I've been wanting to tell you a bit about our trip to Europe but have been at a loss as to where to begin. Our journey took us to Amsterdam, Bruges and Brussels, but the most meaningful moments of the adventure could have happened anywhere. Don't get me wrong, each of those cities is enchanting―Amsterdam with its canals and culture of acceptance, Bruges with its history and cornucopia of artwork, and Brussels with its absolute strength as a multicultural city, unwavering in its identity. They are amazing places, and I am forever enriched for having passed through them. But the most meaningful moments on this trip came in small connections, sudden moments of sheer joy, and the taste memories of the foods we enjoyed. Like the simple pleasure my daughter took in figuring out the ticketing system on the trams in Amsterdam. And the look of complete satisfaction on my husband's face after viewing the Flemish artwork housed in the ancient museums in Bruges. And the solemn feelings that came over me as I walked through the Anne Frank House with my daughter, who is near the same age as Anne was when she stayed in hiding from the Nazis. I wanted to embrace and protect them both. Anne is gone, and as much as I want to protect Isabel from any pain in her life, I know I can't. I just need to be reminded that the optimism of youth can never die as long as I am able to appreciate the little things in life like the smile and touch of gratitude from a stranger. I'll never forget the expression that came to the face of a weary, elderly woman at the grocer's in Amsterdam when I motioned to her to go ahead of me so she could get her marketing done and go home to rest. Kindness. Kindness goes a long way.
Which brings me to a particular meal we had in Bruges. I've been thinking about why this meal meant so much to me and I think it is because everything about this tiny restaurant embodied what I treasure about food: excellence and connecting with others around a meal. We were about nine days into our journey and had just finished a morning of walking the ancient streets with their cobblestones and colored window panes. The city was filled with tourists but we'd successfully gotten away from the crowd, enchanting ourselves with conversation about who had walked these streets over history and who might live in the city's ancient houses now. We were suddenly ravenous when we saw a small sign for a restaurant. It was empty but for two women speaking in intimacies at the back of its tiny room. In broken English, one of them greeted us, and when we asked if there was room for us she hesitated but then smiled suddenly and pointed to an immaculately set table filled covered in crisp white linens and delicate China pieces. It was clear that words were not going to serve us well in communicating, but somehow she let us know her menu changed daily because she only cooked with fresh, seasonal ingredients. The meal unfolded with pride shown as she brought one delight after another―crisp cheese wafers and sparkling water, followed by a light pea soup with bits of roasted carrot and potato floating at the top. She served my husband a capon roasted in puff pastry, while my daughter relished in the individual quiche baked in a bread crust placed before her, and I delighted in my herb crêpe filled with sauteed greens and a hint of fresh nutmeg. While we were certain we didn't order dessert, she surprised us with with small pots of poached berries still warm in their almond cookie crust. Everything about this woman's demeanor told us she loved what she did. Every bite of her food told us her ingredients were special to her and treated with care. Every moment of the meal reminded us how lucky we were to be together in this special place.
So now we are home. It's Labor Day Weekend in the states, the official end of summer. As much as I love being here, I am already in a bit of mourning at the thought of losing long summer days with slow golden sunsets. Still, optimism takes over, and I look forward to the next season, the next chapter.
I'll be back shortly with a new recipe inspired by our perfect meal in Bruges. Should I try to recreate the soup? Or the vegetable-filled crepe? Or, that dessert? I'll let you know soon.
What are your favorite memories of this summer?
I look forward to seeing you in my kitchen, gathering flavors, soon.