I knew that Belgium was a great foodie destination, but I was surprised to learn that Ghent has its own cuisine unique to the city. I experienced a lot of great food while visiting on a trip organized by Ghent Tourism but these tastes were amongst my favorite.
1. Mustard – My mouth was on fire and nothing would put it out. I was careful, I only tried a small bit of the famous mustard but my taste buds instantly recoiled in shock. It was my first taste of a distinctive mustard found only in Ghent and is a taste that I’ll never forget. Located near the heart of the city, the Tierenteyn-Verlent mustard shop has been producing its distinctive condiment for more than two hundred years without change. The small shop is almost always crowded with a mix of tourists and locals, all admiring the apothecary bottles lining the old fashioned store. In the corner is a huge barrel of freshly made product and a gigantic ladle used to dole out the spicy mustard. The mustard is made on site, in the basement to be exact, and is the only place in the world where you can buy it. The Tierenteyn-Verlent mustard isn’t sold in grocery stores or duty free shops, if you want it you have to visit the store yourself. It’s freshly made without preservatives, so you have to keep it refrigerated and you have to eat it quickly. Even kept cold this unique sauce only lasts about six months. Since the initial shock of the mustard, I’ve come to enjoy it and even crave the sharp taste. Even if you’re not a mustard fan you have to at least try this distinctive taste that truly is a part of Ghent culture.
2. Ham – Housed in the old meat market is an innovative shop and cafe, the Het Groot Vleeshuis. Here visitors can sample a variety of Ghent and Flemish foods, learning about the region along the way. One of the highlights of the restaurant is the famous Ganda Ham. Ganda (an archaic term for Ghent) hams are dry cured and aged for anywhere from nine to fourteen months. The taste is a little salty but otherwise mild. I was surprised at the distinct differences between the longer aged hams and found a little bit of perfection when they were paired with a spicy Ghent mustard.
3. Beer – Belgium is known for a lot of things and fine beer is near the top of that list. Given how popular beer is I was surprised to learn that there’s only one operating brewery in Ghent itself, but what a brewery it is. The Gruut Brewery is relatively new, but it has quickly become a culinary staple. The brewster, Annick De Splenter, spent years researching medieval methods of creating gruut beer that is made without hops and has created a delicious line of beers that are true to the history of the region and of course taste amazing.
4. Chocolate – Chocolate seems to be a Belgian obsession and many areas of the country have their own specialties and unique approaches to this popular sweet. Ghent is no different and I found a wide variety of chocolates from the traditional to the modern. My favorite chocolate shop was Van Hecke’s, operating for more than 70 years through three generations of chocolatiers. Pralines are their specialty, but they have a wide range of chocolate to suit most tastes. My favorite was a chocolate coated with a thin layer of sugar adding crunch and texture to the bite. For something a little different, the small artisanal chocolate shop Yuzu is the place to go. Inspired by bringing together unusual but complimentary flavors, Yuzu has chocolates that will shock and surprise but always delight. One of my favorites is the KROGAND, a milk chocolate with Ghent ham. It may sound strange but it’s delicious.
5. Jenever – This was a new drink for me and when I first tried the potent potable it was described to me as a type of gin; but that’s not entirely correct. Jenever is a juniper flavored liquor from which gin evolved. Today it’s only made in the Netherlands and Belgium and is a strong and popular drink. While the straight stuff may be a bit harsh, jenever bars also feature a wide range of flavored shots from mango to vanilla and everything in between. In Ghent the place to go is ‘t Dreupelkot, run by the usualy grumpy proprieter Pol. The drink is served in tall shot glasses and is a great way to start an evening or just spend some time chatting with friends. Be careful though, some of the flavors are smooth and sweet, hiding the fact that jenever is a potent drink.