Monday, 22 March 2010

Eviva Belgica!

What do Charles V, Adolph Saxe (inventor of the saxophone), Tintin, the Smurfs, Jacques Brel, George Simenon (Maigret author) and the song Eviva España have in common?

Well, for one thing, they all come from Belgium!

Charles V was born in Ghent in 1500 and was brought up in Mechelen. He went on to become Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and ruled as Carlos I as the King of Spain.

No, Tintin (Kuifje in Dutch) was not a French invention, nor were the Smurfs a Dutch invention; these comic characters originated in Belgium.

And if you thought that Jacques Brel was French, then think again: he was Belgian and, despite being known as a singer of French chansons, was, in fact, of Flemish origin.

All together now… Eviva España!

No, you are not singing a Spanish song, even if the number is popular in Spain, at least amongst the tourists. The original version of Eviva España was composed by Flemish band leader Leo Caerts, with Dutch words provided by Leo Roozenstraten. Flemish singer Samantha (real name Christina Bervoets) made the first recording and went on to record it again in numerous languages, including French, German and, of course, Spanish. Since then, the song has been recorded by countless artists in many languages and has sold more than 40 million copies. Now the title is usually amended to read the more correct "Y Viva España."

Elise and I were in the El Corte Inglés store in Elche a few days ago. We were walking around the in-store Hipercor supermarket, when we noticed some bottles of Hoegaarden beer, a Belgian make. Then we saw some Leffe, then some Chimay, followed by Duvel and several other quality Belgian beers (none of your Stella Artois stuff). Pity they don't sell fresh Leonidas Belgian pralines!

You are reading this on the World Wide Web. Even that has strong Belgian origins, for the WWW was developed at the CERN laboratories in Geneva by the Flemish Belgian Robert Cailliau, together with Tim Berners-Lee.

And then, of course, there's Eddy Wally, the self-styled Voice of Europe, who is world famous in several parts of Flanders…

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Straffe koffie

For a long time now I've liked a good strong cup of coffee.

I think it started some 22 years ago, when I was on a business trip to Italy for the EU. My first stop was Milan and there I was introduced to "real" coffee in a small Italian bar. I asked for a coffee and was presented with a tiny cup, apparently filled with foam. Not wishing to show my foreign ignorance of things Italian, I added the sugar that was supplied to the contents of the cup, stirred (thereby discovering the coffee below the foam) and took a sip. Wow! This was coffee as I had never drunk it before, thick and creamy, with a wonderfully full flavour. At every opportunity after, I ordered the same small espresso coffee, and continued to enjoy this new-found pleasure.

Back in Belgium, I drank the usual filtered stuff, but wanted to be able to experience that same Italian flavour, a wish that seemed impossible to fulfil. Then one day, She Who Must Be Obeyed and I visited a trade fair and came across a stand that sold espresso coffee machines that worked with Illy coffee pads, though could also operate with freshly ground coffee. I talked a bit with the genial salesman and he assured me that his coffee would be just like the coffee I remembered from Milan. I agreed, though with little conviction, to try his brew. He placed a pad in the holder, fitted the holder in the machine, placed a small espresso cup under the holder and pressed the red button. A short while later, and accompanied by some very espresso-making sounds, an almost black liquid flowed from the machine into the cup, and a cover of foam gradually formed over the coffee. I took the cup offered to me, added some sugar, stirred and took a sip. I could almost have been back in Milan. This was by far the closest I had come to finding my Italian espresso, and I immediately ordered a machine and some coffee pads.

Since then, I have used the machine almost every day. I have only used the freshly-ground option on a couple of occasions and find it simply not worth the effort: Illy pads do very nicely, thank you.

I soon discovered the rest of the Illy world: Illy cups, Illy glasses (for the mouth-swilling cold water, taken after the espresso), Illy spoons. I have several sets of Illy cups, both limited and standard editions, and only use these cups for dinking Illy coffee: I wouldn't dream of placing a "foreign" cup on the machine, or of using an Illy cup for anything but Illy coffee.

I've just come back from a very pleasant evening with some acquaintances. A nice couple: quiet, interesting, Mac users, and Illy cup collectors. Imagine my horror when Francine (I use an alias to save her from embarrassment) announced that she had gone off Illy coffee somewhat and now preferred Senseo, but used her Illy cups to drink the Senseo coffee! Heresy, I say! Outrage, I cry!

Drinking Senseo coffee from an Illy cup is tantamount to running Windows on a Mac: it can be done, of course, but it merits a punishment worse than death. It's an insult to the Illy cups and Illy coffee. Let's be honest about it, the Senseo output is more of a warm drink than a cup of coffee.

At least Francine has a decent collection of Illy cups. I just hopes she doesn't defile them further…