Stuart Forster reports on Oyster Sunday in Ghent, Belgium.
Some might consider a brunch featuring a dozen oysters as decadent. But this is the third Sunday in October and I’m in the Belgian city of Ghent. Stopping at a mere twelve would mean missing out on at least a couple of the oyster varieties available at the Brasserie Pakhuis.
I’ve been told the Pakhuis’s annual oyster market – Oyster Sunday as it is known informally – has become a much anticipated culinary tradition since the event’s inception in 2008. That might seem a tad ironic considering Ghent’s socialist heritage. A ten minute walk from here the Vooruit arts centre stands as testimony to the sometimes tempestuous social history of this Flemish city. It was built over a century ago as a place for workers to meet, eat and be entertained. That, though, is a story that deserves telling elsewhere.
Ghent’s industrial heritage
It’s shortly after noon and I’m standing just inside the entrance of the airy brasserie. In 2016 the Pakhuis celebrates 25 years since opening. It occupies a site erected as a hardware warehouse in 1870. Green-painted iron pillars and skylights hint at the building’s industrial heritage. The roomy, two storey interior was converted into a chic dining and drinking space by the architect Antoine Pinto.
A headless angel sculpture stands to my left, next to a bar with polished brass rails. A barman wearing a waistcoat and red tie shoots me a greeting as he reaches up to grab a tulip-shaped glass to pour a beer.
Champagne and fresh oysters
In front of me the necks of Champagne bottles jut from boxes filled with crushed ice. Forks clatter against plates and the hubbub of conversation fills the busy hall. This is the only Sunday of the year that the Brasserie Pakhuis opens for business.
Over the next four hours around 6,000 oysters will be devoured during an event marking the opening of the oyster season. Pakhuis’s chef, Koen Lefever, believed such an event would prove popular and that’s proved true. It brings oyster producers face-to-face with consumers.
Between October and April diners can order fresh oysters here for their starters or main courses. Today, though, people are purchasing coupons to sample oysters from market style stalls with striped canopies.
Oysters from the Netherlands and France
“We have 14 different kinds of oysters from Zeeland [in the Netherlands] and mostly France. They come from Normandy, Brittany and Marennes-Oléron,” explains Dirk Tanghe, the brasserie’s public relations manager.
The oysters vary markedly in shape and size. Some are relatively flat. Others have shells that are a couple of centimetres deep, reminding me of the scoops at the end of ladles.
Tasting different types of oyster side by side emphasises distinctive differences in their flavours and textures. A variety from La Trinité sur Mer in Brittany impresses me with its nutty undertone. The large, fleshy Gillardeau oysters, cultivated at Bourcefranc in France’s Marennes-Oléron region, have a deliciously creamy flavour.
Enjoying an oyster’s merroir
“In wine production people speak of terroir. With oysters it’s merroir,” explains Dirk. Just as the local soil and climate influences the character and flavour of wine, the water in which an oyster grows affects how it will taste.
“We know our oyster makers personally. They are all here, presenting their oysters,” he adds while passing me an oyster produced by Patrick Liron in water off the Normandy coastline.
Brasserie Pakhuis’s signature oysters
I learn how the restaurant has two its own signature oysters. One is called Kara Savi, from Marennes-Oléron. The other is Verte des Bardières, a green oyster. Blue algae in the water of old salt pans reacts on the inside of the oyster to create its distinctive green colour.
Making my way out onto the terrace I pass a couple dressed in the historic costumes of fisherfolk. They sit together shelling North Sea shrimps. The woman, wearing a bonnet and shawl, smiles and passes me a pot of them. ‘Dank u wel’ I say, thanking her in Dutch.
Baked oyster with 15-year-old Talisker
Outside I wait by a vast mobile oven. Eventually I’m handed a hot, baked oyster with a smoky flavour. A couple of drops of 15-year-old Talisker whisky add a hint of peatiness. It’s a delicious way to round off my first Oyster Sunday.
My hire bicycle is locked up nearby, on railings by the River Leie. Oysters, of course, are renowned for their aphrodisiacal qualities. Pedalling the cobbled streets of Ghent and sightseeing strikes me a way of channelling my energy.
Brasserie Pakhuis is located at Schuurkenstraat 4 in central Ghent. Call +32 (0)9 223 5555 to make a reservation. Pakhuis is known for its seafood platters but also operates its own organic farm in the Burgundy region of France. It’s from there that the kitchen sources its pork, lamb and free range chickens. The kitchen is open from noon until 11.00pm on weekdays and until midnight on Fridays and Saturdays.
Photos illustrating this post are by Stuart Forster.
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