Saturday, December 16

War, of words (phew), between Belgium and Germany

With Franco Belgian relations still at a bit of a low ebb following the Michelin saga, now relations with even larger, scarier, eastern neighbour, Germany have taken a bit of a tumble.

The trouble is that Volkswagen has decided to shut its factory in Vorst, one of Brussels' 19 communes. The future of the factory has long been a matter of speculation but the announcement of the end of the production of the Volkswagen Golf there was nevertheless met with howls of disapproval. The suspicion is that the Germans have played a very dirty game sacrificing the Brussels location simply because it is not in Germany.

This touches a very raw nerve with the Belgians, for they have been here before. In 1997 Renault closed a factory in Vilvoorde, just north of Brussels. It was not that productivity there was lower than in other Renault facilities, rather that, yip you've guessed it, it was not in France. The national trauma was captured in, what I originally thought was the world's least appealing title for a porno, La Vie Sexuelle des Belges Nr 3.

Whatever your position on the sexual life of the Belgians, it seems unlikely that we will be treated to a(nother) sequel. Relations between Germany and Belgium have picked up in recent days. When VW revealed its plans for redundancy pay - up to EUR 150,000 for the most experienced workers - there were queues to take them up on their (kind) offer.

Sunday, December 3

Star Wars

In search of a restaurant to satisfy his sophisticated palate the Witloof discovers that Revenge is a Dish Best Served Froid.

The day before the official publication of the 2007 Michelin Guide, every news bulletin in Belgium was dominated by a single headline: the expected net loss of Michelin stars enjoyed by Belgian restaurants.

In a country short on things to boast about - eddy merckx, being overrun by Germans in record time, and having highways visible from space, being the things most commonly cited as obviously Belgian - the fact that they have more Michelin stars per capita than any other country is an important pillar of national self-confidence.

The reliance on a French company for this boast has always made the Belgians uncomfortable. The suspicion has always been that sooner or later the (perfidious) French would tilt their heads slightly (further) backwards, peer down their (considerable) noses at their small, vulnerable, Northern neighbours, and with a cold (Garlicy) Gallic snigger, order the pillar demolished, the stars removed.

And so it came to pass in late November. In the culling of stars that rocked the nation, there was no more controversial case than that of Comme Chez Soi. The VRT's 'But two 3-star restaurants left in Belgium' headline was pale in comparison with the leads in other publications: 'Michelin seeks attention', and 'Michelin creates other Belgian victims' were two from normally stoic De Standaard, which also sarcastically topped another piece with 'Michelin calls loss of star for Comme Chez Soi an encouragement'.

In truth the trouble has been brewing for quite a while. In January 2005, the new edition of the Michelin Benelux was unveiled and included in it a favourable review - and the award of a 'Bib Gourmand' - of a restaurant called The Ostend Queen. The trouble was that the restaurant in question was not yet open for business. Michelin was forced to recall up to 50,000 unsold Guides as a result.

It is this incident that the Belgians believe turned Michelin against them and made November's humiliation inevitable. Michelin was unavailable for comment (admittedly I didn't try).