Posted in Family, Travel

When in Belgium, Drink as the Belgians Do (In Praise of Oxo)

(The next installment of our Easter trip to Luxembourg, via France and Belgium, with a quick dip into Germany too)

Laura on the Dinant Citadel steps
The funicular railway was due to open the following week. Of course.

Recovering from climbing up (and down) the 408 steps from the Belgian town of Dinant to the citadel that looms over this small riverside town, we head to a cafe to rehydrate.

Perusing the menu, my daughter plumps for Coca-Cola Light (that’s Belgian for Diet Coke).  I favour the fizzy mineral water Apollinaris, to echo the Roman theme of the engaging thriller I’m reading – Inceptio by Alison Morton.  My husband, not being female and therefore not just glowing from our recent ascent, homes in on a drink to replenish lost salts: an Oxo.

The Oxo Tower, Lonodn
The beautiful Oxo Tower (photo: Wikipedia)

Although this menu does have an international aura, I’m surprised to see Oxo listed. Rightly or wrongly, I associate it inextricably with my home country, having grown up just a few miles from the famous Oxo Tower in London.


The Oxo Tower, now a fancy restaurant with panoramic views across London,  was a familiar landmark on the commuter railway from our suburban home in Sidcup to Charing Cross. At secondary school, tasked with painting a city skyline, I incorporated a meticulous rendition of the Oxo Tower. I was incredulous when my elderly art teacher, Miss Barbara Snook, objected. What was not to love about the Oxo Tower? Not only was the architecture Art Deco, but the lettering was pleasingly palindromic.

Miss Snook admitted that she loved the Oxo Tower; I suspected they’d shared their heyday. But then she memorably explained her reasoning:

“In any painting, try not to include words, because the eye is automatically drawn to the text to read it and is diverted from the rest of your picture.”

She was right. I’ve often recalled her advice in art galleries, distracted by labels, and wished I’d shown more respect for her wise words at the time. It was only after leaving school that I discovered that she was also a world authority on embroidery. Years later, as a belated tribute to her wisdom, I bought from a secondhand shop a book that she’d written about needlework; I treasure it still.

And again, decades later in a cafe in Belgium, I sit recalling her sagacity as we wait for the waiter to bring our unlikely assortment of drinks.

Old Oxo ad from the Oxo website
Originally endorsed for its health-giving properties by Florence Nightingale, apparently. Coincidentally, my Auntie Nellie’s full name was also Florence. (Image:

I realise that the only other setting in which I’ve come across people drinking  Oxo as a beverage rather than adding it to a casserole or gravy is my grandmother’s house (in Sidcup again), where she and my Great Auntie Nellie favoured it as a fortifying mid-morning pick-me-up. This was the same Auntie Nellie who enjoyed salt-and-pepper sandwiches, so I’d assumed her Oxo habit to be a measure of frugality, acquired during war-time rationing, rather than a treat meriting this menu’s price of 2 Euros 30 cents.


When our drinks finally arrive, my Apollinaris is pleasingly labelled “The Queen of Table Waters” . Despite its Romanesque name,  it is served in true Belgian style with a tiny dish of bar snacks. But if my drink is the Queen, my husband’s is surely King. Presented in a glass on its own silver platter, it is accompanied by a plastic-wrapped melba toast, a grinder of mixed spices and a bottle of Lea and Perrin’s Worcester Sauce. Getting as close as he ever does to cooking, my husband assembles all the components (they really should serve this drink in Ikea cafes). After the first  sip, he breathes out a big steamy sigh of contentment.

“Aah, this is nice!” he declares emphatically. “I ought to drink this more often.”

I’m about as likely to drink a mug of Oxo as a cup of Bisto, but being the dutiful wife that I am, I buy a box of it at the supermarket on the way back to our camper van. The irony is not lost on me that our next destination will be the picturesque riverside town of Bouillon. Better not mention the Oxo.


English author of warm, witty cosy mystery novels including the popular Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries and the Gemma Lamb/St Bride's School series. Novels published by Boldwood Books, all other books by Hawkesbury Press. Represented by Ethan Ellenberg Literary Agents. Founder and director of the Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival. Course tutor for Jericho Writers. UK Ambassador for the Alliance of Independent Authors. Lives and writes in her Victorian cottage in the heart of the beautiful Cotswold countryside.

10 thoughts on “When in Belgium, Drink as the Belgians Do (In Praise of Oxo)

  1. Thanks, Debbie. I noticed this on menus during a recent trip to Brussels and was somewhat incredulous! Am I right in thinking that they make it from a liquid version of the stock though, rather than the cubes that are more prevalent back here in the UK?

    1. Not sure what they use in cafes, Simon, but they do sell cubes in the supermarkets as my husband insisted we buy some next time we were in a Belgian shop! Not my cup of tea at all, ho ho…

  2. In your travel stories, I love how you manage to pull out the details that may be common enough to some that they’d get overlooked. They make for some hilarious scenes and put me in the place much more than if you’d talked about the citadel itself. Great writing, Debbie!

    1. Thanks, Laura! Actually, I don’t think I could do conventional travel writing at all, not least because I’m hopeless at following directions and remembering place names (but I’m ace at reading maps!)

  3. Can’t imagine anyone drinking OXO! Gravy and sauces-yes. BUT a drink?
    Then again, if it is watery and very hot (as if a coffee and spiced right) then I could understand the comfort of it. I’d sooner have a hot cider or an Ice Wine.
    I can hear Mrs. Bucket from the old tv show “Keeping Up Appearances” saying ‘Bouillon” in her classic faux!
    Hmm, your art teacher was so right in the distraction of text…in Art and now, a direct form of distraction.

    As always- entertaining reads! Take care,
    Sent from my BlackBerry device on the Rogers Wireless Network

    1. Thanks, Deb! My preferred winter warmer when travelling in Europe is “vin chaud” or “gluhwein” – basically a warmed up, spiced wine. When I asked for this in a Belgian bar, in sub-zero temperatures, the waiter smiled sweetly and said “Mais c’est printemps” – “But it’s spring!” and didn’t have any available, despite the fact that it was snowing! Still not enough to persuade me to drink an Oxo though!

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