For a small city, Bruges packs a gastronomic punch. No fewer than 35 Bruges chefs have now been rated by Michelin, Gault&Millau and Bib Gourmand so you could say there’s never been a better time to sample what’s on offer. And the draw is even stronger this autumn because from 24-26 September the Bruges Kookeet festival celebrates its 10th anniversary.
As September mellows to a close, all the best chefs in town will be calling you to table within the walled grounds of the Grootseminarie, the site of a 17th century Cistercian abbey, with an orchard and meadows – a place that perfectly reflects this year’s theme, Soil chosen by foodie and lifestyle ambassador Wim Lybaert.
Diners can sample different concepts, such as Around the fire, celebrating flames and smokey flavours with chefs cooking side-by-side, and Out of the Box – where street food and sharing meet gastronomy.
Lien Vandeputte, chef-owner at Réliva will be there. Réliva is an intimate city centre eatery with raw brick, white paint, a garden backing onto the cathedral — and a natural feel. From a farming family, Lien has always championed fresh, local, seasonal ingredients.
She trained locally in one of Bruges’s internationally-respected culinary schools, and launched her own business straightaway, just 10 years ago. She describes her style as pure and light. “What you see is what you get,” she told me. At the same time, she wants to present familiar ingredients in ways that surprise and delight her guests. And that’s not all: as a member of North Sea Chefs she actively participates in culinary research about bycatch – species of fish that are often thrown back or neglected. At Kookeet, she will be offering dog fish.
“It’s a sustainable fish,” she said. “First, I will smoke it – because of the ‘fire’ concept in the festival, then grill it to caramelize it a little. And then I’ll serve it with spelt, an old grain, a forgotten grain, from here. So I’ll make a sort of risotto, finished with a beer jus, from local beer, and – because I love herbs – a green herb oil and topped with fresh herbs.”
Each chef creates his own recipe, but we’ll help each other as a team.Lien Vandeputte, chef-owner at Réliva
I also met one of North Sea Chefs founders, 2 Michelin-starred Filip Claeys, who co-owns De Jonkman, an elegant suburban restaurant set back from the street by beautiful gardens, with his wife Sandra. After spells working under top chefs, Filip went in search of his own style and a trip to Japan changed his attitude to the provenance of his ingredients. He’s now an ambassador for sustainable sourcing and the freshest of produce, whether fish, meat or vegetables.
“For Kookeet, I’m going to do a vegetarian dish,” he says with a smile, seated by the fire in De Jonkman’s foyer. “At Kookeet I always do totally different things, so I’m working on a wood fire, for the nice flavour. I’m going to do aubergines, marinated for one night with spices and herbs, then grilled softly over wood, then quartered. I’ll glaze them with a kind of onion vinegar, alongside tomato sauce, goat cheese, basil oil and a light aioli. I like to work with fat. There’ll be a little bit of acidity from the tomato, fat and umami from the cheese, a bit of earthiness — all the flavours.”
Having grown and renovated De Jonkman year-by-year, Claeys knows what it takes to succeed in hospitality. “I ate at Lien’s restaurant Réliva last year. Her food is amazing.” He goes on to sing the praises of the food scene in Bruges.
We have a nice balance of different restaurants, Chinese, Japanese, Belgian, high end, low end. This is one of our strengths: such a historic city, a lot of contemporary art and projects, and a great culinary scene.Filip Claeys, one of the founders of North Sea Chefs
He’s right. Even if you can’t make it to Kookeet, Bruges is well worth a weekend trip to make the most of Hoogstraat-Langestraat, two streets nicknamed ‘the longest table’ where many respected restaurants can be found in one spot. De Refter is a great choice, owned by 3-Michelin-starred Geert Van Hecke and run by his son Louis, serving high-end food at affordable prices. Sans Cravate, as its name suggests, also offers relaxed fine-dining à la Michelin-star, with four evening courses from 95 euros. Why not book one of their culinary packages, stay overnight at La Suite across the road and have breakfast the next morning too?
Let’s not forget the breweries either. Right in the city centre, family-run De Halve Maan goes back six generations to 1856. Bruges’s city beer – Brugse Zot – is brewed here: highly-fermented with special yeast. Fascinatingly, in 2016 a unique 3km underground beer pipeline was laid from the brewery to the bottling plant in the suburbs. Daily tours culminate in a free glass of Brugse Zot blond beer. Or visit the Bourgogne des Flandres brewery where kids can enjoy a treasure hunt and you can quaff a free glass of Bourgogne de Flandres overlooking the water.
Alternatively for craft beer experiences, try Fort Lapin, just outside the centre, where eight different craft beers are on offer. Meanwhile at Bryggja Brewery in nearby Damme, Franky Van Brabandt brews craft beers on a small scale, and in a former sheep pen alongside the Damme Canal you’ll find the up-and-coming Siphon Brewing, with a wide range of idiosyncratic, seasonal beers, inspired by ingredients like honey-lavender and smoked eel.
And if you’re looking to take away a souvenir from your jaunt to Bruges, there’s no shortage of local artisan delicacies to explore.
A ticket for Kookeet costs 10 euros per person. Children up to 12 years old can enter for free and do not need a ticket. To purchase a ticket online, click here.