Whether an expat or an international in Belgium, two flavourful gifts 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… that’s just a start!
1. Decadent grapes
Our first gem? Belgium’s luscious table grapes! Grapes? Don’t those grow better in much sunnier climbs? Perhaps, but that did little to dissuade Hoeilaart’s Felix Sohie from building his first grape cultivation glasshouse in 1865. Now, glittering glasshouses can be found scattered across the verdant Green Belt landscape and the grape region.
Velvety, dark, sweet and juicy – these grapes feel like an old Flemish Master’s still life made real. And 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, this 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 September 11th on your calendar for when Druiven Van Camp opens its greenhouses to the public, hosting a local products market.
2. Beer is just a start…
But… back to beer. There’s a reason why Belgium is famous for it. But don’t forget that the crucial ingredient of every good Belgian microbrew is hops! Just before harvest, in late August and September, catch a whiff of that heady sweetness. Bines laden with downy golden hop cones are the joy of every brewer.
But beer? That’s just the start. Because there’s a new ‘ingenue’ in town, one likely evolve into a star ingredient with staying power on the gastronomic scene. Hop shoot erupt from the earth in green and purple tendrils in early spring. And this beer-to-be is a little-known culinary gem. 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.
3. The most coveted ingredient
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. And obtaining abroad will often cost you a small fortune.
But in Flemish Brabant, it’s plentiful and inexpensive. So, 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. Did you buy your Belgian endives out of season? That’s the product of a labour-intensive, meticulous hydroponics process.
Kampenhout’s De Krop Interactive Culture Centre does a bang-up 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 at the centre of town. 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, by now, your tastebuds are 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 crunchy fan of local or a foodie born and bred, this province will leave your mouth watering for more.