YOU KNOW THE PLACE WELL but do you recognise it from this description: traditional French cuisine with a modern interpretation, Autumn forest colours to rival New England, history in depth, fine architecture from so many eras that includes some great 20th century contributions and Tintin and the Smurfs amongst the more famous cartoon characters. The Financial Times has rated one of its wines as good as a fine Puligny Montrachet (one of the best!). In addition, part of your journey can be on a comfortable cruise vessel and, finally, the natives like England and the English.
It is, of course, Belgium the place you pass by on the motorway, blame for all political ills from the EU in Brussels (despite Britain being a part of the decision making process), believe that the nitpicking Poirot is archetypical and that signposts are needed. You are right on one signposting and I would add that accurate assessments of journey times by locals' are well below par.
A gourmet weekend is not a time to be rushed and so an unhurried approach was taken to travel to Malmedy just south of Liege in the Ardennes. There also just happens to be the Grand Prix drivers' favourite Spa circuit on the doorstep. A lot more than just the Grands Prix take place there and so it just happens to be an ideal place to enjoy exceptional food.
The grapevine fed us with tempting morsels of gossip about magic food being lovingly prepared in the leafy depths of the Ardennes. Chef David Escobar, who formerly ran a Michelin-starred restaurant in Paris
and who has been a billionaire's private chef, to name just two of his many great endorse-ments has teamed up with front-of-house manager Laurent Huberty, who has an equally illustrious CV. Together they have recently bought the Hostellerie des Trôs-Marets hotel and they are rapidly restoring its international reputation as a gastronomic triumph. Work is underway to revamp the building and if the recently beautifully re-designed dining room is anything to go by, then the bedrooms will be quite something as well. The website, unfortunately but understand-ably, has been given a low priority.
The scale is more akin to a large private house: twenty covers in the dining room, six bedrooms and a large suite. When have you ever had a Michelin starred chef cook for you at effectively a private dinner party?
A restaurant is really a stage-set waiting for the play to begin and certainly much thought and attention has gone into the Trôs-Marets' dining room. Beautiful cream tablelinen set with delicate wine glasses, silver tableware together with the trappings of the luxury of glowing lamps and muted pink central lights. The room is delightfully furnished against an exuberant backdrop of striking black and white wallpaper definitely a classy modern makeover.
This comfortable and well-spaced dining room is the perfect situation
in which to enjoy David's inventive food, based on classic French cuisine but with a modern interpretation. His thoughtful menu has sensibly contained a choice of three starters, three choices of fish
and five main courses; built firmly on seasonable ingredients.
We put ourselves in David's hands on the first evening and left the choice of menu to him. However, first we were presented with a fantastic "pink" cocktail concocted by a lovely young man called Leslie, the hotel barman and sommelier, to sip with small and exceedingly
light cheese choux.
Our first course was a feather-light langoustine ravioli nestling on a light shellfish sauce and topped with slivers of black truffle. This was followed by a first for us partridge with redcurrants in rich, smooth sauce and accompanied by the creamy potato purée. As if that was not enough, we then tucked into a platter of a selection of regional cheeses.
The real crème de la crème is the "Le Menu Hostellerie" which is a five course menu devised by David and is definitely the choice to go for. This is very confident and assured cooking.
Despite the great indulgence of dinner, we could not resist the croissants at breakfast they, too, were very more-ish and were made with the same master chef's light touch.
So on the second night, after a delicious "blue" cocktail made by Leslie, we were presented with the Menu Hostellerie. On the table were some sushi and cheese choux to accompany our cocktail, an indication of the delights to follow. The pumpkin soup with shredded fennel was velvety and delicious, the duck foie gras partnered with fig and warm brioche enlightened, and again an entirely new take for us on escargots which were encased in a cabbage leaf on a parsley purée. But the highlight of the meal had to be the pigeon which we could cut with a fork this actually managed to eclipse the pigeon we had eaten at the amazingly accomplished Manoir des Quatres Saisons last year and was a true accolade. Finally a citron panacotta topped with pistachio sorbet covered in caramel.
We were served on both nights with generous but superlative glasses of Burgundy chardonnay and Bergerac wines to accompany the relevant courses. The quirky white Villeroy and Boch plates have to receive a mention here particularly in the context of their placement on black slate "mats". A small but great piece of theatre, shared by Heston Blumenthal with his use of the same plates without the innovative mats!
The hotel is hidden in the forest halfway up a modest mountain above Malmedy.
The views from the large windows are stunning right across tree-covered
intersecting valleys; just two other buildings miles away were in sight. In
front and beyond, the trees were ablaze with autumn shades from the green
of fir trees to every shade of yellow; from palest pale to the richest of
bronze New England, eat your heart out.
This is the place to chill out for days on end, walking off the over-indulgencies, playing a round of golf in Spa or maybe not, as there are plenty of distractions and sights around to explore. For a start, there is the Spa-Francorchamps circuit a few miles away. Apart from the Grands Prix, there is always something going on of interest. In the nearby historic village of Stavelot, the massive Abbey has been extensively and expensively restored. Of particular interest to us was the ever-changing collection of cars, plus a few motor cycles displayed in the vaulted cellars. The variety and quality is such that even non-motorsports wives will find something to take their fancy. A 1922 Bugatti Brescia Type 13 caught the eye: small, very refined, delicate, characterful could be a wine being described? You can appreciate the appeal.
Meandering further afield, avoid the standard European over-crowded motorways if at all possible and go by the local roads. To the west is Namur, the capital of Wallonia, sited on the confluence of the Meuse and the Samble rivers which is protected from above by its massive fortified citadel dating back millennia. Initially, this small city does not excite as the local stone is blue/grey which makes the buildings look rather sombre. However, look around some very worthwhile treasures will be found.
The Bishop's Palace contrasts with the local stone and is the most exuberant display of over-extravagance visually and financially; its construction drained the church's coffers. The word extravagance can also be applied to the Galler chocolates in this treat of a shop, shortly to have its all-chocolate menus reintroduced next year.
Also hitting the high notes behind a modest exterior is the Groesbeeck Museum. This was the private house of the 17th and 18th centuries built for the eponymous Count and the most fashionable 18th century furnishings as well as elaborate decorations were used to great effect. The hand-printed wallpapers really needed no further embellishment, but the crystal works complemented the décor style brilliantly. The topiary garden with small, complex and beautifully manicured parterre was a crowning glory. I could get used to the comforts of this "Gentleman's town residence" great style.
The cathedral has a grand baroque façade and promised an elaborate interior; but to our surprise it was modestly presented in neo-classic style, albeit very relaxing. Another surprise was the crypt which did not seem to have an entrance from within the cathedral. We discovered why: no old bones here no room for them as the crypt is used by a wine merchant to store some 600,000 bottles of wine, in numerous little rooms and alcoves!
If you follow the river Meuse past the frightening rock faces that would daunt any seasoned climber attempting to scale the heights of these smooth surfaces where even moss struggles to find a grip you arrive at Dinard. Dinard looks lovely in photographs with its strung-out buildings on a narrow ledge between the steep sides of the gorge and the river. It is widely publicised and whilst there are some attractive buildings, it missed something for us and we felt somewhat let down.
The water gardens at Les Jardins d'Annevoie will lift everyone's spirits. There are four springs around which the gardens have been designed and created no mowing of the front lawn here. The château has a large, formal expanse of water you could call it a 'pond'. Waters flow from every quarter and the fifty fountains are fed by higher sources so they play naturally without any pumping. The gardens feature classic urns and busts, but close-to they were not as they appeared from a distance. They are largely two-dimensional objects that have been cast in iron. The château owner also owned many foundries in the area and made a saving by making his own images and urns as a short cut to beauty. Restoration and additions are well advanced and certainly in the autumn the gardens provide a peaceful and private haven.
Even more peaceful and private is Vêves castle which sits on a small knoll in the middle of nowhere. But
this time the building is forbidding well, certainly for raiders in medieval times. The high and very obviously thick walls present every excuse to
go away and attack someone else. Possibly the most vulnerable part is the loo, built out from the main walls to provide 'the long drop'.
The heavily-fortified doors lead into the courtyard, which featured more and bigger windows on three sides.
On the fourth side was an attractive galleried wooden structure. It would have given Shakespeare, or any playwright, a perfect and instant stage set.
Wandering through the many small rooms showed the Beaufort family's progress through the centuries, finishing up with some motor rallying memorabilia from the current generation. Compared to the Groesbeeck de Croix Museum in Namur, this is not a comfortable place to call home. The family obviously thought the same and decamped in the late 19th century to build a Disney-style château on top of an adjoining knoll across the valley.
Spa's eponymous features have spread as brands across the world. The small town had fallen on hard times whilst Baden Baden, Harrogate, Bath and others have thrived. Big investment was needed with the Casino and original baths buildings being restored to their former glory. There is potential to restore many other town centre period buildings, but it was seen fit to build a new spa hotel on a hill just out of the town. From the outside it looks like a low budget NHS hospital which is particularly depressing because Belgium has always championed
good architecture, and this can sometimes be found even in humble terraces in provincial towns. However, all is not lost as reportedly many houses are being bought for holiday homes and will doubtless shortly
be restored and so Spa will not only refresh the body, but will again refresh all the senses.
We left exploring across the border into Germany until next time.
There are reportedly some attractive little historic towns in the Eifel mountains. Sounds tempting.
departure from the Ardennes was spectacular. We drove in dappled sunshine
on meandering quiet roads across country through small villages. Many of the
roads were overhung with foliage aflame in fabulous colours which together
with the small farms and undulating countryside, provided an interesting drive.
The drive home was suitably unevent-ful and fairly effortless, but we did stop off at the only fruit distillery in Belgium for a short break.
We are now spoilt for choice as to how to travel to the Ardennes rain, 'plane or ferry. In each case, you need to add the use of a car. The train option is interesting as one can book a Eurostar seat to Brussels and, as long as you travel within a day, you can travel on to any station in Belgium for no further cost. Hire a car before you go and you have a good package.
As it is a very short haul from the south of England, it is difficult to justify the airport problems if you are thinking of flying and you miss
We chose a ferry trip with P&O and for the first time spoilt ourselves
by going to the Club lounge. What an experience: the quiet and calm atmosphere of the lounge, friendly service and the glass of complimen-tary champagne made us feel that we were on a luxurious cruise, rather than a ferry trip across the Channel. It really does give you the break that is needed for a long journey. And it's always good to finish on a high. Bonnie Stevens
www.trosmarets.be | www.booking.com
www.abbayedestavelot.be | www.jardins.dannevoie.be
www.chateau-de-veves.be | www.spafrancorchamps.be
Groesbeeck de Croix Museum, Rue Joseph Saintraint,