Ghent Foodie Tour
Ghent Foodie Tour15 nov 2016
There is a food revolution taking the kingdom of Belgium by storm, and its unofficial capital is the city of Ghent. This is where the Flemish Foodie movement first set down roots, offering an exciting alternative to classic Michelin-style restaurants. And today, the Flanders Kitchen Rebels, a whole new generation of young chefs, cooking in funky, casual diners are willing to push culinary boundaries, committed to a sustainable, organic cuisine far removed from molecular fads and fusion fashion. Diners going out for a gourmet evening no longer need to don a formal suit and tie, but equally should not expect starched tablecloths and crystal wine glasses, while the waiters will probably be wearing jeans and t-shirt, and the chef himself often comes out to serve the main dish himself at table. Most importantly, this is an affordable, democratic gastronomic experience with a five-course tasting menu rarely costing more than 50-60 euros. Apart from this vibrant restaurant scene, Ghent also boasts a host of unique food spots to track down. Right on the historic Groentenmarkt square, Tierenteyn looks more like an apothecary than a delicatessen, and although the shelves are stocked with stone jars of spices and herbs, everyone comes here for their unique mustard, dating back to 1790, whose recipe is shrouded in secrecy. Over in the bohemian Patershol neighbourhood, housed in a splendid baroque mansion, is Temmerman, Ghent’s favourite sweetshop, where 8 generations of the same family have been making ‘speculoos’ ginger biscuits and an array of naughty candies like ‘mammelokkers’, ‘breast lickers’, or ‘lutsepoepkes’ or ‘wobbly bottoms’. No trip to Belgium is complete without a visit to a chocolate shop. All the famous names - Neuhaus, Godiva, Leonidas - have boutiques in the centre of Ghent, but serious chocoholics go off the beaten track to Yuzu (Walpoortstraat 11), where master chocolatier, Nicolas Valaise, creates chocolate ‘truffles’ that resemble calligraphy art works, mixing strange combinations of flavours and textures, such as lemon and coffee, chili, ginger and corn.
And no matter how many times you come back, there is always something new opening up on Ghent’s foodie scene. Above all, everyone is waiting for 2017 when the pioneer of the Flemish Foodies movement, Kobe Desramaults, will open up a flagship restaurant here after closing the doors of his revolutionary In De Wulf, hidden away in the middle of the Flemish countryside. It will certainly be a change of surroundings, as this minimalist diner, seating just 16 people, will be housed on the ground floor of the 1970’s Belgacom Tower, affectionately known as ‘the ugliest building in Belgium’. Not surprisingly, the chef promises to reinvent the whole dining experience, limiting the length of a meal to just a couple of hours, serving a nonstop rapid succession of small tasting dishes, while giving the customer no choice in what he orders. Just be prepared to book long in advance to try out what promises to be a revolutionary new dining concept.
The Foodie Tour
Ghent is earning a reputation as a centre for alternative food markets. In the Bourdon Arcade (Heilige Geeststraat), lies the Be O-Markt – Be O is short for Be Organic - a thriving organic supermarket whose products come direct from the farm and for once are much the same prices as in an ordinary supermarket, while shoppers can take a break at their cafe with a detox fruit juice and healthy vegan lunch. (www.beo-markt.be) Then at the end of the year, the hipster Holy Food Market will open in a 16th century chapel, complete with oyster bar. But the most exciting development is taking place at Ghent’s very own dairy, Het Hinkelspel, whose premises, once a textile factory, are now transformed into the daily Lousberg Market. Apart from showcasing the dairy’s remarkable cheeses, there are farmers selling their seasonal bio fruit and vegetables, bakers bringing along different kinds of bread, while two sisters, Gaelle and Sybille, run a pop-up canteen, cooking simple sustainable dishes. Het Hinkelspel’s cheeses feature on nearly every gastro restaurant menu in town, delivered by bike each morning. Founded in 1984 by three enthusiasts who wanted to make honest, tasty cheeses with raw milk, the cheesemakers cooperative is still supplied by the same two dairy farmers in Western Flanders, and they make seven different delicious cheeses, plus eight variations using different herbs.
Every Friday morning, most of Ghent seems to be crammed into the grand Vrijdagmarkt square doing their weekly shopping. It remains a foodie must-see even if only a small part is still reserved for food - several fruit and vegetables stalls, an excellent choice of cheesemongers, butchers, charcuterie and artisan bakers. But what makes this market really special is the cornucopia of fish and seafood harvested by the fisherman of the North Sea. The square is dominated by half-a-dozen enormous refrigerated lorries that convert themselves into noisy fishmongers yelling the best deals to crowds of customers. Most move about Belgium’s different markets each day, like Frankie Vanmandeghem who has been coming here for 28 years. He, like the others sells almost exclusively North Sea fish, Dutch ‘matjes’ herrings, and specialities like whelks, periwinkles, salicorne and sea aster.
For a dose of Ghent fastfood there is a traditional ‘chip stall’, a Frituur, that has a line waiting for crispy frites and mayonnaise or a soup bowl of peppery ‘escargots de mer’. Alternatively, for a tasty, healthy lunch, pop in to Le Petit Botanique (www.lepetitbotanique.be), a hundred metres from the Friday Market. Vegetables and fruits arrive fresh each morning from a nearby farm, while the friendly staff are part of a social project often giving work to the unemployed or homeless. Diners pack the long communal tables, tucking into the homemade soup of the day, salads and veggie flans, with the walls decorated by emotive black and white photos of the regions historical agricultural heritage.
Gruut is Ghent’s very own craft brewery, set up in 2009 by feisty lady-brewer Annick De Splenter and recently relocated to splendid new premises, an old leather factory filled with copper brewing vats, long communal wooden tables for beer tasting and comfy leather sofas to relax in. Gruut means a mixture of herbs, and they form the base of most of Annick’s 5 artisan ales rather than the usual hops. Her beers are tasty, drinkable and aromatic, because according to Annick, “ hops can overwhelm your brew - and like a good steak, you don’t need a rich sauce to spoil it”. What is interesting for food lovers is that Gruut will be serving a wide range of tasty snacks all revolving around different kinds of beer bread baked with the residue of the malt that is used when brewing. Annick enthusiastically describes how guests will have a sharing platter of three different kinds of hot bread, with different things to dip it in - onion marmalade, tapenade, and a local favourite, ‘smout’ creamy white pig lard! “We also plan to revive the ‘mastel’,” she says, “a Ghent speciality sandwich of soft, sweet bread with a bagel-like hole in the middle, dusted with cinammon and then, if you can believe it, literally flattened with an old-fashioned flatiron.”
Chef Olly Ceulenaere is at the forefront of the Flemish Foodies movement, and became an instant star in Ghent when he opened the kitchens of Volta (www.voltagent.be), a stunning design restaurant housed in a breathtaking converted turbine hall. Volta is still worth a visit just for the interiors, but Olly moved on to open Publiek, a cosy, discrete diner, because, ‘I wanted to change to a smaller place, to create a personal cuisine. I think people need to know WHERE they are, so we only use seasonal, local products - fish from the North Sea, lemons but not lemongrass and you won’t find things like imported pineapples on our menu. I am also against using luxury products like truffles and caviar - for me the luxury products we use are onions and garlic, that are of an incredibly high quality.’ And the proof comes when you taste the essentially simple but totally delicious dishes he is creating: cabbage topped with smoked eel and shavings of parsnip root, or marinated herrings smothered with baby radishes, fava beans and smoked seaweed.
Publiek now has the recognition of a Michelin star, but Olly insists that, “we will not alter our philosophy and I will not let our prices rise. Basically we arrive in the morning and start with an empty fridge, we cook all day and by the end of the day the fridge is empty again. What better way for a chef to cook?”
The first thing that strikes you about this rustic restaurant is that most of the tables seat at least 8-10 people, and that is because the concept here is sharing. Chef Jason Blanckaert exclaims that, ‘I’m fed up with chefs imposing tasting menus. People sitting round a table should share, that way there is a great buzz in the dining room, people order more dishes and taste more of my recipes.’ Working directly with producers from the surrounding countryside, the ever-changing menu features irresistible recipes like slow-cooked belly of pork with cauliflower and homemade pickles, or raw marinated haddock with eggplant, cucumber and fennel. And don’t miss his signature marrow bone, sliced long-wise and topped with juicy snails, warm parsley puree and smoked bread. Ask about their new venture, Paulette, a cafe and takeaway, run by the chef’s wife, Famke, due to open end 2016. “This will be a Ghent version of ‘la cucina della mamma’”, explains Jason, “traditional Flemish homecooking - endives braised with ham and cheese, stuffed tomatoes, tender beef carbonnade stew.”
This hip new locale on the funky Oudburg street is the latest example of another food trend emerging in Ghent - the reinterpretation of heritage cuisine. Ludovic is dedicated to local foodie favourite, the ‘pistolet’, basically a big, puffy bread roll, freshly-baked, sliced open and filled with anything from everything from ham and cheese, boiled eggs, roast chicken and tuna mayonnaise. A regular customer explained that, “A pistolet is everyone’s classic Sunday morning treat in Ghent, to go to your local bakery and order a pistolet - nothing on earth tastes better and everyone enjoys this wicked foodie pleasure from artistocrats to working men.” But the young owner of Ludovic, Anthony Arnessens, has succeeded in raising the humble pistolet up from the fast food level into a gourmet deli dish, and diners can choose from 15 delicious fillings from smoked salmon topped with creamy egg mayonnaise, a beefy ‘americain’, the Belgian take on ‘steak tartare’, high quality Ardennes ham and local Ghent cheeses - even a vegetarian pistolet. And the drinks list runs from craft beers to cocktails and fruit smoothies.
Balls & Glory
Since the day it opened in Ghent, Balls & Glory has become one of the most popular diners in town, though as yet, tourists seem shy to join the friendly locals chattering away around long communal tables. Perhaps they are intimidated by the ballsy name - the Flemish call them ‘bollekes’ - perhaps they can’t imagine modest meatballs being transformed into the next gastro fad. The brainchild of young chef Wim Ballieu, his Balls concept could not be more simple - a tasty original recipe, hand-crafted and made with healthy, seasonal ingredients. Oven-roasted to make them crispy on the outside, the giant balls are made from pork, chicken or vegetables and burst open with a delicious liquid filling of explosive flavours as you bite. The fillings vary each day, from blue cheese and pine nut to mushroom and truffle, melted cheese and bacon to tomato and paprika. And each Glory Ball is served with generous helpings of salad or ‘stoemp’ mashed potatoes and veggies.
De Lieve could be a million miles away from Ghent’s bohemian Flemish Foodie restaurants, but it is a wonderful symbol of the sheer diversity of the city’s eating out scene. When you book a table, be prepared to step back in time and be sure to have a big appetite. Opened nearly 40 years ago by the irrepressible Ivan Van Desteene, De Lieve is an unpretentious corner bistro that is actually a shrine to traditional Flemish cuisine. Ivan is a serious gourmet, who claims to have visited 34 different 3 star Michelin restaurants around the world, but declares that “I am not interested in new food trends or fads and find nothing wrong with being nostalgic about the cooking I grew up with at home with my parents.” De Lieve’s menu is eclectic, so steer clear of quirky dishes like Spaghetti Bolognese, Chicken Tikka and Chili Con Carne. But the House Specials are totally memorable and fast-disappearing from most restaurants; creamy Vol-au-Vent filled with sweetbreads, North Sea sole pan-fried in ‘beurre blanc’, veal tongue in a rich Madiera sauce, a hearty veal carbonnade, ‘kalfsstoverij’, with kidneys and liver, and the winter ‘plat de resistance’, Hochpot, a gargantuan feast of pork trotters, spare rib and shin, carrots, leek, celery, crunchy green cabbage, brussel sprouts, potatoes, radish and turnip!
The cuisine at Naturell is all about vegetables, with a picture-postcard location right on the riverside, where diners are entertained by a brigade of young cooks meticulously preparing dishes in front of diners in an open kitchen. The owner, Lieven Lootens, a chef who has his own Michelin-starred restaurant out in the countryside, explains that, “there is so much going on foodwise in Ghent that I just wanted to be part of it. So I brought in one of my best young chefs, Johan de Man, and gave him free rein to express his signature cooking using primarily raw or very lightly-cooked ingredients.” Most diners cannot resist the long tasting menu, and the dishes are spectacular. Baby carrots, leek, radish and beetroot are dressed almost architecturally to resemble a planted garden, a plump oyster sits on a bed of fregola pasta, with sundried tomato and chorizo, while a young herring fillet is surrounded by fennel, courgette and colourful edible flowers. And let yourself be tempted be tempted by their Gin Tonic menu, showcasing 13 different Belgian distillers with exotic names like Ginderella, Blind Tiger and Strange Donkey.
The latest restaurant inspired by the Flemish Foodies philosophy is hidden away in a 17th century cottage in the romantic Patershol neighbourhood, an ambitious first project by talented young couple Kim Devisschere and Nele Victoor. With Kim cooking with a single assistant in the open kitchen, Nele oversees the intimate dining room, which only seats 25 diners, and has also put together a small but impressive list of fashionable ‘natural’ low sulphite wines. The chef proposes a no-choice four or five course seasonal tasting menu, based on what he finds in the market, with dishes that at first impression seems quite limited and simple. That is until you start tasting the dishes, because Kim is very daring - and successful - with his cooking times. A chunky cod fillet is flaky, almost rose in colour, but poached to perfection, as are the garden peas, delightfully crunchy, just as they should be. A herring fillet is smothered with chives and dunked into a hollowed-out cucumber filled with a tangy sauce, succulent pork cheeks are served juicy and moist, while smoked mashed potatoes are delightfully complemented by fermented daikon then topped off with a plump oyster.
Oak is a short walk from the centre of town, a discrete dining room hidden away at the back of an unassuming residential house. But don’t pass by on the off chance of getting a table, as the innovative cooking of Brazilian chef Marcello Ballardin has quickly attracted a devoted following that fully book the restaurant long in advance. Marcello may be from South America, but his cuisine is firmly in the spirit of the Flemish Foodies. The buzz in the maximum 30 person dining room could not be more laidback, and there is no need to decide what to choose as there is a no-choice tasting menu with minimalist dish descriptions sometimes leaving guests asking ‘what exactly will we be served when “Courgette, Carrot, Hake” arrives?’ Well, no one is disappointed when the chef comes out himself and serves his spectacular creations at table; surprising, visually arresting innovations like a chilled sea bass fillet topped with a ponzu sorbet, tiny organic tomatoes and creamy avocado.
Where to Stay
Waterzooi is one Ghent’s most famous dishes, a delicious chicken or fish stew, and the luxurious bed&breakfast is housed in an ancient mansion that was once a restaurant
Two English food-lovers have converted a rambling town house into a funky b&b, and installed a popular cafe on the ground floor.
Budget foodie travellers should check-in at this wonderful Art Deco building that once housed the Socialist Vooruit newspaper.
All year-round, Ghent is a real festival city:
Every three years, at the end of January, the Light Festival takes place (next edition will be in 2018). In special years, the fragrant Floralies flower festival treats Ghent to colourful blooms in the spring.
In the summer there are: the Gent Jazz Festival (Belgian and international artists set up camp in Ghent for a laid-back jazz festival), the famous Gentse Feesten and the Patershol festival (a chance to discover the oldest quarter of Ghent).