Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Flemish Food-Shopping

For the past four days, I have been kindly hosted by Dutch speaking Belgians in Ghent (pronounced “Hant”), which is part of the Flemish speaking part of Belgium. Karolien, one of my hosts, is a fantastic cook. The meals she cooked were infused with delicate flavors that enhanced and complemented the natural flavors of the foods. She has an adorable garden in the back of the house she and Stijn purchased a few years ago. The house is awaiting renovation, but the garden, through much effort, has been reclaimed from years of neglect. The herbs she used to season many of the foods came from her garden. I hear that chickens and maybe some rabbits will be finding a new home in the back garden as well.

I am told that the Belgian government supports and actually *encourages* backyard chicken production. How civilized. Given the number of front and back gardens attached to houses, and the fruit trees growing in most of them, it seems that subsistence agricultural production has long been encouraged throughout the country, at least among the middle classes, as most of the working class housing has no gardens. There appears to be a recent resurgence in this, perhaps as a result of the economic downturn. Karolien saw a goat on a leash being walked in her neighborhood, and the monastery around the corner, although we visited and didn’t see them, has been rumored to hostel cows and goats in recent history—like the last few weeks. There is also a livestock market in Ghent, where you can buy laying hens for your backyard or live chickens for your stew pot. Or a goose. Or a duck. Or a rabbit. Guinea pig, anyone?

My first evening in Ghent, Karolien showed me how to prepare a traditional Flemish meal of baked codfish, asparagus soup, chicon and potatoes. While Karolien went to the fish shop and to buy the vegetables in the neighborhood, Stijn gave me a walking tour of Ghent, which included sharing with me the rich history of labor politics, migration and conflicts over territory in Belgium. Our walking tour included several stops for ingredients for our supper, at a cheese shop, a bakery and a mustard shop… (!). We also visited some community gardens and parks, which will appear in later posts.

Our first stop was at a cheese shop that makes its own cheeses 4-5 times per week from locally produced, organic milk. Cheese makers unite! Cheese eaters swoon. We chose the house specialty Pas de Rouge, which is a semi-hard, very flavorful, medium aged cheese. We also choose a mild, soft traditional Flemish cheese called Damse, which comes with or without herbs (in this case parsley) in the middle and on the rind. A third choice was a delicate and lacy blue cheese, made by the Hinkelspel cooperative and named Pas de Bleu...dressage and dance enthusiasts who love cheese will dig this.. There is a movement in dressage called a pas de deux, which is basically a dance for two horses/rider pairs. I couldn't resist. And last, a goat cheese called Cabriogand.

Our next stop was to a bakery specializing in breads. I am told that bakeries, for unknown reasons, generally focus on breads or sweets, and not both. This bakery was one of the best in Ghent for bread, and had a line two dozen deep out the door. We got whole wheat flax seed bread for eating with our cheese—sort of cancels out the unhealthiness of the cheese, doncha think? Maybe it could cancel out everything unhealthy I have eaten…ever? For breakfast, we picked muesli bread (Karolien’s and now my favorite) that is studded with nuts, grains and gigantic dried apricots. Wheaties, eat your heart out—you are NOT the breakfast of champions. Also for breakfast, we tried a handful of white and “brown” (whole wheat) dried fruit “sandwiches”—small bun-like breads sprinkled with dried currants and those green, red and yellow fruit jelly thingees that populate horrendous rum fruitcakes at unfortunate Christmas gatherings. I was incredibly rude and picked them out of my sandwich when I ate them, but when I actually tasted them they were quite nice. Of course they were. Another conversion. But for the record, I will only eat those thingees in Belgium. For dessert (and a snack on the canal side, as it appears to be Stijn’s favorite) we got bread pudding (another amazing taste sensation) and mattentart, a pastry made with buttermilk, milk and almonds. OH MY GOD.

Next door, a specialty food shop featured artisanal mustards. Stijn bought me a small sample of some very spicy variety, and I have not yet tried it, but the smell of vinegar and spices in the shop was indescribable. I cannot wait to crack it open when I get home and slather it on some homemade bratwurst from Nature’s Harmony Farm. The shop made their own mustards and you chose which size of container you would like, and they filled it for you from their supply under the counter. You could even bring back your container for refilling. I look forward to doing that someday.

1 comment:

  1. awesome, awesome, awesome. where did you meet the people you're staying with?