Text: Marcella van Alphen
Photographs: Claire Lessiau and Marcella van Alphen
Belgian gastronomy is too often summed up to beer, chocolate and waffles. There is a lot more to it, and Ghent is the perfect city to explore the wide range of yummy foods and innovative drinks! On top of this, its vibrant student life makes Ghent’s nightlife lively and a forerunner for vegetarian and even vegan fares in Belgium.
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Local specialties [what to try and where to try it!]
175 local products from East Flanders
To start, go to the Great Butchers’ Hall, the unmistakable 15th century covered market hall along the Lys (Leie) River. For 400 years, until the late 19th century, this iconic building was the only place in town were meat could be inspected and sold. The noble cuts were sold inside while just outside the Great Butcher’s Hall were the small “Tripe Houses”, where inferior products such as meat scraps, entrails and tripes were sold.
Today regional products are promoted in the medieval hall. Inside, marvel at the unique wooden roof structure. Hundreds of Ghent’s high-quality cured Ganda hams are hung to these beams to age for about 10 months before being sold and served. It is one of the 175 local products from East Flanders that can be tasted here for breakfast or lunch: East-Flemish tapas, artisan cheeses, croquettes, bread with pickles, plates of East-Flemish sweets… Do not miss out on a bite at the Great Butchers’ Hall!
Tierenteyn mustard [a best-seller for 150+ years!]
To taste one of the most successful local products made in Ghent for almost two centuries, visit the historical building of Tierenteyn at Groentemarkt 3. Entering this iconic store is like stepping back in time as its interior has not changed for over a century. Influenced by the French and their famous sharp Dijon mustard, Petrus Tierenteyn (born in 1788) pioneered mustard-making in Ghent in the early 18th century, using a sweeter type of mustard seed. Crunched by hand in a mortar, the labour-intensive product was initially only bought by the wealthy until Petrus acquired a steam engine in 1842. The much-loved delicacy became available to most and has been sold in the same store at the Groentemarkt since 1867. Today, the sweet yet sharp mustard is famous all over Belgium and is ideal to pair with some cheese or like the people from Ghent do, salami and ham.
A sweet tooth? Eat a nose!
Officially registered as a regional product, the cone-shaped purple Cuberdons are a real treat for the people of Ghent. The Flemish call them “Neuzen” (noses) or affectionately “Neuzekes” (little noses). The origin of the name is obvious just by looking at the candy. A pharmacist accidentally came up with the recipe while studying a failed medicine preparation in 1873. The purple gummy candy crust protects a soft raspberry-flavoured filling. As the filling crystallizes over time, these candies are best enjoyed fresh. You can buy them at the carts on the Groentemarkt or at one of the many candy stores or bakeries.
A good location to try some is to walk to the confectionery of the Temmermans where fresh Cuberdons are produced daily. Ran by the third generation, the store itself with its beautiful façade on the Kraanlei is worth the short walk. Inside, it seems like time has stood still. Not only Cuberdons but local delicacies, exceptional candies and other specialties made according to the traditional recipes of the Temmermans are displayed. Their best-selling gingerbread made with real honey according to their 1904 recipe, biscuits, loose teas and other old-fashioned candies make a perfect addition to a festive dining table and are a perfect gift from Ghent!
Himschoot bakery (1880)
Another store with a legacy is the Himschoot Bakery on the Groentemarkt, the oldest still running bakery in town, next to the Tierenteyn mustard store. For more than 400 years, bread has been made in its brick basement and sold on its ground floor. The recipes of highly nutritious, healthy and tasty products have been passed on for generations. Since 1880, the Himschoot family has been owning the place. One of their all-time best sellers amongst locals is their “broodpudding” a semi sweat bread derived from bread leftovers mixed with raisins and cinnamon. The moist cake is sold in heavy squares, eaten just like this. Another, more local specialty and lighter snack, is the doughnut-shaped cinnamon roll called “mastel”.
Belgian chocolates: don’t fall for imitations!
It is impossible to discuss Belgian specialties without mentioning chocolate! There are many great artisans in Ghent, and we strongly recommend the laboratory and shop of Hilde Devolder. This Belgian woman is a very knowledgeable and passionate chocolatier, working exclusively with organic products and the highest quality of cacao powder. More sophisticated than your regular praline filling, expect some pretty daring combinations as Hilde creates her own flavours with the utmost taste. How about chocolate with lavender? Or with Afghan saffron? Got to try that!
The Gentse Waterzooi [the local dish specialty]
The most famous dish from Ghent is the “Gentse Waterzooi”, dating back to the end of the 13th century. Along the rivers winding through the city of Ghent, wheat was grounded in many watermills, and was spilled in the river, attracting fish. They became the base of the easy-to-prepare, cheap and hearty dish. The original recipe of the Gentse Waterzooi contained river fish, crème fraîche, potatoes, and a few vegetables like carrots, leak and celery. However, the rivers became polluted as Ghent developed during the industrial revolution, and the fish stocks plummeted. Buying fish was too expensive for most people and the main ingredient was swapped for the more affordable chicken meat. Many restaurants have the chicken version of the “Gentse Waterzooi” on their menu.
Fries at a Michelin-star level!
Clearly, do not limit yourself to fries, but going to Ghent without trying them would be a shame! Starred chef Sergio Hermans, whose restaurant in Sluis was listed among the Top 50 restaurants in the world for eight years, has taken Belgium fries to the next level. Along his top restaurants, he opened the Frites Atelier at the centrally located Groentemarkt. According to the starred chef, ingredients are key. He carefully chose the best potatoes for his recipe after experimenting for months. The baking, the finishing touch and the earthy taste thanks to the peel that is left on are really worth queuing for!
Another must-try in Ghent is to experience its rich Belgian beer culture. During the Middle Ages, there were about 500 breweries in town as beer was safer to drink than water! Today, water has made progress, but beer is still extremely popular especially with the sprout of micro-breweries. Ghent itself is associated to no less than 60 different beers! To dig deeper into the beer culture, we advise you to take a guided beer tour through town. Meanwhile, here are a few highlights for you, thirsty reader!
- Gentse Gruut Stadsbrouwerij: brewing beer is not only a man’s job! The Gruut brewery in the heart of the city centre was initiated and is ran by Annick De Splenter who is using an old blend of herbs called gruut (see this article about the Gruuthuse to know more) instead of hop. Five very different beers are produced here, from the aromatic, fruity and herbal Gentse Gruut Wit to the more intense unique Gentse Gruut Inferno (careful, 9% alcohol content!) and the gluten-free Gentse Gruut Bruin. Visit their facility and tour the brewery to see the making of these hop-less beers!
- Slightly out of town the Van Steenberge Brewery produces some top beers of Belgium since 1784. They are well-known for their characteristic Gulden Draak (Gilded Dragon) beer served in a glass shaped as a dragon egg (learn more about the legend of the dragon of the belfry). Other excellent beers from this brewery are Gentse Tripel (hoppy yet fruity), the Piraat (a strong amber beer), the Augustijn (a historic monastery beer which recipe has been unchanged since 1295 when it was crafted by the Augustinian monks in town). For true beer lovers visiting this brewery is an excellent way of getting a better taste of Belgian beers!
- For more experimental beers head to the Dok Brewing Company where all different sorts of beer are brewed and where new recipes get created continuously. You will find 30 tap beers straight from their brewing tanks in this former power transformer hall which has been converted into a brewing pub.
- Het Waterhuis aan de Bierkant is a cosy historical pub offering more than 165 different types of beers! Can’t make up your mind? Try one of the 3 beers that are brewed exclusively for them and savour it on the terrace bordering the Lys River!
Beyond beers: local drinks you got to try!
You have a long list of beers to try out before heading out of town… And if you need a break or are not a beer-lover, two more things:
- Roomer is sweet artisan aperitif based on elderflower, without any preservatives, colourant nor flavourings. The sweet aromas blend really well with a light acidity of the herbs and is best enjoyed on the rocks. Most bars and restaurants serve it.
- Originating from the Low Lands in a time when Belgium and the Netherlands were under the same rule, jenever is the forerunner of gin and was known as a medicinal drink during the Middle Ages. Make sure to grab some of the above-mentioned snacks before tasting the traditional Jenever distilled from grain! Head to ‘t Dreupelkot next to the Waterhuis aan de Bierkant pub to taste Ghent’s best jenevers!
Restaurants to try:
We have selected three of our favourite restaurants in town that are definitely worth the try:
- Brasserie Pakhuis: centrally located, this brasserie is set in a former warehouse by the Lys River. Renovated keeping its industrial style, the trendy restaurant offers many options, including local seafood specialties with a twist.
- For some high-power gastronomy head to Volta! The former powerplant has been tastefully renovated to host a high-end restaurant where dishes are a feast for the eyes and the palate.
- For a mix of traditional food (like a Flemish beef stew in Westmalle beer or their award-winning tartare) and more exotic options, the Café Theatre offers a varied menu. Above all, its unexpected and excellent cocktail bar upstairs is a must! The best Cuberdon I have ever had was served on a Negroni-inspired cocktail created by the passionate and talented award-winning bartender…
- To help you plan your trip make sure to check out Visit Ghent!
- To appreciate Ghent to the fullest, get a City Card which gives you access to all the museums, public transport and some other attractions.
- For a comfortable stay in style a stone’s throw away from the heart of Ghent, with a spa to recover from your day exploring the city and an excellent service, we warmly recommend the 4-star Pillows Grand Boutique Hotel Reylof.
- Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area! Here is a short tutorial to download it.
For more in Belgium, click on the images below: