Last weekend I went to a wine tasting. Tis the season. Here in Belgium, we often have wine tastings in the spring. They are usually accompanied by some very light hors d’oeuvres, like cheese or nuts or something. This one was late for a tasting, at 7:00 p.m. I figured there’d be something more substantial, but wasn’t sure, and since “substantial” usually means charcuterie and I’m vegetarian, I ate a salad before going.
The locations are often half the fun. This one was being held in an old hospital dating to the 13th (THIRTEENTH!) century. Now in the interest of honesty, the room in which the tasting was to take place is 19th century, and the major part of the remains of the building date to the 17th and 18th centuries, but the original edifice is a medieval building. You can read the history of the site here.
I met my friend, Rita, there; we were fashionably late as usual. I was surprised to see this was a sit-down affair. We sat with one of her friends; I didn’t know anyone, of course. (Americans in Belgium are odd-ones-out most of the time; the Belgians don’t tend to invite us to join them (to be fair, they don’t invite each other either) and we are usually reticent to do so without an invitation. Most of us can’t speak French (lucky for me, I CAN) or much less Dutch, which is spoken in the northern half of the country, and so we wouldn’t know what was going on anyway. Obviously, I love opportunities to speak French, so I’m definitely the exception.) All eyes were on us as we got ourselves situated; fifteen minutes late! I think they had been waiting for us to arrive to get the proverbial show on the road.
The fellow in charge began to address the group and Rita’s friend Sandrine leaned over and said something to the effect that this was sure to be good. I heard the speaker talking about one of the sponsors of the event, and just at that moment Sandrine joked to Rita, “I hope your friend isn’t a vegetarian,” and the speaker introduced the sponsor, So-and-So Boucherie.
Rita stole a glance at me. She said, “well, yes, she is a vegetarian,” and I perked my ears up to hear the speaker who was telling all about the artisan butcher that was the author of this fine degustation, and the sommelier who would be providing accompanying wines, mostly from the Loire Valley in France.
My face must have registered something (disgust? Horror? An urge to escape?) because Sandrine looked at me and chortled. The lady sitting across from her and to my left rolled her eyes and sighed. Sandrine gleefully stated what we all knew by now, “It’s a butcher who is serving us! There’s nothing but meat on the menu!” Rita’s eyes were by now shifting anxiously from me, to her friend, and then to the speaker, who she evidently hoped was going to say “Poisson d’avril!” even though it was only March 23. She became progressively more mortified as Sandrine became more and more mirthful.
By now the first course was coming out, along with the first wine of the night, a light and airy rosé that was quite nice but more suited for a warm spring evening than to this dark Belgium one. As the server sat down the plate of charcuterie in front of us (it was a board generously stacked with sausages and paté to share), Sandrine tugged her arm, and said with a head jerk in my direction, “This one is a vegetarian!” The server looked properly horrified and hurried toward the front where the head honchos were standing. Sandrine chuckled again.
“It isn’t important,” I said, “I’ll have the wine. Maybe they can bring me some bread or something.”
Abashed, Rita pushed my ten euro entrance fee back toward me, saying that I would be disgusted by the food and she was so sorry. She was right, I would be fairly disgusted by the end of the evening, but I pushed the note back to her. “No, no, it’s okay. I’ll pay; I’m going to drink the wine! Besides, I didn’t come here for dinner; I came to spend time with you.” It was true. We rarely get to see one another because of our busy schedules.
One of the owners came by the table then. Sandrine devilishly told him also that there was a vegetarian at the wine and MEAT tasting. His eyebrows raised and he looked over his glasses at me. I said it was okay, perhaps there was some bread in the back? No, he didn’t think so, but he would go check. No sooner than he walked away that yet another employee of this event came by the table to look curiously at what was happening and Sandrine merrily informed her, too, that I was vegetarian. She didn’t seem surprised; word was apparently getting around.
Finally a young woman, I think one of the owners of the family owned butcher shop came by and asked if I would like a cheese plate and some bread. “You won’t have it immediately, but you will have it by the second course. Would that be alright?” Sandrine and the lady next to me oohed and aahhed.
“That would be lovely,” I said, never mind that I rarely eat cheese either; it was nice of her to offer, and it would help cut the alcohol.
By now the three ladies had begun to taste the generous charcuterie. Rita had been right; the porcine aroma was fairly disgusting to me, I admit. I held my tongue and sipped my wine.
By the time the second course and its wine were being described (head “cheese”, pig ear, and all), the door opened and the young woman returned to the table with a spectacular cheese plate and a baguette cut in rounds. The plate was top-notch with expensive cheeses, and better yet, a salad of arugula and sun-dried tomatoes, some hazelnuts, dates and dried apricots, spiced bread and a giant hunk of farm butter.
“Wow,” Rita said, eyeing the plate. “That looks good.”
“It does, doesn’t it?” I replied. “There is plenty; would you like some?” I offered the three ladies. They declined initially but by later in the evening, to my delight, bits and pieces had gone into their happy tummies as there was enough cheese on that plate to stop up my innards but good.
I was very glad to have this to divert my attention from the pig’s ear and other revolting offerings of the second course, as well as the dried pork and beef of the third. I nibbled the salad and the cheese, feasted on the butter and bread, and sipped the red wine, another Loire valley offering, one of many of that region that I don’t love. We talked about Rita’s new grandchild and life in Le Roeulx and the ever-changing international community in the area.
By the fourth course (adding lamb, to my horror, to the offering of the many varied meats of this unusual evening), Sandrine had told no less than five people that I was a vegetarian, and of course, word had passed along the rows of tables so that the strange American was doubtless the object of at least as many conversations. (“Why in the world did she come?” “Did she know?” “Who invited her?”) Anyway, I suppose Sandrine thought she was being helpful, and I guess she was, as the salad and cheese plate proved. Eventually, as it usually does, the question as to why I was a vegetarian was asked by Sandrine.
I answered as I always do, truthfully. “For me it is about the animals. I don’t like the idea of eating sentient beings. But of course vegetarian diets are also better for the planet, for the environment.” We spoke briefly about this and eventually, Sandrine was satisfied and turned to Rita and began talking about something else, and the lady beside me, a woman maybe five to ten years older than I said to me, “What about the plants? They are being raised industrially, too, just like the animals are.”
Mental eye roll. Audible sigh. I have heard this foolish and condescending argument before.
“Yes, they are,” I began, “but they aren’t sentient. They don’t form relationshi…”
She interrupted me, “The way they are raised isn’t good for the environment either.”
“No, ma’am, but they aren’t living, breath-…”
“Anyway,” she interrupted again, “vegetarianism is in fashion right now, a fad. It will pass.”
I took a breath and looked at her in disbelief. I formed the beginning of a response in my mind, opening my mouth to begin forming the words aloud. Mercifully, the speaker began presenting the next course, and I decided that was divine providence keeping me from saying something that I would surely regret later, something that would not change the lady’s mind at all, and that would probably prove to her that whatever she believed about me and other vegetarians was true.
In any event, it was an evening to remember. I can’t say I enjoyed it, but it was good to spend time with my friend who was, as always, gracious and kind and funny. And some of the wine was good; especially the Bordeaux served with the third or fourth course. I don’t know any of the names of the wines, of course, the good ones or the bad ones. When it’s up to me to choose, I’ll stick with the Spanish reds and the Provence rosés and Languedoc whites. And I’ll pair them with pastas, salads, and roasted veggies. Hold the pigs’ ears.
You can see the few photos I took here.
If you want to see better photos of the event space look here.
If you want to know a little more about how vegetarianism helps the environment and this big, blue ball God gave us to live on, click here.