This article was originally published in The Vegetarian magazine in 2001.
It sounded impressive to say, “I’m not around this weekend, I’m off to Belgium for a festival”, but it wasn’t to any Glastonbury equivalent that I was speeding through Le Tunnel (do French-speakers call it ‘The Tunnel’?). I was heading to Tourinnes-Saint-Lambert in the district of Walloon Brabant to attend “The Festival of the Pumpkin and Curious, Strange and Forgotten Vegetables”.
It may not sound like the perfect weekend break to many of you, but as a vegetarian, I felt I owed it to veggie culture to try it out.
The weekend started on Eurostar and the weather was beautiful as the train chugged out of London, boding well for the following day’s festival-in-a-field experience. Unfortunately the sky was looking less and less welcoming as we came out of the tunnel and headed towards Belgium. By the time the train reached Brussels I was wishing I’d packed wellies instead of fairly useless little boots.
I was met at the station by Sue, from the Belgian Tourist Board, who’d also never visited the festival before. I thought she’d be irritated at the prospect and was happy to suggest she just drop me off somewhere, but she told me she’d been as intrigued as I had by the name and was looking forward to it. I discovered later that her alternative had been doing the round of Belgium’s golf courses with another journalist, in what had been forecast to be steady rain, so maybe my trip was the lesser of two evils….
On the night before the festival we stayed in the Grand Hotel at Waterloo, about a 45-minute drive from the festival site. Being a vegetarian, going to Belgium and France isn’t usually my idea of a great culinary experience. As various friends and relatives have persistently moved to work in Brussels, I’ve visited Belgium a great many times in recent years, and every single time had proved a culinary lowspot in my travel diary. Our dinner that night at the hotel was the meal to change all that.
As was expected, there was only one vegetarian dish on the menu and that was a starter I had to ask the chef to adapt to a main course, but when it arrived, it was superb. The staff were also extremely accommodating, which, again, isn’t something I usually associate with Belgian restaurants after mentioning the words “Je suis une vegetarienne”. Given my previous experiences of endless pommes frites and watery side vegetables this was a welcome change, as was the menu of wonderful puddings, mostly sans gelatine. Never have I eaten so well and with so little hassle in Belgium. Though I suspect being a guest of the tourist board might have had something to do with that.
The following day dawned grey and wet and a persistent rain was audible throughout breakfast, but we comforted ourselves with such unscientific comments as “rain before 7, fine before 11” and our confident predictions that it was a little squall which would soon blow over. With a hired car and map, we set off confidently, the rain had stopped and all seemed suddenly right with the world. Until we discovered that Belgian roads are congenitally confusing. Seemingly perfectly signposted, you are lulled you into a false sense of security before the road seems to snigger at the ineptitude of the tourist. Having been encourage for several kilometres you will suddenly discover that, although you are certainly on the correct road, you’ve been going in the wrong direction. As Sue drove and swore, turned around and drove back again, then found her way to another road, on which we underwent the same ritual, I sat helpfully in the passenger seat enjoying watching the countryside go past – first in one direction and then in the other. It was beautiful; reminiscent of English countryside, but on a much vaster, more open scale. While the sky kept veering between silver grey and fresh blue we earnestly assured one other that we were definitelyfollowing the blue patch.
By the time we saw our first signs to the festival site, it had started to drizzle lightly (but persistently). I thought of my wellies, safely at home still snug and warm on a dry shelf. The roads became slightly smaller with each turn until we were directed up a dirt track and to a parking area in what looked like a recently furrowed field. The first thing I noticed was everyone else getting out of their cars and putting on sturdy rubber boots (I imagine that in an area so close to the Waterloo battleground they’re probably not called Wellingtons).
The festival itself turned out to be a fairly standard country show possessed of a very clever marketing person with a skill for nomenclature. There was a competition for the heaviest pumpkin – some of which I was gratified to see weighed more than I do – as well as for the best-dressed pumpkin. There were artistic displays of the ‘curious, strange and forgotten vegetables’ most of which seemed to be squashes and gourds of multifarious colours and shapes. They were strangely beautiful. Tim Burton could have taken inspiration for the backdrop of an avant-garde film.
The many stalls sold a wide variety of produce and oddities. Although some were carefully in keeping with the festival, with Hallowe’en items figuring prominently, others seemed merely to have wandered in by chance and set up shop regardless. The more canny of the oddity-sellers stuck a couple of pumpkin-shaped candles or a few amusingly shaped courgettes along the edge of their tables in a pretence of taking the festival seriously.
Wares on sale ranged from home made honey cake (delicious and veggie – ingredients listed on the package) to Pumpkin Liqueur, which was 20% alcohol and felt like it was taking the skin off the roofs of our mouths. It looked like flat Tizer and, after the initial fire-water shock, left a very strange aftertaste of searing pumpkin.
There were also cheeses – though my French isn’t good enough to be able to discover if they were animal-rennet free – vegetables of all shapes and sizes, packets of seeds, honey, pollen, candles, compost, garden ornaments, textiles and all manner of items made from gourds, including jewellery and hair ornaments.
Amongst the non-pumpkin wares were some of the most unaesthetic ‘handicrafts’ I’ve ever seen, perhaps the most disturbing being rather terrifying pokemons and teletubbies made out of clay. There was, however, a separate area for traditional handicrafts – lace-making, wood turning, metal work, glass blowing, wrought ironwork – and some of these were beautiful. There were kitchen utensils made from beaten copper; lampshades and clocks made from carved gourds; and sinuous oil lamps which we watched being created from molten glass and iron, a mesmeric sight.
Despite what was by now steady rain, by the end of the day Sue and I had spent so much of the day laughing, that the ridiculous inadequacies of our clothing and footwear – just like the rain – washed over us. The kindness of Belgian hospitality continued after we returned to the field that had been serving as a carpark to discover that our once-pristine car had sunk firmly into what was now very dense mud. As we stood looking helpless, a man appeared on a tractor and wordlessly hauled out the car, before cheerfully carrying on to the next one. The hire car that had started out gleaming silver was now firmly battlefield brown, yet, amazingly, when Sue returned it, the car hire firm didn’t even comment.