Things are abuzz in “The Capital” (Liveright, 2019), the new novel by Austrian author Robert Menasse. In this case, the capital is Brussels, Belgium, symbolic seat of the European Union.
The buzz is caused by the intertwining of multiple characters trying to navigate life in the EU. What ensues is political satire of the highest quality for our times — something not seen since George Orwell’s “Animal Farm.”
A pig is loose on the streets of Brussels. The pig trade agreement between the EU and China is going awry. Pork is served in luscious cherry beer sauce. Pig-headed politicians and economists are trying to inveigle deals for their turbulent economic experiment. And, of course, the children are all watching Peppa Pig.
Told from a multinational cast of characters, the novel finds its center at a Jubilee Celebration being planned by the Office of Cultural Affairs. A questionable proposal is in place for a celebration proclaiming Auschwitz as the site of the symbolic metamorphosis of the EU in an effort to bring member states together.
Through the intertwining of characters’ lives, Menasse explores old age, Nazism, romance, immigration and nationalism, and all the complexities of melding diverse nationalities into a union.
Perhaps one of the best kudos for the book is Jamie Bulloch’s English translation from the German original. His choice of words captures implicitly the nuances of Menasse’s imagery and meaning. An important read for anyone interested in modern politics.
Food plays an important part in the day-to-day lives of “The Capital’s” cast of characters. Dr. Menasse directed me to a well-known Brussels establishment called Au Vieux Bruxelles, a classic purveyor of the national dish, moules or mussels.
The proprietor of the restaurant also pointed out several other specialties served at Au Vieux Bruxelles, such as carbonnade — perfect for fall dining, if mussels are not your thing.
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup finely sliced shallots
5 tablespoons thinly sliced garlic
1 cup white wine
Kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper
1 – 2 pounds cooked, frozen mussels
1/2 cup sour cream
1/3 cup minced fresh flat-leaf parsley
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons minced chives
2 tablespoons whole-grain mustard
French fries, for serving
Cook 1 to 2 lbs. frozen mussels according to package directions. (If using fresh mussels, you must clean and de-beard them.) In a large 12-inch sauté pan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the shallots and garlic and cook until softened, about 2 minutes. Add the white wine and bring to a boil. Season with salt and pepper. Add mussels and stir to soak up flavor. If using fresh mussels, add them here, cover and steam until they open, about 3 minutes. (Refer to recipe source below.)
Using a slotted spoon, transfer the mussels to a large serving bowl. Add the creme fraiche, parsley, butter, chives and mustard to the remaining cooking liquid and bring just to a boil while stirring to combine. Pour the sauce over the mussels. Serve with French fries. Adapted from https://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/geoffrey-zakarian/classic-moules-frites.
2 - 3 lbs. chuck roast, cut into 1-inch pieces
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 tablespoons butter butter, divided
2 medium yellow onions, sliced about 1/4 inch thick
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
4 slices bacon, diced
1 1/2 cups beef broth
1 bottle Belgian beer, such as Stella Artois
2 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon dried thyme
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon whole-grain mustard
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
Mashed potatoes or egg noodles for serving
Season beef with salt and pepper. Add flour and toss to coat. Heat 2 tablespoons butter in a 6 quart Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Working in batches, add beef, turning, until browned, about 8 minutes. Transfer to a plate; set aside.
Add bacon and cook until fat renders, about 8 minutes. Add remaining butter, garlic, and onions; cook until caramelized, about 30 minutes. Add half the beer, scraping bottom of pot, until slightly reduced, about 4 minutes. Return beef to pot with remaining beer, stock, brown sugar, vinegar, thyme, parsley, tarragon, bay leaf, and salt and pepper.
Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook, covered, until beef is tender, about 2 hours. Serve with noodles or potatoes and hearty bread.