* Another story from the back catalogue, this week with a Flanders theme. I’ll be back in Belgium this autumn for the opening of the Red Star Line Museum in Antwerp’s Little Island district but, for now, a foodie tale from Ghent. Follow me on Twitter or subscribe to the RSS for more story updates.
Belgian food gets a bad rap.
But the Flemish city of Ghent, a short hop by train from Brussels Midi, is kicking back against the stereotype of chips and waffles.
Not only is the Belgium’s fourth city home to traditional local stalwarts such as mustard purveyors Tierenteyn-Verlent and sweet shop Temmerman, but also a groundswell of small-scale food champions is adding a modern, new twist to favourite local flavours.
Many of these will be showcasing their wares during the city’s annual Patershol Festivities staged August 12 to 15, a long-weekend jamboree of music, performances and tastings around the labyrinthine, medieval streets reborn as the city’s restaurant district.
We profile the some of the faces behind Ghent’s burgeoning food scene.
Brothers Maarten and Jeroen Michels started distilling elderflower wine during childhood visit to their grandmother’s house, using the fragrant flower that grows abundantly around East Flanders. Now in their mid thirties, they left steady jobs to turn Roomer [pictured above], a 14.9% alcoholic beverage based on elderflower, into a home-grown drinks business.
“It’s not a wine and not a liquor,” says the hirsute Maarten, surrounded by toys and Lego on the terrace of his office-home in Ghent’s residential southeastern suburbs. Roomer is based on all-natural ingredients and distilled with 21 varieties of herbs.
“Secret herbs,” adds Maarten from behind dark glasses. “They give it a dry, easy-drinking taste.”
The brothers have grown the business organically, producing 70,000 bottles of Roomer last year.
“We started as anti-professional with buckets in the kitchen. We’re now semi-professional,” smiles Maarten, who still rolls up his sleeves each June to collect some 1,200kg of flowers from sites around Ghent. Indeed, the whole production remains a hands-on, family affair with mother Marie Louise daintily placing flowers into open bottles with a pair of teasers.
“Exactly 50 flowers each time,” says Maarten. “She has a feel for it.
Roomer may now sit next to Martini and Pastis on aperitif lists at 500 restaurants across Flanders, but the brothers retain their non-corporate approach to business.
“We are entrepreneurs but philosophically we just wanted to have fun.”
Maartan raises an ice-clinking glass in cheers. “Op eu muile,” he smiles. “On your face.”
De Blauwe Zalm
Ghent’s Patershol district is a fashionable restaurant quarter
But when chef Danny De Cleyn and front-of-house Christine Beernaert first opened De Blauwe Zalm (The Blue Salmon) in 1984, the area was still a down-at-heel backwater and their idea to prepare only fish, organic and seasonal food a curiosity.
“We started with 15 covers and the pans from our kitchen,” says Chris. “When I put Jerusalem artichokes on the menu, people laughed at me.”
The couple moved to bigger premises in 1993 and became a stalwart of the Patershol scene, championing a low-food-miles approach without being prescriptive.
They still grow much of their own produce on an allotment near Ghent and source their fish sustainably from the North Sea, although the average dinner would have little clue about their green credentials of their meal – from the recycled tables to the freshly picked flowers on the tables.
“We haven’t sold tuna or swordfish in four years because of overproduction. But we’re not severe,” says Chris. “I’m not selling a religion.”
As I tuck into the light, seasonal flavours – basil, aubergine, muscles, brill and sea bass amongst them – a large blue-salmon-shaped light fitting swims along the ceiling above me.
“The salmon always swims against the tide.”
Chris smiles. “But always gets there in the end.”
Yuzu, the domain of chocolatier Nicholas Vanaise on the fringe of Ghent’s student quarter, offers a non-Belgian take on Belgian chocolates.
One-man-band Nicholas gave up Indiana Jones-style archaeological adventures around the Middle East to return to Ghent, but he continues to dig out new, contemporary flavours. Today Yuzu, named after a Japanese citrus flavour, comprises 150 chocolate varieties with a core range of 25 flavours.
“There’s a story behind every chocolate. Each praline is a memory board,” says Nicholas. “For example, the Havana, a best-seller flavoured with malt whisky and tobacco leaf, tastes of an English gentleman’s club.”
The selection box of Ghent flavours, by contrast, features chocolates laced with blue cheese, cured ham and beer.
The capsule-hotel-sized shop in Ghent is a shrine to Japanese taste with bottles of sake, sachets of green tea and porcelain cups lining the shelves. Nicholas goes flavour hunting to Japan each year and already sells his creations through the Matsuya department store in Tokyo.
Outside of running the shop, Nicholas spends up to eight labour-intensive hours per day making chocolates at his home-based laboratory, preparing up to eight varieties per day in batches of 100 pieces.
“At the end of a day of chocolate making, I’m desperate for something to take away the sweetness,” laughs Nicholas.
“I can murder a curry.”
Gruut is not only Ghent’s only city brewery but it’s also an all-female affair with brewer Annick De Splenter opening the canal-side microbrewery restaurant in 2009.
Annick wanted to reinvent the mage and taste of beer and spent months researching the brew process before hitting on a formula.
She took an old recipe from the Middle Ages and replaced the hops with herbs, some sourced from her own garden.
“I wanted to get away from the dusty old image of brewers,” says elfin-blond Annick, surrounded by dark wood tables and shiny steel brewing vats.
“Brewing was traditionally a very physical job but technology helps us now.”
The Gruut range, named after the coin used in the Middle Ages, now extends to five beers, including a Trappist-style dark beer and a grand-cru ale, the Inferno.
Annick brews twice a week, producing some 1,000l of beer overall, which sells at 150 bars and restaurants around Ghent.
Annick has already launched some spin-off products, working with local companies to make Gruut-based pâté and cheese; she recycles malt from the brewing process to make bread for the restaurant.
But the real secret of Grout’s success is simple. “It’s a proper beer but with more softness than a typical brew. Best of all,” she grins.
* I’ll be heading back to Antwerp this autumn. The new Red Star Museum opens September 24 and I’ll be back for a preview having watched the regeneration of the docklands Little Island region since I first wrote the story below.
What’s changed since I wrote this? Post your comments below.
Antwerp is the Flanders city with that rare quality in Belgium: quirkiness.
Yes, it’s got diamonds, fashion and enough old-Europe money to stuff a bank vault several times over, but it’s the variety of village-style districts, all easily explored on foot and revelling in their own idiosyncratic character, that really sets it apart from living-museum Bruges and pen-pushing Brussels.
September brings Open Monument Day to Flanders and Antwerp will unlock the hidden-gem and tucked-away places that visitors rarely get to explore, such as the Antwerp Ruien, the city’s network of subterranean waterways.
Make sure to stop off around the Latin Quarter en route to buy traditional Antwerpse Handjes biscuits from Philip’s Biscuits and pastries from the Goossens bakery. These perennial-favourite delicacies will be fuelling the locals as they explore.
Water features heavily on Antwerp’s regeneration agenda with a whole new district of the city, the Eilandje (Small Island) docklands area north of the Old Town, currently opening up to explore.
Antwerp remains the world’s fourth largest port but the buzz is now about café culture not containers.
To be fair, the urban renaissance is still a bit work in progress, but the slow-progress evolution is even tempting the traditionally reserved Antwerp residents to leave their comfort zone of the fashionable south of the city to explore the shabby-chic north.
September in the Old Town also means the tour-party hordes are subsiding and the cobbled sidestreets less crowded to hunt out the interesting little galleries, cafes and boutiques.
But don’t fall for the last menus touristiques of the season around Groenplaats. A tram heading south will deposit you near Leopold de Waelplaats, nearby which you can eat amongst the locals at the pavement tables of Grill or Bar Italia and the watch the ritual weekend parade of designer garb and sports cars over a waffle-free brunch.
When you’re full, simply pop across the road to the landmark Royal Museum of Fine Arts (kmska.be). The permanent collection with works by Rubens and Magritte before is currently closed with major renovation ongoing until 2014.
… the legacy of the Antwerp Six fashion collective on the city’s fashion sense. Fashion stalwart Dries van Noten maintains his flagship store, Het Modepaleis (www.driesvannoten.be) at Nationalestraat 16. But the latest crop of fashion graduates can be found exhibiting their collections at the Fashion Museum (momu.be).
… the Diamond Museum (diamantmuseum.be), which tells the story of the city’s love affair with big rocks – some 85% of the world’s rough diamonds are traded in Antwerp’s diamond quarter.
… a close brush with Adam and Eve in Paradise. This iconic work is one of several by the Flemish master kept at The Rubens’s House (rubenshuis.be) with its baroque aesthetics and informative audio tour. But, for art without the crowds, the revamped Photo Museum (fotomuseum.be) offers a more contemporary view.
… people watching from a pavement café with a glass of local brew, De Koninck, or as thoughts turn to autumn, from a comfy armchair at Günter Watté’s chocolate-themed café (watt.be), sipping a latte and negotiating one of his dainty chocolate-pastry creations with a cake fork and a taste for indulgence.
… dipping your bitterballen (meatballs) into spicy sauce at the Art Deco-style Frituur No 1. Flanders has the finest fries on earth – prepared from Belgian Bintje potatoes, cut to a length of 11mm and fried twice for extra crispiness, since you ask – and this frituur is one of the best places to try them.
The first fruits of regeneration in the Small Island district are now ripe. New places to eat and drink, such as Felixpakhuis and Lux, are building a new following, the Royal Ballet of Flanders (koninklijkballetvanvlaanderen.be) has moved to a new performance space and a major, modernist new museum, Museum aan de Stroom (MAS; mas.be), is now open, telling the story of Antwerp as a world port city. By 2014 the tram system catches up with the progress to improve access.
Concept stores are de rigueur in Antwerp and this über-chic new opening, located at the heart of the Latin Quarter, takes the trend to its zenith. It combines a minimalist high-fashion clothes and interiors store upstairs with a suitably chic, candlelit downstairs eatery. But don’t blow the budget on a new outfit as the dégustation menu costs 80€ / £67 for eight nouvelle cuisine courses without wine; graanmarkt13.be
Hotel Les Nuits
The en-vogue home interior shop Flamant is branching out. First came the restaurant Flamant Dining (flamantdining.com) with its cool lounge and sunny roof terrace. Now the adjacent Hotel Les Nuits lives up to its nocturnal moniker with 24 Asian-styled rooms, each featuring black-lacquer cabinets and a low-lit, boudoir-chic feel. If you like the room décor, you can buy every single piece in the shop next door; hotellesnuits.be.
Paleis op de Meir
The city’s major new cultural space is the 18th-century, rococo building once chosen by Napoleon as his imperial place but never inhabited. The stately building has been saved from years of neglect and the restored rooms, all elaborate and ornate, yearn to recount their own individual story. Downstairs the Café Imperial (cafe-imperial.be) serves afternoon teas fit for an emperor with a glass of bubbly; paleisopdemeir.be.
The Chocolate Line
Located across the courtyard from the entrance to the Paleis op de Meir, chocolatier to the stars Dominique Persoone has opened the latest Chocolate Line shop. Next to the lavish displays of chi-chi chocs, the open kitchen lets visitors pick up some of the secrets of a chocolate-crafting master at work. If you’re adventurous, enquire about a pure cocoa hit from the chocolate shooter. Well, it was good enough for Keith Richards; thechocolateline.be.
Tom Le Clef, manager, Felixpakhuis lounge and restaurant [pictured above]
“The next-door warehouse to our restaurant is Dries van Noten’s offices, but he also holds stock sales there each spring and summer. Time your visit well and you can catch up to 80 per cent off original designs. But get there early – the queues start at 6am.”