This is the second of a three-part column series covering the recent Battlefields and Baguettes tour in London, Belgium, Normandy, and Paris.
YPRES, BELGIUM— This inaugural Battlefields and Baguettes tour was coordinated through the University of Southern Mississippi’s International Programs Department and all logistics were handled through that office. I have become a HUGE fan of all the people who work in Southern Miss’ overseas studies programs which hosts one of the largest British studies programs in the nation. I am also a fan of Dr. Andy Wiest, Southern Miss history professor and war historian, who has covered all of the historical aspects of this tour through his on-site World War I and World War II battlefield lectures.
Wiest has nailed the “battlefields” leg of this journey. His extensive knowledge on all war-related subjects is humbling. The Dale Center for the Study of War and Society at his employer, Southern Miss, is widely considered one of the top three centers of its kind in the entire country. When it comes to war history Wiest has street cred.
As for the “baguettes” side of the coin, one look at me and you know I haven’t missed many meals. Granted, it is a challenge booking reservations for 20 people in small European cafes, using a limited budget, but I have a secret weapon over here, details to come.
DAY FIVE— So many times the unexpected events that pop up during overseas travel wind up becoming the more memorable aspects of the journey. Such is the case here in Ypres.
Tonight was a free night for our dining group, which meant I had the night off from hosting dinner. Local chef Robert Van Eygen— an energetic and passionate young man with an infectious personality, whom I had met just two nights ago— invited me to dinner at his home. We dined in his restaurant, Pacific Eiland, last night and after I reached my hotel room, well after midnight, he phoned and said, “I want you to come to my house. I will feed you. Just say yes. Do not say no.”
I said “yes.” He asked me to bring my wife, another member of our group who wasn’t able to make dinner at his restaurant, and two more guests.
The five of us loaded up in Van Eygun’s Chevrolet and sped through the small stone streets of Ypres on our way to his home.
The house was large, filled with tasteful antiques, and had well-manicured grounds. The chef lives there with his wife, their children, and his mother. After the usual greetings and pleasantries we were seated at a table on a patio overlooking the expansive lawn.
Van Euygun, an extremely talented chef, began to feed us from his home kitchen while we visited with his mother, a lovely French woman, and his charming Dutch wife, both of whom spoke English well (which is a good thing because I only know menu French and no one in our group knew even a syllable of Dutch).
It was a magical night. The meal started with cured ham and hard cheeses, which were passed, followed by oysters, freshly shucked by our host. The couple has four children— three young boys and a newborn baby girl. The boys were playing soccer in a side yard, though the youngest one kept begging raw oysters from his father. Next the chef served shrimp croquettes, followed by foie gras with fig compote, and then a sampling of the best house-smoked salmon I have ever tasted. Ever. Period. We had eaten Van Eygun’s salmon the two previous nights and were grateful to be sampling it again. He promised to send me all three recipes, and joked, “you are not competition for me.”
As the sun began to set we moved to another table across the lawn under a quaint pergola and were seated next to a roaring fire. The main course, King Crab, intrigued me. We were sitting in Belgium eating Alaskan crab but the chef prepared it differently than we typically see around here. He took part of the stock and made a reduction with white wine, and butter and served it over the top of the cracked crab legs with an accompanying bowl of rice— very good.
A very European cheese course was served after the entrees and the meal ended with homemade ice cream, brandied fruit and an apple tart that I had picked up from a baker one town over.
The dinner was very good, the company was better, the conversation was lively, and the entire experience was one of those moments that tend to happen when all of the stars align and people from two very different parts of the world come together over food. In that moment friendships are made and lifelong memories are established.
A few years ago we secured similar friendships with people in Milan and Tuscany. We stay in touch and have seen them several times over the past few years. This was one of those nights. These were new friends who opened their home to us. We hope to return the favor back in the United States, soon.
Tomorrow we will be back in the trenches— literally— but for now I will bask in the memory of friendships gained.