Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Special Edition Top Ten 1: Ghent

panorama of ghent fig. a: panorama of Ghent

Why Ghent? Well, I got hired to do a little song-and-dance there, and Michelle decided to tag along for the ride to try to parlay this into something of a holiday. We’d passed through Belgium before on a high-speed Thalys train together, but otherwise Michelle had never been to Belgium. We got a few quizzical looks in the weeks leading up to our trip when we told people where we were going, but we could hardly wait to get there. Beer, waffles, gin, fries--what's not to like? The weather was, well, Northern European (cool, a fair bit of rain, oftentimes gray)* for much of our time in Belgium. But the weather was more than compensated for by the hospitality we received from the moment we set foot in Ghent.

welcome wagon fig. b: Day 1: welcome wagon

The food, drinks, treats, sights, events, and cultural attractions didn't hurt either.

mustard shop 3 fig. c: Mostaard Fabriek 1

1. Vve Tierenteyn-Verlent Mostaard Fabriek, Groentenmarkt 3

mustard shop 1 fig. d: Mostaard Fabriek 2

Beautiful, beautiful shop.

q: what lurks within? fig. e: mostaard 1

Beautiful packaging.

a: mustard fig. f: mostaard 2

And quite possibly the world’s best mustard too. With a flavor so bold and intense you feel like it’s been laced with a particularly potent horseradish (one quite capable of giving you a mad "wasabi" rush), but it’s just the mustard seeds. The first time Michelle visited, thinking Vve Tierenteyn might be something akin to the mustard boutiques you sometimes find here in North America, she asked the owner, "So, how many types of mustard do you have?," and the woman just gave her a stern look and said, "We only have one type of mustard." That's when Michelle realized, "These people are serious."

When we went back a few days later, having become True Believers in the meantime, we told the owner, “We love your mustard! It’s the best!!,” she just looked at us with quiet confidence and said, “I know.” Then she started rattling off recipes we could make with her mustard [stay tuned…]. Other treats at Vve Tierenteyn include a wide variety of spices and herbs, assorted candies, and homemade chutneys, pickled capers, and piccalilli, but it’s their mustard that’s their bread and butter. Jars (glass or ceramic) are filled to order. The recipe has remained unchanged since 1790 and it's kept under lock and key.

2. Het Hinkel Spel Cooperatieve Kaasmakerij, a.k.a. “the dairy co-op,” F. Lousbergskaai 33

raw milk fig. g: raw milk

Two words: raw milk. The best I’ve ever had—by a mile.

belgian artisanal butter fig. h: raw milk butter

Raw milk butter (pictured), cheese, and yogurt, too, all of them lovely, and all of them brought to you courtesy of a totally right-on cheese co-op.

mokabon 3 fig. i: Mokabon 1

3. Mokabon, Donkersteeg 35

mokabon 2 fig. j: Mokabon 2

Easily our favorite “salon du café” in town

mokabon 1 fig. k: Mokabon's coffee

and also our favorite coffee. The standard issue (pictured) comes with a generous dollop of homemade whipped cream on the side. We quickly took to using the whole dollop. Max, just around the corner, is probably the city’s most famous waffle restaurant (in fact, they’re one of a small handful of restaurants in Belgium that claim to have invented the Belgian waffle), but we actually preferred the waffle at Mokabon: better flavor, better texture, and it came with more of that whipped cream.

max apple beignets fig. l: Max's apple beignets

However, we did love the apple beignets at Max.

beginjhof fig. m: inside the Klein Begijnhof

4. Klein Begijnhof, adjacent to Lange Vilettestraat belowTweebruggenstraat—If you’ve never heard of a begijnhof or a béguinage or the Beguines I highly recommend picking up a copy of Norman Cohn’s masterful The Pursuit of the Millennium. If you’ve never experienced the serenity of a béguinage, Ghent’s Klein Begijnhof is a good place to start. Added bonus: an underground cinema called OffOff that specializes in experimental fare and that also houses an attractive little bar with great beer.

vosselare put 1 fig. n: Vosselare Put

5. Vosselare Put, a.k.a. “the swimming canal”--Just outside of Ghent sits what was once a roughly 10-km bend in the Leide, a roughly 10-km bend that was bypassed in the interests of commerce way back when, a roughly 10-km bend that is now a beautiful "swimming canal." At Vosselare Put you'll find a tiny Belgian café that serves good beer and light snacks and that operates a "beach" complete with slide, diving board, and lifeguard.

vossalare put 2 fig. o: Vosselare picnic

It's also kind of perfect for picnics.

6. S.M.A.K., a.k.a. “the contemporary art museum”--We tried to find the one-man show by one Guillaume Bijl, the Belgian installation artist, but all we found were

smak 3 fig. p: SMAK 1

an exhibit on cave paintings,

smak 2 fig. q: SMAK 2

an impressive collection of twentieth-century artifacts (including Gandhi's glasses, Rainer Werner Fassbinder's motion picture camera, and Josephine Baker's handbag)

smak 1 fig. r: SMAK 3

and the site of the Miss Flanders Beauty Pageant (which, judging by the empty champagne bottles we found backstage, had taken place earlier that evening).

Nice building, though. And a café that serves light meals by Grade, a fine local fine dining and cocktail bar hot spot.

ice cream garage fig. s: ice cream garage

7. Ijssalon Talamini, a.k.a. “the ice cream garage," Maaltebruggestraat 9--Michelle had gone to the fabled "ice cream garage" three times, but, through a series of unfortunate mishaps (mostly having to do with her inability to read Flemish numerals), she'd come up empty each and every time. The fourth time turned out to be the charm, though. We snuck in five minutes before close on our last night in Ghent. And it was worth all the effort. Icy and excellent.

8. Het Huis van Alijn, Kraanlei 65--The van Alijn House Museum, a museum dedicated to the social history of Flanders, was our favorite museum. Ghent's got no shortage of great museums, but we loved the van Alijn House's displays on birth, death, marriage, family life, childhood, and, yes, cooking and eating through the ages.

belgian kitchen fig. t: flemish kitchen

belgian pantry fig. u: flemish pantry

belgian table fig. v: flemish table

belgian cuisine fig. w: flemish cookbooks

They also had the city's best postcards:

deen fig. x: deen

When you're done visiting the van Alijn House,

temmerman fig. y: temmerman

Temmerman, just down the street, is one of the city's best confiseries,

neuzen, caramel fig. z: neuzen, caramel

famous for their neuzen, the purple "noses" you see in the background, among other specialties (like salt licorice).

9. Gentse Feesten--The city's 10-day civic festival is a total blow-out. Some 40 years ago, the party started as just a tiny neighborhood affair sponsored by one of the city's central churches. Now it's a huge, sprawling affair. Many of the city centre's streets are closed to traffic, stalls (beer, food, etc.), sound stages, and other attractions fill the streets, beer gardens flourish, crowds throng,

gentse feesten fig. aa: gentse feesten

and the party lasts till dawn each and every night. It's such a shindig, in fact, that the city experiences a collective lull both before (in anticipation) and afterwards (out of exhaustion).

Michelle was particularly thrilled about Gentse Feesten because it gave her another chance to sample some real, honest-to-goodness pannekoeken direct from a street stand before our 6:00 am departure the next day.

10. Gentse stoverij--Our hosts were a little surprised that we gravitated towards local specialties like Gentse stoverij, the local version of carbonnade à la Flamande, but one rainy evening at the oddly named Brasserie Café des Arts (Schouwburgstraat 12), just before going to catch a film, that was exactly what we wanted. The fact that it was made with abbey beer and that it came with a "bottomless" bowl of fresh frites only sweetened the deal. Sorry, no photo, but that's only because photos and a recipe will follow...

ostende fig. bb: oostende

Bonus: Oostende--Bruges and Antwerp are both closer, but it being summer, getting to the coast was a priority.

Basically, we went to Oostende in the hopes of having a swim in the North Sea and getting some fresh seafood, and we were successful on both counts. Our swim in the briny waters of the North Sea was bracing. The skies were gray, the waters were a bit choppy, and there wasn't a single other soul in the water, but it was all in a day's work for the Gentse Ijsberen ("Ice Bears," a.k.a. Polar Bears) Auxiliary.

After we'd warmed up again with a fish soup, Michelle decided it was time for a sugar fix, and Oostende's boardwalk vendors were happy to comply.

candy ostende fig. cc: candy vendor

Riding high on candy, for a second there we thought we were seeing things.

magic tricks fig. dd: mysterious black boxes

Hundreds of identical black boxes all marked with strange titles, names, and dates.

magic trick fig. ee: "cigarette manche, Karell (sic) Fox, 1975"

Turns out there was a magician on premises who was willing and capable of performing each and every one of these legendary tricks, and, it being our lucky day, he was doing them for free that day. We and a few dozen others had our minds blown, and then we moved on.

Later that day we had a hankering for some more seafood.

fish market ostende fig. ff: oostende fish market

We found the Oostende Fish Market and examined the fine specimens on offer.

petites grises fig. gg: petites grises

But what really caught our eye were the stands selling petites grises, those teeny tiny shrimp that are one of the great delicacies of the North Sea. We chose a stand--they had to be good, the fishmonger working the stand was eating his way through his pile of shrimp like there was no tomorrow--and bought 1/2 kg. I'm not sure if you can tell just how miniscule those shrimp are, but we estimate that that 1/2 kg. added up to at least 500 shrimp. At least. Petite grises are so small that you really have to work on your technique to get the full experience--after about 50 shrimp each, we'd gotten the hang of it. Late that evening, back in our B & B in Ghent, we were still working on our haul. It took us another 1 1/2 hours and a few beers to finish them off, but we ate each and every one of them. Why bother with something so finicky? Because they have the sweetest, most wonderful flavor imaginable.

doorbell fig. hh: doorbell, Ghent

End of the first European adventure.

Helpful hint:
Cobblestones aside, Ghent is something of a cyclists' paradise--tons of bike paths and bike routes, free access to virtually any street (in either direction), few hills, and Ghent is so compact that everything is cycling distance. The best place we found to rent bikes for cheap (15 euros per week, 20 per month (?)) is Max Mobiel, Voskenslaan 27, not far from Ghent St-Pieters train station. Nice bikes, too.


* We had a conversation with a guy in Brussels about the un-summer-like weather we were having at the time (little did we know it was more or less the same in Montreal at the time). According to him, this was typical summer weather. With one or two exceptions it had been like this here every year since he moved to Brussels from West Africa. "Yes, it’s always like this in Belgium during the summer," he told us. "No one knows why.”


Cerulean Bill said...

Good lord. All I knew of Ghent was as in "Treaty Of..". What a marvelous writeup. Thank you.

Anonymous said...


Marie-Camille said...

i'm in antwerp right now and leaving for brussels soon, and i get the same look when i tell people where i'm going! i think belgium in general is underrated...

at the risk of sounding lame, keep up the good blogging work. your posts make me simultaneously happy and hungry. thanks!

(oh and i had 125 year-old gin last night. i felt really tough taking it without the usual tonic!)

Anonymous said...

I'm originally from Ghent but live in Montreal and I'm pretty impressed by your post. When I tell people here that I am from Belgium most of the time they simply have no opinion, which is even worse than having a bad one;)Thanks!

and boy have I missed the GF this year...

Leigh said...

beautiful pictures, as always. Those apple pastries look delicious and that dollop of cream with the coffee is perfection. wonderful!

Tiny Banquet Committee said...

Ah, I'm in love with all the packaging and fonts!

Hermine - Journal de jours said...

The coffee at mokabon are the best of the world. Sometimes I drink them every day of the week. It's a lovely place to meet people. (you can find some pictures of that lovely place on my blog)