until a year later, it’s own relatively new but well-respected and successful brewery and a different pub for every day of the year – which probably explains the delay in opening the bridge.

The city is also famous for making chocolate (Terry’s and Rowntree’s were located here), Betty’s Tea Rooms and being at least 798 times more attractive then Leeds.

The football team are, however, crap. Then again, so are Leeds…

For those readers with Scottish ancestry it may be helpful for you to know that, due to an unrepealed bye-law, it is still legal for a York citizen with a bow and arrow to shoot any Scotsman found within the city walls after dark. So take that, William Wallace…

So, what of the museums? Well, you could do worse than start at the 26-year-old Jorvik Viking Centre. Just twenty-six years? Well, that’s when the museum opened after a dig by York Archaeological Trust had discovered the remains of a 10th century Viking settlement on the site in Coppergate.

Nowadays state-of-the-art flying chairs take the visit through a reconstructed, authentic village – complete with sounds and smells from AD 975. Trust me, that is one stinky old fart…

More sedate, but none-the-less fascinating, is the Castle Museum, which among other goodies boasts a mock Victorian street – Kirkgate, home of the annual Dickens-style Christmas carols – plus a rare collection of genuine, rather than replicated, costumes.

Streets ahead: York's Castle Museum

Not for the faint of heart, meanwhile, is the utterly splendid, sometimes scary but always over-the-top, camp and hilarious York Dungeon. Using real actors, the Dungeon experience involves displays of man’s inhumanity to man in the form of various tableaux.

These include the Great Plague, a courtroom trial, a visit to Dick Turpin in his cell, a haunted pub and more besides. Of all the places my friend Samantha and I visited, we rated this the best. But, being close to the often-flooding river, it does stink a bit. Well, a lot, actually. What a riot though…

Sam and I also took a 45-minute boat trip up and down the Ouse, and it’s surprising what both of us learned in a city in which we’d spent a combined 60-odd years (she’s a born-and-bred Yorkie).

Whatever floats your boat: Enjoy a trip along the River Ouse

The ‘island’ that now houses York, located on the confluence of the rivers Ouse and Foss (the latter now mainly operating as a canal), created what was once a great trading post and, prior to that, an easily defensible settlement.

Now it’s just a blast sailing up and down the Ouse, waving at folk, listening to the fun commentary on the boat and, of course, having a beer at the bar.

One of the boats, by the way, is called ‘River Duchess’. This fine vessel is not to be confused with the Duchess of York who, according to locals, probably doesn’t float quite as well, given that’s she’s generally regarded as a fat, ginger, Royalty-bothering, old slapper.

The National Railway Museum, meanwhile, is famous the world over. York was the original ‘railway town’ and the NRM has a wide range of icons and millions of artefacts. The world’s fastest steam engine, Mallard, resides here and The Hogwarts Express is a regular visitor – timetable and ‘the wrong kind of snow on the line’ permitting.

It also houses the Flying Scotsman, a lock of Robert Stephenson’s hair (!) and the only Shinkansen Bullet train  outside of Japan. And let’s not forget Thomas the Tank Engine. Over to you, Ringo…

But, really, you cannot visit York without popping your head through the Minster doors. This towers over the city and deserves the greatest of respect – and a visit. The cool stone slabs of the interior will chill anyone out instantly and the glorious stained-glass windows wil stun even the most casual viewer.

Not only that, its sheer magnitude will leave you reeling.

One night back in 1984, when a certain writer was drunkenly snoring a mile-or-so away, a lightening bolt struck the Minster, causing untold damage and shattering the great Rose Window. This happened a few days after the consecration there of the controversial David Jenkins as Bishop of Durham.

Some religious zealots saw the fire as a sign that God was just a tad annoyed. These were the same people who’d previously caused Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’ to be banned from cinemas, presumably on the grounds that an all-powerful God can’t see the funny side.

To my mind, though, any deity that zaps a church, causing squillions of pounds worth of damage and scaring the hell out of the Dean Court Hotel residents, just to wind-up some odd-ball bishop, surely has to have a sense of humour…

Anyway…not far from York you’ll find the spa town of Harrogate – sanctuary of the briefly disappearing Agatha Christie – plus Knaresborough, which is famous for its petrifying Dropping Well, the prophetess Mother Shipton and a riverside tree bearing the 32-year-old carved legend: ‘Tony 4 Julie’. OK, maybe the last bit isn’t so well-known but it meant a very, very lot at the time.

There’s all this, plus the Dales, the Moors and much more, all within striking distance. But, to be honest, for four or five days, York should keep you busy all by itself.

Useful Info:

Our man flew Ryanair from Charleroi to Manchester
then took the TransPennine train onwards

http://www.ryanair.com

http://www.tpexpress.co.uk

Museums and attractions:

Castle Museum, York Dungeon, River Cruises,
National Railway Museum, Jorvik Viking Museum

The York Pass is great value for money allowing free entry to more than 40 attractions, including the above-mentioned.

Save lots of money! More details at the city’s info resource -

http://www.visityork.org

The Maltings Pub

www.maltings.co.uk

The Dean and I

Fun Times In Europe editor Tony Mallett took a trip back to his happy-hunting ground of York and ran into a few old friends. Some of them made of red brick…

It had been a while since I’d been back to York. Once an ex-girlfriend had virtually run me out of town nine-and-a-half years ago, just after she came to visit Yours Truly in Brussels, there seemed little incentive.

OK, I made a few trips in the early days but, as you do, I let it slide. So it had been about six years. And most of the memories had faded away like the taste of a Betty’s cream cake.

Amazingly, it had been a whole 19 years since I’d last set foot in the Dean Court Hotel. That was on my wedding night. Fortunately, the hotel lasted a good deal longer than my marriage…

Court in the Act: The hotel and York's magnificent Minster

I knew we were in trouble when my new – and, to date, only – wife said: “Come to bed…Ian”. Just so you know, Ian is the name of her previous spouse. Heigh-ho. Fortunately, I was already bored with her wedding-day antics and having way too much fun sipping champers and looking out of the window from the bridal suite to the magnificent Minster – located only yards away – to care.

York Minster would be the stone-built, stained-glass-rich edifice that is (it says here) the biggest Gothic cathedral in northern Europe.

Who the hell counted the bricks?

So, nearly two decades on, what’s the Dean Court Hotel actually like? Well, I’m used to hospitality but the staff at this relatively small but perfectly formed hotel are among the friendliest I’ve ever had the pleasure of being looked-after-by.

After many ‘hellos’ I was shown to a room with a 4-poster bed. I thought I recognised the view from the window. As God and the Minster are my witnesses, it was not only the same hotel but the same room. The bed had been moved, however, since my ill-starred post-nuptials. Can’t think why.

Anyway, a bit of history; the red brick Dean Court Hotel was built in the 1860s, originally as three separate houses. These held the Minster’s clergy – so they certainly didn’t have far to go to work…

Just after the First World War, the middle dwelling was opened up as a guest house and, eventually, all three were merged into a hotel.

By 1978, the cottage next door had become part of the complex and the whole forms what is now a multi-award winning, grade II-listed, 4-star hotel with 37 individually styled guest rooms. The hotel is recognised as one of the top ‘boutique-style’ places to stay in God’s Own County.

And then there’s the restaurant and The Court café bistro… I had booked dinner for two in D.C.H, the restaurant, not really knowing what to expect. My guest was a much-adored lady from the city who actually works in a hotel herself  (not the Dean Court) and I reckoned it would be a bit of a treat for her to have a lovely dinner as a guest, rather than as a hotel staffer.

First up, Kim and I had generous glasses of wine at the bar – top marks to the cool barman – before being ushered in to the delightful surroundings of the recently rebranded and trendy ‘D.C.H’. There, we found a slightly odd combination – it was upmarket but not aggressively so. The waiter, for example, was attentive but not pushy and was quite happy to leave us to enjoy the view of the Minster – from the same corner-angle as my room above, as it happens.

Cooking up a storm: D.C.H chef Valerie Storer

It’s not hugely formal, but smart enough so that the hotel requests that you switch off your mobile phone. Trying to marry chic, elegance and respect for your fellow diners while keeping the atmosphere relaxed, warm, chatty yet chilled is a fine line to tread but, in many ways thanks to those brilliant staff, D.C.H pulls it off.

As for the food, well, creative French chef Valerie Storer has done wonders with the menu in the  recent past, using produce sourced from within Yorkshire and, of course, her Gallic gifts.

Under Storer’s watch, D.C.H has become renowned throughout the county for its superb food and finest, personally selected wines. Certainly, my salmon was glorious, the wine excellent (and not over-priced) and the dessert a dream for a chocoholic such as me. Kim was pretty happy too…

I spent two nights at the Dean Court but sadly, due to my hectic catch-up-with-friends schedule, I didn’t have a chance to eat in The Court bistro. I had a look around though, and it’s another world again – bright, airy, modern and, by all accounts, the place to get your afternoon cream teas.

To sum up, the Dean Court has undoubtedly the best location of any hotel within York’s city walls. Rather than try to be the most modern place on Earth, it revels in its history yet is comfortable and stylish. And, no, I don’t know if it has a ghost. But one ‘sort-of-ghost’ from 19 years ago was certainly glad to be back in an old haunt…

Dean Court Hotel

Duncombe Place

YO1 7EF York

http://www.deancourt-york.co.uk

Tel: +44 1904 625082