There is so much to say about the wonderful city of Ghent, I hardly know where to begin. It’s a city about the size of Plymouth (where I work) and it couldn’t be more different. It’s flat for a start! Flat, of course, makes it nice and easy for cycling and it was truly wonderful to see so many cyclists scooting about – how I miss my bike. This combined with the many cobbled streets acted as a form of traffic calming and presumably a car deterrent – so much of the old city was car free – bliss.
To my shame, the only things I could recall about Belgium (other than chocolate, biscuits and beer) was – ahem – Hercule Poirot and a rather hazy recollection of a poem about bringing good news from Ghent. On investigation, it turns out that Robert Browning’s poem, How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix doesn’t actually refer to any historical event – a complete red herring in fact. I have to say, having spent a week in Ghent, I’m not much the wiser. However, I did glean a few facts.
|No two buildings are the same|
|Oldest Shop in Ghent – makes own speciality mustard|
Our hotel was conveniently situated in the Town Square. As soon as we’d dropped off our luggage, we went out to explore the Square which involved much oohing and aahing over the St Bavo’s Cathedral, the Belfry Tower and the Royal Dutch Theatre. Having just reviewed the photos we took, I’ve realised that neither of us took a picture of the cathedral – honestly! We managed a peek at The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb painted by the brothers Van Eyck but somehow failed to see the Rubens.
It was here I spotted my first chocolate shop – the first of many. Really, it was astonishing just how many and varied they were. So many beautiful displays and most looking exceedingly tempting. The only one I couldn’t bring myself to go into was one featuring a window full of fluffy bears sitting amongst the chocolates. As well as the pralines and truffles one expects from traditional Belgian chocolates, there were lots of more unusual offerings. Tea flavoured chocolates seemed to crop up in quite a few places.
The most strikingly different shop though was Yuzu, a Japanese inspired chocolatier which also sold Japanese teas and teapots. Here I found some very unusual flavours and decorations; each chocolate was a piece of modern art. These I just had to try. I decided to make a selection of ten. A difficult decision, but with the aid of the chocolatier, Nicolas Vanaise, a man passionate about his trade, I made my choice as follows:
- Coconut and black Cavendish tobacco in a special white chocolate from the Dominican Republic.
- Almond and black Truffle
- Cinnamon, pepper, ginger, cardamom and vanilla
- Porcini mushroom (which combined surprisingly well with chocolate)
- Japanese greet tea
- Banana caramel
- Raspberry and rose (my personal favourite, the rose and raspberry well balanced so both flavours came through nicely) affored
- Indonesian black pepper
These didn’t come in a beautifully wrapped box, but in a Japanese style plain envelope, which suited them admirably. Having made my purchase Nicolas then offered me one on the house to eat then and there. I went for the all dark, which although it had no additional flavouring, was very good indeed. All of the ganaches were dairy free being made with soya. This, Nicolas claims, gives a much lighter texture than cream; I can report that the consistency was very good. Hoorah, vegan friendly chocolates, which meant my vegan work colleague wouldn’t have to miss out on the goodies as he normally does. I thought these were really fun and very interesting, but being a dairy girl at heart, these would never be my chocolates of choice.
Unfortunately, the poor exchange rate meant everything in Ghent was really expensive so I didn’t indulge as much as I might have otherwise done. And, of course, I did have to bring a few presents back.
One of the most delicious sweet treats I had were these famous Ghent cuberdons. They are made from raspberry puree which has a shelf life of only 4 weeks. Traditionally, these are cone shaped, firm on the outside and soft on the inside, but we bought some particularly interesting ones which were a house speciality.
Hot chocolate was not forgotten and we sampled a couple of these, one in a cafe and the other in a chocolate shop – guess which was which! Both were really good, but if truth be told, I think we both enjoyed sitting outside the cafe in a little square sipping our plain chocolate.
Another very pleasant surprise for me was the number of vegetarian cafes and restaurants to be found. I sampled three of them and saw a couple of others I’d like to have tried. It’s not often I go to places and get spoilt for choice. All of the meals I had were good, but two of them were exceptional, featuring one of my favourite foods, tempeh. Lunches served at the conference were also mostly vegetarian and again very good. Little did I know I was going to a vegetarian foodie mecca. However, Ghent is even more progressive than this – it promotes Vegetarian Thursdays where over 100 restaurants offer either an exclusive vegetarian menu or at least a good choice. Hospitals, schools and local government offices also participate in a bid to encourage healthy eating and food sustainability.
A post about Belgium would not, of course, be complete without mentioning the beer and I’m sure VegBoxBoy would be most disappointed if I didn’t. Not being a great beer drinker, I didn’t go wild, but I did manage to sample a few different beverages and very nice they were too, with a spelt beer being my favourite. You can see from the photograph that it could take some time to work ones way through the many varieties that are on offer in Belgium – over 800 I believe and that doesn’t include the specials.
The conference over, I had to look for accommodation in a cheaper establishment. It was a bit hit and miss as I plumped for the first place I could find on the internet that looked reasonable and was not already booked. I chose Beatrice and Marcus B&B which was about a 20 minute fast walk from the Town Square. Luckily, it was delightful – so much nicer than the bland corporate anonymity of the chain hotel we had been staying in. Our Flemish hosts were very friendly and helpful, we had a large room, a lovely comfortable bed and an ample yet delicious breakfast which included home made jam. Well beyond the call of duty, Marcus drove us to the train station on the morning of our departure as we were concerned that the buses might not be running due to the extensive road works being undertaken.
There is so much else to say, this post risks being rather too lengthy and verbose, but I will just mention that Ghent had a really good botanic garden belonging to the university, CT was impressed anyway and spent the best part of a day there and then took me to see it later on in the week. You may like to see his post on the visit. I was lucky enough to see a performance of Shake That, courtesy of the conference. This was a sort of humorous juggling act performed by five Ghent lads using bottles, cocktail shakers and fruit. In addition Ghent was hosting a jazz festival during our stay and whilst neither of us are big jazz fans, we thought we should put in an appearance. It was held in the park so we attended on our last evening. The band was good and the atmosphere was nice and friendly – a pleasant way to take our leave of this wonderful city.