April/May 2005 – Spa-Francorchamps, Jezus-Eik, Brussels
Something of a wasted weekend, frankly. As soon as the 2005 calendar was announced, and it became obvious we’d be racing on a number of foreign tracks, I’d been asking anyone who’d listen why it was that we were going to Monza in July when the Italian summer weather was likely to be too hot to allow the F3 engines to function properly, and more to the point, why we were going to Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium in April when there was a damn good chance we’d all be up to our armpits in snow in the Ardennes. I hate being proved right in these sort of situations, but lo-and-behold I was right to ask the questions.
However, the trip didn’t start too badly. On Thursday Bob collected me from the office, and we made it to Heathrow in good time. BMI, on the other hand, had us all still sitting on the London Tarmac when we should have been in Belgium. We finally got in an hour later, at half-past eleven, with what Michelin suggested was a 1-hour 34-minute drive ahead of us. By some sort of miracle, the luggage was actually going round on the carousel by the time we’d got through passport control at Zaventem, and the car hire desk was still open. I’d booked a Group M car, supposedly something large, because I knew we’d have to move fast. What I got was a 1.4 litre Opel Meriva that handled like a brick, and that wouldn’t go uphill at anything more that 110kph, and there are a lot of hills in the Ardennes… Even so, we made it to the hotel in 1 hour and 10 minutes, and fell into bed by 1am. We could probably have lived without the SMS message from our friends, who had arrived in the afternoon, saying “We’re having salmon, and then duck for dinner, and we’re very sorry,” when we’d been given a bmi sandwich each for dinner, but at least we’d made it.
Friday wasn’t too bad, with pleasantly sunny conditions during the early stages of the day. However, round about lunchtime, it started raining, and a bitterly cold wind got up (Lynne and I know this because we were standing on the outside of Eau Rouge when it started, and although common sense suggested a retreat to the press office, the adrenaline junkie in both of us made us stay out there with intent to watch the lines people were taking up there). The first qualifying session, at around 17.30 on Friday was actually dry, but by the time it ended the skies were darkening rapidly.
On looking out of the window on Saturday morning, it became apparent we had a problem. It was raining heavily, one of those Ardennes downpours that look as if they’re never going to stop. We just about got away with the second qualifying session of the weekend, but afterwards the heavens opened, and all you could do was stare morosely at the clouds and wonder if it was ever going to stop. It did finally ease off, only to be replaced by fog (or it may have been very low-lying cloud), which meant that by the time the first race of the weekend was due to start, visibility on the higher parts of the circuit was minimal, meaning you couldn’t actually see from one marshals’ post to the next. The race was duly cancelled and will have to be rescheduled. Still, there was always a possibility that the second race, due for Sunday morning, would actually take place as planned. Except that on Sunday morning the fog was even worse… Scratch race two.
So all in all, not a lot happened in Belgium. We left the circuit at noon, headed for Brussels, and stopped for lunch at Jezus-Eik, one of those odd little places only found in Belgium. It’s a tiny little village, really, where about every second building is a restaurant. It’s surrounded by beech woods left over from a medieval hunting reserve, and is immensely popular with walkers, runners, cyclists, and anyone who appreciates a good meal. I used to go there quite a lot, and was never disappointed with anything I ate. This visit was no exception, as we ate a superb five course lunch over four hours at L’Auberge Bretonne. This included the guinea-fowl in a flambeed Champagne sauce, and repeated helpings of what the proprietor likes to call “the famous spaghetti Belgium”, otherwise known as the best pommes frites I’ve eaten anywhere. We staggered out around 5pm, drove to Brussels Midi station, dropped off the hire car and caught the mid-evening Eurostar back to Waterloo.
And so, with half a Eurostar ticket left we decided we’d go to Brussels for lunch over the Bank Holiday weekend. It started as a bit of a joke, but there’s always a risk we’ll decide we have to make good on ideas like that. When we were sorting out travel for the Spa race a couple of weeks back, we decided to come back on the Eurostar train, because it was cheaper than flying. Further investigation showed us it was cheaper (by £50) to buy a return ticket than a single. That left us with half a train ticket to use up. I suggested that as it was Robert’s birthday weekend, and we were all travelling together, we should go back to Brussels for lunch. So that’s what we did. We were to get the train at around 8.30 in the morning, and we’d fly back in the evening… The only real problem was that most of Brussels’ best restaurants don’t open for lunch on Saturdays. Still, there are so many restaurants there, we were bound to find something open. We considered the Porte des Indes on the Avenue Louise, but there were several other places, mainly around rue Defacz, and they couldn’t all be shut.
And they weren’t. Lunch was superb. We caught the train from Waterloo, with just a large cup of coffee for breakfast, and got to Brussels in good time. The restaurant was easy to find, just next to the strip of seafood restaurants around St. Catherine’s. but slightly apart as if it knew it was that bit better than the run of the mill places across the road. For lunch we opted for the Springtime menu, with wines included (and chosen by the restaurant). It was superb, with scallops and prawns as a starter, the scallops cut thin and served raw. Next up was asparagus, with egg, truffles and a wonderful mushroom sauce. Asparagus with finely chopped boiled eggs is a very Belgian speciality, but this was taking it several stages further, and it tasted amazing. For the main course, we had a roasted pigeon breast with beans and carrots, a confit of pigeon leg with pureed peas, and a small slice of fried foie gras, on rhubarb. It was very, very tasty indeed, with the pigeon (which can be tough) turning out tender and full of flavour. The cheese course was a soft, cream cheese with chives mixed in, and walnuts and pine nuts, with some lovely fresh ciabatta, and dessert was cherries, with a foamy cream made with cherry beer, and a very dark chocolate ice cream.
After that, all we really wanted to do was fall asleep, but we did make our way to the airport to get the flight back, but not before we’d stopped off at a little place called The Green Room, on the Avenue Louise, for a soothing pot of mint tea. It was a great way to spend a Saturday… and the cab driver who took us the last part of the way home was most impressed with the idea of going to Brussels just for lunch!