Food for thought in Belgium

Belgium’s Bruges and Ghent are more than tourist spots but also host to a culinary revolution.

Bruges and Ghent in Belgium are wonderful places to stay for a few days, but Bruges is arguably the more popular destination. Above, a view of the the Bruges Canal. Getty Images

There is a food revolution taking the kingdom of Belgium by storm, and it is not so much happening in the swish restaurants of the cosmopolitan capital, Brussels, but rather in Bruges and Ghent, two picturesque cities known more for their romantic tourist venues rather than gourmet pilgrimages.

It certainly comes as a shock to learn that the restaurants of Bruges boast a dozen Michelin stars, including two chefs who have attained the gastronomic pinnacle of three Michelin stars. And just 30 minutes away, Ghent has become the unofficial headquarters of the hip Flemish Foodies movement, a much more unconventional gang of talented young chefs who are pushing culinary boundaries.

Both cities are wonderful places to spend a few days – for spectacular cultural sightseeing, and now the added attraction of discovering chefs who are totally committed to a new modern Belgian cuisine that relies essentially on local and seasonal organic products. So to begin this foodie investigation, I head first to Bruges, probably the most popular destination in Belgium.

A perfectly preserved medieval city built around a maze of idyllic canals, Bruges can sometimes seem too beautiful for its own good, a must-see on European tour, but too often the perfect daytrip, with everyone rushing off at the end of the afternoon to the next destination. On this visit back, I discover a very different city, rejuvenated by its reinvention as the culinary capital of Belgium, with many more travellers staying on for a few nights.

I check in at La Suite Sans Cravate (www.sanscravate.be, double room €180, Dh750), the perfect mix of luxury accommodation and fine dining, a sublime designer B&B run by the wife of chef Henk Van Oudenhove, who cooks across the road at his Michelin-starred Sans Cravate (Langestraat 158, tel: 050 678310, four-course tasting menu, €60 (Dh243).

Like most of their guests, I have reserved a room with dinner, and set out immediately to see some of the less well-known sights in Bruges. In the bustling Market Square, only the brave walk up the 366 steps of the iconic 13th-century Belfry Tower, and I prefer to escape the crowds and wander the quiet backstreets to the Church of Our Lady, where there is an exquisite white marble sculpture of the Madonna and Child by none other than Michelangelo.

The city’s best-kept secrets are the numerous “Beguinhofs” – hidden courtyards of dolls-house cottages ringed around fragrant flower gardens. Built in the 17th century to house the poor, it is easy to walk straight past the deceptive street entrances. The most beautiful to visit is De Wijngaard, marked by a grand arch just by the Minnewater, the fairytale Lake of Love.

Sitting down for dinner in the cosy Sans Cravate, it is lucky that my sightseeing has built up an appetite, as a host of irresistible appetisers immediately appear – plump squid on creamed potatoes, beetroot chips on a bed of goat’s cheese and a delicate asparagus veloute. The chef Henk, a Bruges boy, cooks in an open kitchen, and explains that, “I have always been inspired by the wonderful local products that come from the surrounding countryside here”.

A delicious North Sea crab is accompanied by artichoke and fennel, young herrings are served with traditional sour cream but also organic peas, beans and edible wild flowers, and the highlight of the evening is a succulent roast duck with pureed celeriac, crispy root vegetables and tangy homemade pickles.

The next day a taxi whisks me 10 minutes out of the town centre for lunch at De Jonkmann (Maalsesteenweg 438, tel: 050 360767, three-course "market" menu, €45 (Dh190), www.dejonkman.be), and to meet Filip Claeys. This shy, disarming chef is seriously engaged in sustainable cooking and his cuisine is a revelation. De Jonkmann is housed in an 18th-century hunting lodge, seemingly a classic chic 2-star Michelin restaurant. So I'm totally surprised to taste dishes with what Filip calls "poor" products that would never normally be featured on the menu of such a temple of gastronomy.

Imagine sushi using hake, a tender slice of flounder cooked with lemon zest and ginger, an intense consomme made from tiny crabs that most chefs would just throw away. You will never see cod or tuna served here, nor anything bred on fish farms, because as Claeys says, “there are always alternatives”.

This food philosophy is immediately apparent in his appetisers – unfashionable sea whelks presented like an abstract painting, quail eggs slow-cooked over hay.

He is the founder of North Sea Chefs, which has grown from just himself to 300 chefs across Belgium, and explained that “fishermen here in our North Sea throw away far too much of their catch every day, only keeping the elements they can sell expensively – turbot, sole, highly prized shrimps. So I am trying to educate fishermen and chefs that non-commercial fish and shellfish can aways be used in the kitchen, and then convince our customers to stop ordering turbot or sole and try these other fish instead”.

There are enough tempting restaurants to stay in Bruges for a week. In the heart of the old town, Geert Van Hecke's 3-star Michelin De Karmeliet (Langestraat 19, tel: 050 338259, tasting menus from €85 (Dh350), www.dekarmeliet.be) is one of Belgium's most-renowned restaurants, the ultimate fine-dining experience where waiters hover around each table, diners speak in hushed tones while eating off precious porcelain.

While a completely different experience awaits food lovers who head into the nearby countryside to Hertog Jan (Loppemstraat 52, Zedelgem, tel: 050 673446, www.hertog-jan.com), where Gert de Mangeleer, a 37-year-old rock'n'roll 3-star Michelin chef cooks in a 17th-century farmhouse surrounded by vegetable gardens that go direct to his kitchen, and disciples of his provocative cuisine reserve well in advance to be served the unforgettable €195 (Dh810) Discovery Menu.

But is time for me to jump on the train for Ghent, and less than an hour later, I am standing on the Korenlei quayside in front of the magnificent gothic Guild Houses that are the symbol of this still under-the-radar city. Ghent has a great choice of B&B accommodation, and I am staying at Chambre Plus (www.chambreplus.be, Hoogport 31, double room €120 or [Dh500]), which has the added attraction of its own cooking school. I decide to skip the queues at St Bavo's cathedral for a glimpse of Ghent's most famous painting, Van Dyck's Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, and opt to visit the innovative Design Museum (www.designmuseumghent.be). Right opposite is Ghent's latest foodie hotspot, Naturell (Jan Breydelstraat 10, tel: 09 279 0708, www.naturell-gent.be), where the cuisine is all about vegetables.

A six-course seasonal tasting menu (€69 or Dh190) proposes dishes such as flaky cod with ras el Hanout and eggplant, or a creation of white asparagus, broccoli, wild garlic and ponzu. The enthusiastic brigade of young chefs is almost theatrical when dressing the plates in their open kitchen, using so many vegetables and pickles that it almost resembles a planted garden.

There are several chefs from the irreverent Flemish Foodies movement cooking in Ghent. Their restaurants are the antithesis to the conventional concepts of fine dining. At Jef (Lange Steenstraat 10, tel: 09 3368058, set lunch €25 (Dh100), www.j-e-f.be), I sit at a rustic wooden communal table, the waiter wears jeans and a T-shirt, and the menu is hand-written. But the creativity and quality of the dishes are equal to anything I have eaten in the Michelin-starred dining rooms in Bruges.

Working directly with producers from the surrounding countryside, the ever-changing menu features unpredictable recipes such as his signature beef marrow bone, sliced length-wise and topped with juicy snails, warm parsley puree and smoked bread, or raw marinated haddock with eggplant, cucumber and fennel.

An even more bohemian locale is De Superette (Guldennspoorstraat 29, tel: 09 278 0808, pizza and main dishes from €14 (Dh60), www.indewulf.be/desuperette/), one of the restaurants overseen by Kobe Desramaults, who cooks with the same "earthy cuisine" philosophy as Noma's Rene Redzepi.

The design is seriously hip – battered leather armchairs and velvet sofas, raw brick walls, and arty photocollages. During the day, the food is wholesome soups and salads, while the evening menu is more complex and includes gourmet pizzas.

After lunch at De Superette, I take a romantic boat tour through the city’s narrow canals, which rival even those of Venice. The backstreets of Patershol, the medieval artisan neighbourhood, are a goldmine of art galleries, trend-setting fashion and design boutiques, while there is a host of bargains at the brilliant weekend flea market that spreads out over the cobbled stones of Saint-Jacob square.

And as the sun sets, I wander back to the quayside of the Korenlei where locals and tourists alike pack the cafe terraces that line the waterfront, enjoying an aperitif before deciding which of the innovative Flemish Foodie chefs to book for dinner.

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