Northern Belgium - Eating and sleeping
Wander down almost any street and your nose will crinkle as some warm, delicious smell wafts by.
A nation of gluttons or gastronomy experts? Foodies long ago decided that Flemish fare belongs firmly in the latter camp. Working from a base of burgher recipes, their rich food is often praised as the best in Europe and converts have often tried to keep the magnificence of their cuisine hush-hush, so they could guzzle its delights at leisure within time-worn, wooden-panelled eateries. Nowadays, the secret is out and visitors are often led around the country by their noses and appetites, sampling fresh fish and seafood found on the North Sea coast and beer-soaked stews. When all this can be washed down with award-winning beers or a cheeky shot of jenever, the appeal of Flemish dining is irresistible – gastronomes prepare to let a notch out of your belt
When it comes to cooking, there are two types of Flanders. At-home meals are very much of the meat, potato and veg variety: filling fodder that would have kept farms hands happy until dinner time in the old days. Alongside this frill-free food, however, is the entirely different dining experience offered by haute-cuisine restaurants. There you will find delicately tiered ‘tastebud teasers’ informed by French and – more recently – oriental twists, but as always there is a strong emphasis on fresh, seasonal ingredients.
National favourites are undoubtedly steak-frites – the meat is of high quality and usually from a local butcher – and mosselen-frieten/moules-frites; mussels are in season between September and March, or – if you take the advice of the locals – any month whose spelling contains the letter ‘r’. In addition, most towns have their own specialities and I’ve included these under individual listings.
In winter, the Flemish like to tuck into witloof en oven (chicory wrapped in ham and covered in a creamy cheese sauce); waterzooi (a broth containing fish/chicken and vegetables); stoemp met prei (mashed potato mixed with leeks); stoofvlees (beef stew made with brown beer); konijn en pruinen (rabbit cooked with prunes and beer); and paling in ’t groen (young eel cooked in a green sauce of spinach, sorrel, mint, thyme, tarragon, bay leaf and white wine).
In summer, menus feature the likes of tomaat met grijze garnaalkes/tomate aux crevettes (tomatoes stuffed with North Sea shrimp mixed with mayonnaise and ketchup) and asperges op vlaamse wijze/asperges à la flamande (white asparagus served in melted butter and with a crumbled boiled egg), which come into season at the end of May. If you are feeling really adventurous – vegetarians avert your eyes – you might like to try meaty specialties like bloedworst – literally ‘blood sausage’ – made from ground-pork leftovers, fat, breadcrumbs and pig’s blood; kop (a chunky paté made from ground beef and tongue and set in gelatine); paardefilet (horse steak); and, finally, filet américan, which sounds deceptively like a steak, but is actually a raw patty of beef mincemeat mixed with raw egg, onion, capers and a splash of Worcestershire sauce.
Flanders is famed for producing some of the finest cuisine in Europe, but any visit to the region will reveal that the chip is adored above all else. Even the smallest of villages houses at least two frietkots to cope with the locals’ demand for the lovingly double-deep-fried frites served with mayonnaise and other sauces poured over the top.
The secret to achieving the crunchy golden exterior and light and fluffy centre is freshness. Potatoes are sliced and cooked within two hours, fried in beef fat and allowed to cool before being fried a second time. It’s a serious business and it’s amusing to see the chef of a newly opened frietkot fry feverishly for several days in a row in order to please dubious locals and assure them he’s up to the task of producing crispy chips.
Sadly, traditional frietkot caravans are disappearing – stamped out by planning laws and hygiene standards – and only a handful remain. Permanent shop outlets are now the norm. Establishments usually stay open until 23.00 or midnight and there’s nothing better than leaving a bar and picking up some piping-hot chips to tuck into on the way back to the hotel.
Snacks: sweet and savoury
Wander down almost any street and your nose will crinkle as some warm, delicious smell wafts by.
Savoury quick bites include the inimitable frites, hotdogs, the Turkish pitta, filled baguettes (belegd broodje), the well-known croque-monsieur, and the steaming escargot (snail) soup ladled out at Christmas markets.
Bakers and pâtisseries offer several sweeter treats, from delicate cream cakes and fruit tarts to custard-filled pastries. Belgian waffles are the most famous and they come in two varieties: the Brussels and the Liège. The latter (and tastier) is a dense, doughy mixture coated in sugar and served piping hot. The Brussels variety, on the other hand, may contain fewer calories but is similar in weight and taste to polystyrene, perhaps the reason why they cover it in icing sugar, chocolate sauce, ice cream or fruit.
Also look out for the marzipan-flavoured mattentaart, cinnamon-flavoured speculaas biscuits and Dikmuide’s custard-filled ijzerbollen. Alternatively, go all out on a classic ice-cream sundae, like the Dame Blanche – a Belgian favourite – which is vanilla ice cream covered in molten hot chocolate, or the stomach-warming rice pudding (rijstpap/riz au lait).
Vegetarians and vegans
Meat is the main focus of most Flemish dishes, and while exclusively vegetarian restaurants are still scarce in the smaller towns and villages, there has been a burgeoning of veggie establishments cropping up in the main cities, especially in Gent, which has the most vegetarian restaurants in Europe and hosts veggie day every Thursday. Elsewhere outlets range from health-food cafés serving quick bites to proper restaurants serving three-course menus – where these are available, I’ve included them in the where to eat listings. Then, of course, standard restaurants almost certainly offer one or two vegetarian options. Specialist restaurants should cover the needs of vegans, but once outside the cities it will become increasingly difficult to find restaurants that can meet your requirements. A trip to the supermarket, to stock up on essentials, might be the best solution.
Beer is to Belgium, what wine is to France – a daily essential.
The two have a long and distinguished relationship and it’s invariably the first word people associate with the country. With over 800 varieties, the production and consumption of beer are a source of national pride and their breadth and quality have had beer aficionados fizzing with delight for years. Like a fine wine – and treated with the same respect – the majority of these beers should be sipped slowly and savoured, which is no bad thing when alcohol percentages reach 12%.
Also high in the alcoholic stakes is jenever, a juniper-flavoured spirit unique to Flanders and the Netherlands and fondly called witteke. Traditionally developed from the distillation and fermentation of malt, this liver-warming shot drink comes in two varieties: oude (old) and jonge (young). In fact, the differentiation has nothing to do with age, but rather varying distillation recipes; younger jenevers are made from grain and are served chilled, tasting similar to vodka; old jenevers have a higher concentration of malt, are aromatic like whisky and are served at room temperature. Alcohol percentages range from a hefty 20% to a toe-curling 40%. Hasselt is particularly renowned for its production and has a dedicated museum. Surprisingly, Flanders also has a modest sprinkle of vineyards, including Genoels-Elderen on the outskirts of Tongeren, and Domaine Schorpion (37 Kersendaelstraat, 3724 Vliermaal; 0477 58 12 08), situated just outside Hasselt and renowned for its sparkling and table white wines.
(Photo: Visit Flanders)
Restaurants, brasseries and cafés
The Flemish obsession with good cooking ensures standards are kept high, and even budget restaurants are unlikely to serve inedible food. Most offer a daily special (dagschotel/plat du jour) or day menu (dagmenu) that are excellent value for money. Also look to see if the restaurant bears a Bib Gourmand sign (usually posted beside the entrance); this Michelin qualification is a sign of good food sold at reasonable prices.
The popularity of eating out means venues do get very busy at weekends, so it’s advisable to make a reservation for the more exclusive joints. Children are warmly welcomed in most establishments, although not all offer high chairs or a separate children’s menu. In fact, it’s more common for chefs to prepare smaller servings of dishes chosen from the main menu.
For information on tipping etiquette, see Tips on Tipping.
Flanders is bursting at the seams with exciting accommodation options. You can sleep in a monastery one night and be lording it up in a 17th-century mansion the next. The gamut of beds on offer – from bunk to boudoir – ensures there are styles to suit all budgets and tastes.
The Benelux hotel classification was introduced in 1989 as a guide to quality and follows a blue-star rating of one to five. However, these awards are often a poor reflection of an establishment’s true character because classification is not compulsory and officials from the Ministry of Tourism only follow strict criteria relating to facilities (lifts, fire exits etc). These tick lists fail to allow for individual variation in set up and in my experience the average Flemish obsession with all things ‘home’ tends to guarantee a good stay in even the most inauspicious of places.
During the summer (May–September) and at Christmas, establishments get booked up very quickly, so booking a few weeks in advance is advisable. If you are travelling on a tighter budget it pays to stay in the larger towns and cities over the weekend, when rates drop in response to the mass exodus of businessmen heading home. If you do arrive without a booking, head to the nearest tourist information office; the staff will ring round to see which establishments have vacancies. You may have to pay a small deposit but this fee will be deducted from your room rate on arrival at the hotel.
The medieval layout of many of Flanders’ oldest towns and cities has thankfully prevented a huge number of multinational mega-chains squeezing in and as a result, smaller establishments, oozing character, have managed to stay. Rooms are almost always equipped with TV, Wi-Fi, telephone, and en-suite bathroom, and a buffet breakfast, usually continental, is normally included in the price. Rates range from €70 for a standard double in a low-end hotel, to €250 plus for a double in the top-end establishments. City tax may be charged separately and it’s worth enquiring about special weekend rates.
These are a combination of a hotel and a rental apartment: you have all the space of a furnished rental apartment, but all the perks of a hotel such as cleaning and breakfast brought to you.
Bed and breakfast (Chambre d’hôtes/Gastenkamer)
Flanders excels at the B&B and I am a huge advocate. These furnished rooms form part of the proprietor’s home; your personal space is still your own, with the added benefits of personalised service and hosts with unparalleled insider information. What was once the territory of rural villages has now taken off in major cities and towns. The days of ageing floral bedspreads have been replaced with boutique-style bedrooms and top-quality fixtures. Often excellent value for money, prices range from €70 for a double with shared bathroom, to roughly €200 for an en-suite double in a luxury establishment. As with hotels, special rates are usually offered to those staying two or more nights. Conversely, some guesthouses charge a €10 supplement for stays of just one night, and others will accept only a minimum two-night stay.
Youth hostels (Auberges de jeunesse/Jeugdherbergen)
The extensive network of youth hostels throughout Flanders ensures that only in the smallest and most off-the-beaten-track towns will you be without a budget bed. Most are affiliated with Hostelling International (www.vjh.be). Dorm beds start at around €20; breakfast is usually included, but sheet hire may cost extra. Those without a Hostelling International card will have to pay €3 extra on top of the standard bed price, for up to six nights. After this time you will be issued with an International Guest Card, valid for one year. The social scene at these youth hostels picks in the summer, with barbecues, free town tours and bike rides often being organised.
Campsites are graded on a 1–5-star basis: five being the best. Slightly gloomy places off season, they come alive during summer with numerous activities on offer and entertainment programmes for kids. Prices are usually calculated on individual payments for a site, cost per adult, cost per child, any pets and a car. You will also pay extra for electricity and in some instances hot showers.