YRES, BELGIUM– Five days into the Battlefields and Baguettes tour and everything is running smoothly. I wish I had the University of Southern Mississippi International Studies logistical team handling details every time I travel.
Our group of 18 has reached the midway point of a trip that is taking us to World War I and World War II battlefields and sites during the day and local restaurants, pubs and food haunts in the evening. Southern Miss history professor Andy Wiest is handling the heavy lifting on all of the war details, and your columnist is in charge of the food.
DAY ONE: We landed in London and hit the ground running. Wiest covered more historical sites in a three hour walking tour than seemed possible. He is a wealth of information, a passionate historian, and a fun travel companion to boot. It was perfect remedy for our dazed and jet-lagged crew. Dinner that evening– my responsibility– was a hit and miss proposition. I wanted to keep us close to the hotel for first-day logistical reasons and the food and service were a little better than average.
DAY TWO- I checked one off of the bucket list at 5:30 a.m. When I had a cab driver take my photo walking across the famous Abbey Road crossing. There was a slight drizzle and I was alone in front of the old EMI studios (Currently Abbey Road Studios), where so much of my favorite music was created. The trip could have almost ended on the first morning of the first day.
The rest of the day was filled with lectures from Wiest and a hilarious British professor from the Royal War Academy, which were sandwiched between a pub lunch and finished off with an excellent dinner at the Chinese Cricket Club which was some of the best Chinese food I have ever eaten. We took a short walking tour at night and I cannot remember one single conscious thought a moment after my head hit the pillow at the Mad Hatter Hotel.
DAY THREE- We only had a half of a day left in London so my wife and I knocked out a few more of the obligatory tourist sites and ended up at the Borough Market for a true European travel lunch.
I love the markets in Europe. They are filled with excellent fruits, vegetables, meats, cheese, breads and sweets. The Recently remodeled Borough Market was packed. I grabbed a few slices of a nice French cheese from one vendor, some boar sausage from another, and a freshly baked baguette from a baker, and my wife and I sat and enjoyed the buzz of the marketplace. We headed for King’s Cross Station to board the Eurostar, but not before making a mad dash through London to track down our tour bus to recover my passports (that’s a story for another day). We travelled under the English Channel and ended up in Ypres, Belgium minutes before the daily Menin Gate memorial ceremony which was a meaningful end to a harrowing day.
The group had no dinner scheduled so I had the night off. I decided to strike out and research the restaurants I had booked for this leg of the trip. I wasn’t 100% confident in my selection and so I searched for something better. It’s a challenge booking dinner reservations in towns where one hasn’t visited. It’s made more difficult when the group is as diverse as ours. It’s made more complicated still if you are wired like me and always feel responsible for everyone’s good time. Though when one boils it down, my primary function on this trip is to be responsible for everyone’s good time and enjoyment at dinner.
My search for a better restaurant in Ypres was a success. I found one of the more unique restaurants and enigmatic chefs than I have encountered in my travels.
Chef Robert Van Eygen started in the restaurant business at 28 years old with a small operation and has steadily grown it into a full-scale dining and entertainment complex. He has the enigmatic manner and charm of a confident-without-being-cocky prep school kid and cooking chops to back it up. At 42-years old he has mastered the art of smoking and curing salmon better than anyone I have known. When I walked into his restaurant Pacific Eiland and saw a large group laughing, drinking, and cooking their own food on small, individual tabletop stones I knew I was booking our group there for the next evening’s dinner and was confident– that even tough we had Northern France and Paris in the coming days– this might be the culinary highlight of the trip.
It was 10:00 p.m. And the sun was just setting over the lake that surrounds Van Eygen’s restaurant. He sat with my wife and me and we talked about the restaurant business, child rearing, and having passion in what one does for a living.
DAY FOUR: I have to admit that I wasn’t as well versed on World War I as I was on World War II. However that is quickly changing, and I am beginning to realize the impact that horrific conflict had, not only on the rest of the 20th Century but, on our lives today. It was bloody and brutal and wasted over 16 million lives before it was through. Wiest took us to trenches and cemeteries and we ate a picnic lunch in the drizzling rain on an American memorial site.
Dinner was as good as expected. After a beautiful walk along the Rampart in Ypres, we ended up at Pacific Eiland restaurant. The name is a little confusing as Van Eygen’s establishment has nothing to do with cuisine from Hawaii or Tahiti, but who am I to criticize as I operate the Purple Parrot Cafe which has nothing tropical in its theme either.
Our group was served an aperitif at the water’s edge and a few of the group struck out in row boats as the sun began to set. The group had swollen to 22 guests and we were seated at a massive table overlooking the lake. The first course was a trio of salmon– smoked salmon, salmon pastrami, and gravlax. All were as good as the evening before and truly the best I have eaten anywhere. Period. End of story.
I told our group that the quality and palatability of the main course was up to them. They quickly found out what I meant when the staff delivered a small Spanish stone to each guest. It was about eight inches square and had been heated to 600 degrees. Next we were served a plate of raw meats and sausages– marinated chicken, steak, lamb chops, pork skewers, vegetable skewers, lamb sausage,pork sausage, and white sausage. Those were accompanied by three sauces– the best of which was a tangy curry, a tossed salad, and two different bowls of potatoes (fried and roasted).
French wines and Belgian beers fueled the confidence of my group and each began cooking dinner on his or her hot stone. There is something magical that happens when a group gets together to share a meal and everything goes as planned. This was one of those nights. The conversation was lively, loud and filled with energy. Van Eygen served creme brûlée for dessert, followed by Irish coffee, and a rhubarb creme caramel out on the terrace as twilight began to turn into evening in Ypres. As the final shards of sunlight beamed through the massive willows on the lake, the chef– in a very European moment– manned the stereo system, cranked up some 30-year old British disco music, and our crew danced throughout the restaurant. A fitting end to a memorable meal.
Sometime around midnight I received a call in my hotel room. It was Van Eygen. He invited my wife and I to dinner in his home the next evening. As I write this I am preparing for another emotionally wrenching and meaningful day on the battlefields and looking forward to sharing dinner at a new friend’s home.