Flanders via ferry: This is what to do on a culinary break to northern Belgium
At 83-metres tall, Bruges’ medieval Belfry soars above the market square.
The 366-step climb to the top is certainly worth the exertion. The reward? Great panoramic views of the Flemish city’s red-tiled rooftops, pretty canals and cobbled streets. (And, in the distance, you can spot the port village of Zeebrugge.)
The city – the capital of West Flanders and known as the Venice of the North – has long been popular with travellers for its cultural treasures and, for many, its cuisine.
Think of Belgian specialities and several easily come to mind: chocolate, moules-frites, waffles.
And then, of course, there’s beer.
I’m getting a taste of the culinary offerings of Flanders – the northern Dutch-speaking region of Belgium – on a weekend break. Instead of train, or by air, I’ve travelled via ferry from Dover to Dunkirk and then on by car.
There’s a certain charm to ferry travel. And there are also some benefits, including fewer restrictions on how much luggage to take and how much you can bring back.
First stop is the less-touristy (and often overlooked) university city of Ghent, about a 90-minute drive from Dunkirk.
Soon after arriving, a beer tasting at Gruut Brewery, where herbs are used instead of hops to create a milder ale, makes a welcome start. Of the five on offer, the strongest is particularly good – a light, golden ale at nine per cent called Inferno.
Later, I discover more about Ghent’s food and drink offerings when I meet guide Katelijn for a walking ‘sneukelen’ (nibbling) tour. Taking in some of the city’s historical spots along the way, we visit four shops for tastings: two sweet, two savoury.
Starting at the Stadshal (city pavilion) – the open-air canopy between the city’s 14th-century Belfry and its 12th-century St Nicholas Church – our first stop is a branch of chocolatier Daskalidès for pralines. Not far from the Great Butchers’ Hall at Groentenmarkt Square, we make an impromtu visit to the quaint Tierenteyn-Verlent for its spicy, sharp mustard. Outside, vendors are selling cuberdons, or Gentse neus (Ghent noses) – cone-shaped candy typical of the region that’s hard on the outside and filled (usually) with a raspberry-flavoured syrup.
Another highlight is Confiserie Temmerman – a small confectionery store with old-fashioned sweets and delicacies, including its take on the cuberdon – faces, not noses.
Tour over, lunch is a simple, hearty affair at Balls & Glory for its oven-baked, filled ballekes (meatballs, of which there is a vegetarian option) and stoemp (velvety mash mixed with vegetables).
Flanders’ restaurants are said to have the highest number of Michelin Stars per capita. Bruges’ three-day outdoor food festival Kookeet, near the main railway station, has been showcasing the city’s leading chefs since 2011, and is estimated to draw more than 100,000 visitors a year. It’s here I head next, about a 40- to 50-minute journey by car from Ghent.
The concept: 31 chefs from the city and a guest chef, each with one or more Michelin Stars, a Bib Gourmand mention or a high Gault Millau score, serve up a dish that best reflects them. It’s top food, affordably priced – each dish is either €7, €8 or €9 – and with a fast turnaround. Out of the 32 dishes, I feast on four, including a light, creamy celeriac and cheese ravioli and slow-roasted lamb with sweet potato, chorizo and a spicy tomato sauce.
A visit to Bruges wouldn’t be complete without chocolate, and it’s not hard to find – the city is said to have more than 50 chocolate shops, although not all craft their own on site.
Next morning, I seek out Dominique Persoone’s The Chocolate Line, regarded as one of the best and known for Persoone’s experimental flavours. Along with classics, pairings include matcha and bergamot jelly, marzipan and wasabi, and bacon and quinoa.
And, travelling by ferry, there’s no need to worry about how many to take home.
Need to know: Rachel O’Brien was a guest of Discover Ferries (discoverferries.com) and Visit Flanders (visitflanders.com) staying at Novotel on Hoogpoort, in Ghent (accorhotels.com; doubles from £109, room only), and Radisson Blu, on Fran Van Ackerpromenade, in Bruges (radissonhotels.com; doubles from £93, room only). Ferry operator DFDS runs 54 crossings a day from Dover to Calais and Dover to Dunkirk (dfds.co.uk; from £49 one way for a car and up to nine passengers); P&O offers up to 23 crossings a day from Dover to Calais (poferries.com; from £49 one way for a car and up to nine passengers).
When to go? Peak season in Belgium is July and August, when warm weather tends to draw the crowds. Cooler months May, June and September will be quieter and prices will likely drop. Big annual events include road cycling race The Tour of Flanders, running in April. Electronic music festival Tommorrowland, in Boom, on the outskirts of Antwerp, has become one of the world’s largest and runs in July. This year, Ghent is celebrating Flemish artist Jan Van Eyck and his Ghent Altarpiece (The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb) with ‘Omg! VanEyck was here’ – a programme of events and activities, including those with a food focus. 2020 will also be the 10th year of culinary
festival Kookeet (kookeet.be); to toast the milestone, it will move to the The Major Seminary – Bruges’ diocesan centre – from September 26 to 28 with the theme Earth.