If you haven’t figured it out, let me put it in black and white: I have a new love affair…with Ghent.
Photos of the ornate and ancient brickwork, tile roofs, and canals with arched bridges captivated me long ago. On two previous trips to Belgium, I got as close as a two-minute stop at the train station on my way to somewhere else, each time saying, “I’d really like to visit Ghent.”
This year, I was able to. The storybook views of the medieval city disguise a youthful vibrancy that seemed to spill off the pages the more I explored Ghent with my fork, spoon, and camera.
Check out Ghent’s recent claims to fame:
- In 2009 Ghent became the first city in world to adopt a weekly vegetarian day. Some say Ghent has the highest number of vegetarian restaurants per capita across the globe.
- Ghent has the largest car-free city center in Belgium—the more biking and walking you do, the more hungry you become.
- The KAA Gent team (The Buffalos) won its first Belgian Football (aka soccer in the US) Championship in 2015. Must have been all of those vegetables.
Here is the rest of the story:
Shortly after the United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organization issued a report saying meat production was responsible for 1/5 of the world’s greenhouse gases, the Ghent city councilor decided that encouraging residents to abstain from meat one day a week would be good for the planet’s climate, good for his citizens’ health, and good for everyone’s taste buds. And that is how Donderdag (Thursday) officially became Donderdag Veggiedag (Thursday Veggieday) in this city of 230,000 residents 30 miles west of Brussels.
According to the visitgent.be website, the average Belgian eats 1,800 animals in his lifetime: 890 chickens, 789 fish, 43 turkeys, 42 pigs, 24 rabbits and other game, 7 sheep, and 5 cows. By abstaining from meat one day a week, each person could save 250 animals over the course of a lifetime.
On Thursdays in Ghent, vegetarian meals are served in schools and government offices have veggie lunch meetings. Non-vegetarian restaurants are asked to limit meats to an alternative section on menus and the city has a Veggie Street Map highlighting vegetarian restaurants, vegan bakeries, and health food stores.
I went to two of Ghent’s vegetarian restaurants, twice.
Avalon is in the shadow of Gravensteen Castle. If you get lost in Ghent, follow the tram tracks toward Gravensteen and they will take you right to Avalon. It is open one weekend a month, Friday and Saturday evenings for a five-course meal, and reservations are hard to come by. Otherwise, it is only open for lunch. Marina was lucky enough to arrange a reservation for the two of us while I was visiting.
The menu for that night was:
Triomfbal: An apple and celery deep-fried dumpling made with chickpea flour.
Aspergerisotto: Risotto with thinly sliced asparagus, fried onions, and halved cherry tomatoes.
Bloemkoolsoep: Cauliflower soup with almonds and a green herb oil with lime sauce.
Groenteburger/witte bonen/gele bietjes/radijs: Sage puree with yellow and red beets and kale.
Chocoladecake/rabarberijs/aardbei: Chocolate cake with strawberries, and rhubarb-soy ice cream.
The meal was paired with white and red wines throughout the night. Review: Lovely presentations, delicious and unusual combinations, and small but satisfying portions.
The only complaint for the entire evening concerns a table of four on the other side of the room. When each course arrived at their table, out came the camera and FLASH! Food photos are all the rage, but I consider it rude behavior when others are dining.
The restaurant has a cookbook—Avalon: Grow-Eat-Share. Although the title is in English, the rest of the book is in Dutch.
I returned one afternoon for lunch, and serving sizes are much more ample (I ended up leaving a portion of my pasta on the plate—I simply ran out of room. The waitress, the same one who served us two weeks earlier, recognized me and handed me an English menu. The dish of the day was Pesto Pasta with Vegetables. The pasta had “homemade nut cheese” which is something new to me, as well as baby eggplant sliced lengthwise, caramelized red and yellow onions, grilled scallions sliced lengthwise, halved cherry tomatoes, and, of course, basil. Yum.
Lekker GEC (Gent Ecologish Centrum) is across from the Gent-Sint-Pieters railway station and is a perfect place to eat before or after a train journey. You can also get a “take-away” meal for the train ride.
At Lekker, food is served cafeteria-style. Each plate costs 2 Euro, and then you load it up with what you want. The plate is then weighed, and you pay E 1,65 per 100 grams. I paid about E 8 after filling my plate with a red beet, pear and onion chutney, roasted vegetables with creamy dill sauce, tempura vegetables, a mixture of green peas and black beans in vinaigrette, and a salad of pureed avocado with chopped celery and dressed with cilantro and lime. That also included a cup of coffee with a cube of a brownie with hazelnuts.
On my last day, when Sabine, Richard and Lais arrived to go on a canal boat tour of Ghent, we had a late lunch at Lekker. Salad, fresh baked bread, and a table outside shaded by a large umbrella made the perfect afternoon meal. Eet smakelijk(D), bon appetit(F), or as they say in the good old USA, Enjoy your meal(E). Laurie Lynch
Café Culture: One of my favorite morning stops was for a cup of coffee. In Belgium, each cup of coffee is served with what I refer to as a sweet amuse-bouche, often with a delicate demitasse spoon. At Barista in Ghent, it was a 1-inch cube of bread pudding. At Le Pain Quotidien in Charleroi, it was a similar portion of raspberry cheesecake or brownie. At Bread Fast in Ghent, it was a tiny Speculoos. No matter where I went, there was always a little something to make my cup of coffee a treat while watching shoppers pass my outdoor café table.
Forget Pennies…Strawberries from Heaven: After years of growing strawberries for our market, I learned the trick for the most delicious strawberries was picking them dead ripe (as well as growing varieties with excellent FLAVOR rather than ship-ability.) But they had to be consumed in the next day or two or they would become mush or mold. Well, in Belgium the strawberries were as good as anything I ever grew, plus they had longer staying power. They were red all the way through, ripe, juicy, and flawless. They didn’t have to be smothered in Belgian chocolate or sandwiched between steamy, crisp waffles and billows of whipped cream. They were exquisite as just plain strawberries.
When I got home, I did a little research. In Flanders, you want to look for the Hoogstraten Aardbei(D) label. Strawberry farms in northern Belgium produce 40,000 tons of berries for this cooperative. In Wallonia, Wepion Fraise(F) is the strawberry to buy. Farms in Wepion and nearby Namur produce about 4,000 tons of strawberries a year. Wepion also boasts an actual Musee de la Fraise with a 35-acre of Jardin des Petits Fruits that I put on my To-See list.
After a little more reading, I found out the secrets to Belgian strawberries, at least those in Flanders. First, the berries never touch straw, or the ground, for that matter. They are grown in raised gutters or troughs in greenhouses. The berry stems fall over the gutter and the berries hang in the air. The plants are watered and fertilized in the gutters, and prompted to grow with LED lighting from March through November. A series of varieties are grown for continuous fruiting. By not touching wet ground, which often harbors disease, the strawberries can be harvested at full maturity, full of sugar and taste. One added detail is that harvesters all grow long fingernails. They use their fingernails to cut the stems, without their hands ever touching the berries.
Kapsalon & Sauce Andalouse: OK, I love strawberries from heaven, but I’m no foodie angel. At times I stray from the healthy and organic and unprocessed. One night Marina and I were at her house, alone and exhausted. Marina suggested ordering out. I was game. She got on her computer and ordered two kapsalons to be delivered to her doorstep.
The translation for the Dutch word “kapsalon” is “hairdressing salon”. Apparently it was named after a hairdresser in Rotterdam who loved to go to the Turkish restaurant next door for doner, shaved lamb cooked on a vertical rotisserie and served in a wrap. But he created his own twist with the add-ons, and thus, the kapsalon was born. From the Netherlands it traveled quickly to neighboring Belgium.
Our kapsalons arrived in aluminum loaf pans. The bottom layer is frites (French fries). Next, thinly sliced lamb and melted gouda cheese topped with shredded cabbage and carrots, and halved cherry tomatoes. You can order a variety of sauces, and I decided to go with Marina’s choice—Sauce Andalouse. Sauce Andalouse is a Belgian specialty—a mixture of mayonnaise, tomato paste, roasted peppers and spices (curry, I’m guessing). Talk about pigging out. I was hooked. I packed a bottle of Sauce Andalouse in my suitcase.
OK, Last But Not Least, The Buffalos: The Flemish sports pages were not required reading to figure out that Ghent is proud of its national champion football team, De Buffalo’s (stet).
There was a two-story team jersey draped on one of Ghent’s stately buildings, and blue-and-white posters of the mascot, the profile of a Native American in full-feathered headdress, in windows of homes and businesses. What, I asked, was going on? The KAA Gent football association was founded in 1900. This, it appears, coincided with visits of William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody and his traveling Wild West Show. The show toured Europe eight times, making its first visit to Belgium in 1891 and its last in 1906. The Native Americans in the show made quite an impression, and Ghent began its love affair with “The Buffalos” of the Wild West.