Our daily bread

Two very different dining experiences this week got me thinking about bread.
First up was a trip to the recently opened Kokob, the first Ethiopian restaurant in Brussels (and only the second one in the whole of Belgium), run by the husband of one of my wife’s colleagues. The food was excellent, and very filling for two reasons: firstly the portions were generous; secondly, instead of cutlery, each mouthful is eaten with a piece of spongy bread called injera used to pick up the food and absorb the sauce. Now I’ve never been a big eater of bread with my meal. Don’t get me wrong – I love bread, but only when ‘s the focus of the meal (sandwiches, cheese on toast, etc), or part of the eating process as was the case at Kokob. Eating an otherwise filling, delicious meal, why bother to stuff yourself with cooked dough between (or during) courses?

It may be a cultural thing – Paola’s parents have to have bread with every meal, whereas it’s much less common for Brits, in my experience. Maybe this is because we traditionally have potatoes with the majority of our meals, whereas an Italian might need the starch in the form of bread to accompany their piece of meat and to soak up the sauce.

It seemed particularly strange during the meal we had yesterday at Oud Sluis. Sluis is a small town just over the border in the Netherlands, near the coast. Before going, a Dutch colleague informed me that this otherwise unremarkable town had a reputation for possessing an unusually high number of “adult” emporia, and it’s true. It’s not quite Soho, but the neat, modern shopping streets alternated cheese shops, pharmacies, and other everyday outlets with “specialist” clothing and DVD retailers. My theory is that Sluis is taking advantage of its proximity to the popular Belgian coastal resorts, and that couples off for a “romantic” break in Knokke or Blankenburg might want to hop across the border to purchase something for the weekend from their less inhibited Dutch neighbours.

Anyway, the reason for the trip was, obviously, the 3-Michelin-starred restaurant, rather than the rubber and PVC stockists, and we weren’t disappointed. Once again we were struck not just by the quality and flavours, but by the inventiveness of this type of cuisine. What appeared to be peas were in fact frozen balls of basil, noodles had been marinated in a mackerel reduction to give them an unique flavour, fish and meat dishes came accompanied with daubs of Granny Smith apple sauce, shavings of wasabi, or pure chlorophyll. And yet, there again was the plate of bread on the side. We ate for four hours, some of the best food we’ve ever had, and were deliriously stuffed by the end – why on earth would we need to fill any gaps in our distended bellies with bread, of all things? It’s not like the drinking water, where they can charge the earth for something which people need to accompany their meal and which costs them little or nothing to supply.

Still, while curious, this is a minor grumble. When they saw that it was raining as we went to leave, they gave us a complementary umbrella. Oh, and the section of their website which tells you how to find them gives not only driving directions, but also the coordinates of the nearest helipad. Yes, it’s that kind of place. Also on their site, click on “impression” to see some mouth-watering photos. Alternatively, you could look at Ulterior Epicure’s snaps and read his review, which is far more detailed and informed than I could ever manage.