Fresh farm treasures in Flemish Brabant: Take a tour of the region’s culinary harvest
Whether you’re an expat or an international in Belgium, there’s two tasty gifts that never fail to please – beer and chocolate.
But beyond the tourist mecca of Brussels, a gastronomic paradise awaits. Flemish Brabant’s fertile farmlands produce some of the most highly sought-after ingredients in the culinary world. Grapes, hops, and Belgian endive… and that’s just a start!
Belgium’s luscious table grapes are the first gem. You may thing that the delicious fruit grows better in sunnier climbs. Perhaps, but this did little to dissuade Hoeilaart’s Felix Sohie from building his first grape cultivation greenhouse in 1865. Now, glittering glass structures can be found scattered across the verdant green belt landscape and grape region.
Velvety, dark, sweet and juicy – these grapes evoke a still life from an old Flemish Master. From April to October, you can indulge in the fruit and its history at the Dru!f Visitor Centre in Overijse. There’s also a Meet the Grape Growers Walk with entrancing views of the Ijse River Valley with stops at the ‘glass villages’ of the Solheide Estate and Ronald Vanderkelen’s generational treasure. In August and September, the grower will cut bunches of ripe heritage Royal, Leopold III, and Baidor grapes straight from the vine for you.
Better yet, they can be bought straight from the source. Druiven Van Camp, Druiven Vanderkelen, and Druiven DeWit grow and sell some of the sweetest. And if you’re properly inspired, mark 11 September on your calendar for when Druiven Van Camp opens its greenhouses to the public, hosting a local products market.
Beer is just a start
There’s a reason Belgium is famous for beer. The crucial ingredient in every good Belgian microbrew is hops. Just before harvest, in late August and September, catch a whiff of the heady sweetness. Plants laden with downy golden hop cones are the joy of every brewer.
Beer’s s just the start because there’s a new ‘ingenue’ in town, one likely to evolve into a star ingredient with staying power on the gastronomic scene. Hop shoots sprout from the earth in green and purple tendrils in early spring. Delicate and comparable to mild asparagus, it’s marvellous in stir-fries, salads, sauteed or even pickled.
For the scent of ripe hops and a glimpse of Affligem’s remarkable biodiversity, the Robber Baron Walk ticks all the right boxes. Hop plants thrive on the bine in the Abbey’s Nature Reserve. If you’re in the area, visit De Kruidenier van Affligem for unique natural and artisanal products.
To enjoy a pint brewed with local hops, drop by Hof Ten Dormaal in Tildonk or whet your whistle in Willebroek at Den Triest, which has Sunday tastings.
Coveted white gold
Nearing the end of our sweet and savoury stroll, it’s time to discover the province’s white gold – Belgian endives. They are the quintessential Belgian vegetable. The envy of the culinary world, there’s even a Chicory Village in Nakatsugawa, Japan.
In Flemish Brabant, it’s plentiful and inexpensive. What’s so remarkable about Belgian endive? Aside from the freshness, subtle bite and crisp texture that lends itself to everything from hearty oven dishes to salads and starters stuffed with Belgium’s famous brown shrimp – it’s also infamously tricky to grow.
Traditionally in season from late autumn to early spring, grondwitloof is grown in clay-poor soil. High demand, however, inspired farmers to develop a method to make this beloved, versatile ingredient available year round. You can buy Belgian endives out of season thanks to a labour-intensive, meticulous hydroponics process.
Kampenhout’s De Krop Interactive Culture Centre does an excellent job of describing Belgian endive’s time-honoured culinary and cultivation history. And it combines wonderfully with the farms, castle, and bird sanctuary on the Belgian Endive Walk. But don’t forget to spot the quaint and quirky sculptural homage to Belgian Endive Farmers in the town centre. Round off your Belgian endive-themed day by buying local. Check under ‘witloof’ on the White Gold Straight from the Farm page for a list of homegrown goodness.
Hopefully, your tastebuds are now tingling and you’re ready to venture into Belgium’s promised gastronomic land. Get cracking on your stint of good food, grand views and cosy countryside living in Flemish Brabant. Whether you’re a foodie or a fan of local produce, this province will leave your mouth watering for more.
Photos: © Lander Loeckx