Cologne Christmas Market @ Southbank Centre

The weather has become considerably colder in the last week or so, which is a sign that winter is well and truly here. It also is a sign that somehow, the year has flown by, and we’re only a week away from Christmas!

I adore Christmas in London – what’s not to like? The Christmas decorations, the buskers playing Christmas tunes on the saxophone, Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas (Is You)” playing in departmental stores, the pop-up ice rinks, the FOOD… See what I mean? In the recent years though, I have discovered another reason to love Christmas in London – Christmas markets. There are quite a few markets around: there’s one in Hyde Park (which also has a ice rink and various carnival type rides), one in Natural History Museum (though it’s a very small one it’s nice as it gives you something to do post ice-skating!), and of course, the one in Southbank Centre.

I’ve always loved Southbank, and could think of nothing better than a leisurely stroll along the banks of River Thames, camera around my neck (of course). There was also the added bonus of the Chocolate Festival that was happening last week… 😉

The chocolate stalls were all huddled together just before the actual Christmas Market itself, and were selling a variety of chocolate based items:

Colourful chocolate discs

The ever present hot chocolate (which I can never say no to!)

Fudge! Not sure why this was sold in the Chocolate section though, I would have thought fudge would fit right into the actual market itself.

Yummy churros (sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar), with a dark chocolate dip. This was really good as they were fresh out of the deep fryer, and when coupled with the dark chocolate – mmmmm is really all I can say. Totally worth the calories.

It was then time to continue on to the Christmas Market itself…

Every German Christmas Market needs to have sausage rolls – or as they’re more fondly known, Bratwurst. These were absolutely amazing, especially in the cold weather. I can’t say the bun that came with it was very good (I wish they’d toasted them, and smeared them with butter), but the sausages were more than enough to make up for it. There are 4 varieties sold – Bratwurst (the original), Geflügelwurst (chicken), Käsekrakauer (the cheesy one), Schinkenwurst (the smokey one). And I must sheepishly admit that we tried all of them except the Geflügelwurst. What can I say, both R and I have very little self control!

But then again… could you say no to this? 😛 Especially when topped with ketchup (curry or the normal variety) and mustard…

And if we hadn’t already had enough unhealthy food, we then passed by a stall selling fried potatoes – bratkartoffeln. I am a massive fan of potatoes (to the extent that I own a potato cookbook), and it was very hard to say no to this. Especially when it’s fried with bacon and onions. And served with garlic mayo! I wish I could say I felt guilty when eating this, but I wasn’t as it was simply too good. 😛

There was also a few other food stalls whose food we didn’t get a chance to sample….

Paella

Roast pork with peas and mash, served in a giant Yorkshire pudding. This looked very tempting but I decided to go for the potatoes instead…

The cutest mini pancakes I’ve ever seen, with the always delicious Nutella

Roasted and candied nuts – a brilliant winter snack

A selection of pick-and-mix

A selection of gingerbread biscuits

And of course, it wasn’t just about the food. There were lots of stalls selling a variety of items, all of which would make for unique Christmas presents or stocking fillers.

Adorable Christmas themed figurines (not sure how else to describe them!)

Necklaces made from real flowers

Fake snow! 🙂

Rather unique 3D and 4D puzzles – I think these would make great stocking fillers!

Scented and decorative soaps. I don’t know about you, but I could never be able to use such pretty soap!

A very cool bauble

And some very cute doll decorations for your Christmas tree

All in all, it was a great afternoon out in one of my favourite places in London. It can’t get much better than that, can it? Especially when you have views such as these…

The Christmas Market is open from now till next Wednesday, so do pop by for a visit if you get the chance to!

Cologne Christmas Market @ Southbank Centre
Open till 23 December 2009
http://www.xmas-markets.com/en/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=33&Itemid=3

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Les Brassins, Brussels

Before heading off to Brussels, I did what most food-crazed people do: research the area to come up with a list of places to eat in. 😀 When doing this, a place called Les Brassins kept being mentioned, not only in review sites, but also in food blogs. I figured that this was a good sign, and immediately made a note of where it was on the map.

Fizzy iced lemon tea, from a bottle. It was very nice!

Shrimp croquettes (€9,50). These were served with a side of deep fried curly parsley and a mixed leaf salad. The croquette was delightfully crispy on the outside, and soft and creamy on the inside, with the occasional bit of prawns to give a nice contrast in texture. You can only imagine how happy I, a self proclaimed potato lover was. The deep fried parsley was also a nice touch and was very interesting (I normally don’t like parsley you see…).

Beef Carpaccio in truffle oil (€9,50). This was a nice, light starter with just a right amount parmesan shavings to go with it. The beef was also nice and thin, and well flavoured.

Rabbit in cherry beer sauce (2 legs) (€17,00). I’ve only had rabbit once, many years ago, and I don’t remember it being as good as this. I have to say that I don’t think I’d guess that it was rabbit if I was eating it blindfolded, as it tastes remarkably similar to chicken. The cherry beer sauce was delightful, with just the right balance of sweetness. Excellent for dunking your chips in! 🙂

Steak “simple face“ (tender beef marinated in mustard, parsley and shallots and grilled on one side) (300gr) (€18,00). We thought this sounded interesting, and was especially attracted by the “tender beef” part of the description. Little did we know how rare the beef was going to be… (they don’t ask you how you like it done for this dish, I’m assuming this is why it’s called ‘simple face’).

I normally eat my steaks medium well done, and was slightly apprehensive when we I cut into eat to see how raw it was! Surprisingly, it actually tasted really good! Not tough or chewy like steaks sometimes are – just pure, tender goodness. I must admit I had to pretend to ignore how rare it was though. 😛

Stoemp (mashed potatoes with vegetables of the day) – one of the sides that come with the mains. The mash wasn’t perfectly smooth, but was still good, and suited the rather rustic atmosphere of the restaurant.

Homemade fries. Perfect for wiping up every last bit of sauce from your plates!

We were completely stuffed after all this food, and rather unfortunately, could not stomach dessert. A travesty, I know. In our defense, we had 3 Pierre Marcolini cakes waiting for us in the hotel room. 😛

We returned again the next day for a quick meal before heading for the train station as it was so close to our hotel (and it served delicious food!). Whilst it had been buzzing the night before, it was more quiet the second time around, though that may be because it was only about 6pm then. We had the shrimp croquettes for a starter yet again, but chose different mains.

Mussels (in season – market price). This was cooked in the traditional way – with white wine, onions, and celery. I don’t care much for celery, but I must say it gave a nice shot of ‘heat’ to the soup. It is a HUGE pot of mussels though, especially when you take the sides into account as well!

One of the specials – I can’t find the name of the dish on the site, but from my recollection, it was lamb cutlet patties with a thyme and garlic jus. Like all the other dishes we had, it was very good. It was tender, juicy, and flavoursome.

We thoroughly enjoyed our meals at Les Brassins, and I would not hesitate to recommend it. The service is pretty good as well, which is a plus. One regret I had was not being able to try their desserts as we were always too full to even consider it. I blame the fries and the stoemp!

Just a note about the menus – they have both English and French menus, but the specials board is only in French. I was lucky as R understands French, but I think as long as you have basic knowledge of the main types of meat, you should be able to guess-order your meal.

Les Brassins
36 Rue Keyenveld
1050 Brussels (Ixelles)
Tel: 02 512 6999
http://www.lesbrassins.com/

Brussels, Belgium

This is a very, very long overdue post on Brussels. I meant to blog about this ages ago, but never got around to sorting through the many photos (probably too many) I took.

Brussels is a great place for a quick weekend getaway, especially if you live around London. The Eurostar is not only convenient, but also cheap! They do £49 return tickets, which is brilliant. And as an added plus, St Pancras International is only 10 minutes away. 🙂

We spent a night in Brugge before heading back to Brussels, and it was quite a trek from the train station to our hotel! We mistakenly thought it was only a ten minute walk… but it took about half an hour. Uphill. :S We were completely exhausted when we got to the hotel (Sofitel Louise), but things were beginning to look good as the hotel lobby was small, but beautiful. I never thought purple would work on sofas…

There was also a nice outdoor garden, which also doubled as the hotel bar (I believe).

And the room. And the wonderfully comfortable bed. I reallyreallyreally wanted to transport that bed back to London. 😛 It was a great stay at Sofitel Louise, and I would happily stay there again. (In case you’re wondering, a standard room only costs about £100, which is very reasonable for a five starred hotel.)

We then went to Place du Grand Sablon, where I headed straight for Pierre Marcolini, which I’ve blogged about previously. The next stop after that was Grand’Place. It is similar to the Grote Market in Brugge, minus the cobblestone roads and horses.

A very cool dog in Grand’Place. Don’t you just love his sunglasses? 😛

Manneken Pis is only a short walk from Grand’Place. It’s a bronze statue/fountain of a young boy having a wee. There are many legends surrounding this famous attraction, which you can read about here. I also read that the boy is often dressed in various costumes, and I was quite dissapointed that he was clothes-less when I was there. It would have been so cute!

Many chocolate shops produce colourful Manneken Pis chocolates, which I found amusing. I toyed around with the idea of getting some for my colleagues, but later decided against bringing potentially controversial chocolates to the ward.

And what would Brussels be without the chocolate?

Chocolate drinks from Godiva, both hot and cold. I thought the hot one was great as it wasn’t too sweet, and was very rich. Still not as good as the hot chocolate in Venice though, in my opinion.

Chocolates from Pierre Marcolini and Valrhona. We felt that the ones from Pierre Marcolini were better though, both in terms of flavour and texture.

Chocolate chip bread from Paul. This was actually really good, and the bittersweet chocolate chips provided a nice contrast in texture to the warm bread. Something I hope to recreate in the future! 🙂

We stuffed ourselves silly with food (and chocolates) whilst in Brussels, but there were a few places that stood out – Pierre Marcolini, Le Pain Quotidien and Les Brassins. Which is why I chose to blog about these three places seperately, as I felt they deserved a post of their own.

Brussels also has many parks, most of which we didn’t have time to visit. The one we did go to was very small, but was nice, peaceful and a great place to relax. In fact, we spent an hour or so there, just enjoying the beautiful view.

I can’t remember the name of the park, but it’s the one directly opposite this building…

All in all, Brussels is a great place to visit. I’ve been there twice, and I’m pretty sure that there will be a third. After all, I still need to try Pierre Marcolini’s other creations! 😀

Le Pain Quotidien, Belgium

I’m a huge fan of Le Pain Quotidien (translated as: Our Daily Bread) ever since I discovered it’s existence, and am a frequent customer at the branch on Great Malborough Street. I have to admit I didn’t realise that it was a Belgian establishment until I was researching places to eat in Bruges and Brussels.

From what I’ve observed, the Le Pain philosophy is simple – it’s all about organic food, fairtrade coffee, and being environmentally friendly. According to their website, they use reclaimed wood and recycled Gypsum in construction of shops, energy-efficient lamps, as well as environmentally friendly cleaning supplies and packaging. They also have one large communal table in their shops (the ones I’ve been to anyway), which is something I’ve always found quite nice.

That’s not why I’m such a huge fan though… I’m a fan because I love their food. 🙂

There was a Le Pain near our hotel, so we went in search of it. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find it after walking all along the road it was supposed to be on… After returning to the hotel to get directions, we realised why we didn’t notice the shop the first time around – it had a different name! Het Dagelijks Brood. Very different indeed. It still means “Our Daily Bread” though, it’s just in Dutch instead of French.

The first thing that struck me that the Belgian Le Pain menus are different from the London ones, in terms of food served. The menu can roughly be divided into a few sections: breakfast, salads, tartines, pastries, and specials. The breakfast and pastries are similar to the ones in London, but all the salads and tartines were different.

The specials/suggestion board

The communal table, under an open topped roof. Such a nice place to have a meal!

Cappuccinos, with a free chocolate on the side! The chocolate was a nice touch, they never do this in London! Hrmph.

R ordered the one of the breakfast meals – which was basically a basket of freshly baked breads, with a half boiled egg. This is served with a variety of fruit preserves and chocolate spreads to have with the bread.

This is how they the preserves and spreads are served, with a spoon in each jar. It works well though, as you get to choose which preserves or spreads you want, plus you get to have as much or as little as you like. The photo above shows their chocolate spreads… which are delicious. My favourite was the Brunette, which was a milk chocolate and hazelnut spread. Pure heaven, especially when paired with the freshly baked breads.

I ordered the smoked trout, grapefruit and guacamole tartine. The trout and grapefruit complemented each other surprisingly well, and I thoroughly enjoyed this. The flavour of guacamole was slightly overpowered by the other two main ingredients, but I think the tartine wouldn’t have been as nice without it.

I was craving for a polenta muffin for dessert, but they were unfortunately sold out. I had to settle for a pineapple meringue, pictured above. It’s basically two meringues, sandwiched with cream and pineapple chunks, with cocount bits on the top. It was very refreshing, and a revelation as I’d never thought of having pineapples with meringues!

As we enjoyed our meal so much, we decided to try out one of the Le Pain’s in Brussels as well. The one we went to was near Place du Sablon. It looked deceivingly small from the outside, but when we went in, we discovered that there was a huge area at the back with a glass topped roof. It was really nice, especially since it was a nice and sunny day.

We went for different drinks this time around. The red drink is a homemade raspberry iced lemonade. It is delicious, and I fell in love with it the moment I took a sip. I wonder if the London branches would consider adding this to their menu… The coffee in the background is a latte. No chocolates on the side for it though!

Sourdough bread is served with all salads on the menu.

Smoked salmon and organic cheese salad, with a polenta muffin on the side. This was partly to make up for the fact that I didn’t get to try the polenta muffin in Bruges… and I didn’t regret my decision. The muffin was delicious, with hints of parmesan cheese and parsely in every bite. I could eat quite a few in one go, I believe. I’m hoping that they bring the polenta muffin to London too! 😛 I have to admit the salad paled in comparison to the wonderfulness of the muffin. Also, I prefer a variety of leaves in my salads, this one only used two types of salad leaves.

Smoked chicken salad, with fresh tomatoes, croutons and Parmesan shavings. The chicken was really nice, and went well with the creamy dressing provided.

I definitely enjoyed both my meals at Le Pain, and it was nice to have a different choice of food as compared to what I’m used to having in London. They have branches in quite a number of countries, so do consider visiting Le Pain Quotidien to try their food!

Le Pain Quotidien
Philip Stockstraat 21
8000 Brugge
Tél : 050 33 60 50

Rue des Sablons 11 Zavelstraat
1000 Brussels
Tél : 02 513 51 54

http://www.lepainquotidien.com/

Pierre Marcolini

I’d never heard of Pierre Marcolini before last week… but all this changed when I was researching the food (and chocolates) of Belgium. I came across and article which said that he was one of best chocolatiers in the world, which obviously meant I immediately put it on my “to eat” list. 😀 According to his website, his main store was in Place du Sablon… so I marked it on my map, as I already knew that I had to try his chocolates.

Imagine my delight when I went to Place du Sablon, and not only saw the Pierre Marcolini store, but also a Godiva store (one of the few stores which sold Chocolixir – their chocolate drink), and a Nehaus store. Pure bliss for a chocolate lover such as myself! Needless to say, I consumed a LOT of chocolate in the 3 days I spent in Brussels and Bruges, and this does not include the chocolates I brought back to London! (Photos to come in a later post)

Pierre Marcolini not only makes chocolates, but also a whole range of other items such as macarons, biscuits and mini-gateauxs (I doubt this is the right term to describe them). Unfortunately, photos are not allowed in his stores, so all I have are photos of the window displays…

Lighter-than-air marshmallows (on the R), and fruit cubes (on the L). I did not try the fruit cubes, but the marshmallows were delightfully light – I tried the pistachio flavoured one and it was nutty with a hint of lemon. Unfortunately they are only sold in boxes of 35, which was dissapointing as I would have bought a smaller box had it been available.

A larger version of one of his mini-gateaux cakes

The mini-gateaux cakes I bought 😀

This was my favourite of the three – a chocolate based gateaux covered in a raspberry infused ganache. I’m afraid I can’t describe this in any more detail, as this was all the information I got from the man at the store… All I can say is that it was delicious, and the colour of this does make it rather attractive!

Java – a coffee based gateaux, with a dark and milk chocolate sabayon beneath all that orangey-ness. 😛 If I remember correctly, there was also a thin layer of biscuit (feuilletine perhaps?) in it which added a good contrast of textures. And again, this was very good.

Envol – dark chocolate sabayon and a layer of orange flavoured creme brulee, topped with a dark chocolate ganache. This was also good, but I found it slightly less interesting compared to the other two. Needless to say, I still enjoyed it!

Yum.

I also tried his macarons as they looked too good to resist. He makes them in 5 flavours – pistachio (green), coffee (brown), vanilla (white), chocolate (red) and caramel (yellow). Having tried Pierre Herme and Laduree macarons in the past, I must say that Pierre Marcolini’s macarons are pretty good, especially the pistachio and chocolate flavoured ones. Texture wise, I found his macarons slightly on the soft side, and I must say I prefer the texture of Pierre Herme’s as there is slightly more ‘crunch’ when you bite into them. Pierre Herme also has a better range of macaron flavours.

Didn’t stop us from getting more macarons the next day though…

It took self control to stop eating the half eaten macaron so I could photograph it!

I also bought a tasting box of Marcolini chocolates, which I shall blog about in a future post as I’ve already gone slightly overboard with the photos. To those who have tasted his creations, I would be interested to know what you think of them. 🙂

Pierre Marcolini
Rue des Minimes, 1
Place du Grand Sablon
1000 Bruxelles
Belgium
http://www.marcolini.be/#/en/home/