Oyster Sunday in Ghent, Belgium

Stuart Forster reports on Oyster Sunday in Ghent, Belgium.

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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 10-minute walk from here the Arts Centre Viernulvier 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 story deserves telling elsewhere.

Ghent’s industrial heritage

It’s shortly after noon and I’m standing just inside the entrance of the airy brasserie. 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.

Oyster market at the Brasserie Pakhuis in Ghent, Belgium.
The oyster market at the Brasserie Pakhuis in Ghent, Belgium.

Champagne and fresh oysters

In front of me, 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 that such an event would prove popular and his vision has proved true. It brings oyster producers face-to-face with consumers.

Diners can order fresh oysters here between October and April 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 oysters side by side emphasises the 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.

Freshly shucked oyster at the opening of the oyster season on Oyster Sunday in Ghent, Belgium.
An oyster at the opening of the oyster season.

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 influence 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 the water off the Normandy coastline.

Brasserie Pakhuis’s signature oysters

I learn how the restaurant has two of 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.

Smiling people in the traditional costume of fisherfolk during the oyster festival in Ghent, Belgium.
People in the costumes of fisherfolk during the oyster festival.

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.



Map of the Pakhuis

The Google map below shows the location of the Pakhuis restaurant in Ghent, Belgium:

Map of Ghent, Belgium, showing the Pakuis restaurant.

Hotels in Ghent, Belgium

Seeking accommodation in Ghent? You can book hotels in Belgium via Booking.com:



Booking.com

Books about Ghent

Planning on visiting Belgium? You can buy these books via Amazon:

The 500 Hidden Secrets of Ghent by Derek Blyth.

DK Eyewitness Top 10 travel guide to Brussels, Bruges, Antwerp and Ghent.

Berlitz Pocket Guide Bruges and Ghent.

Consider the Oyster by M.K. Fisher.

Further information

See the Pakhuis (Schuurkenstraat 4, Ghent; tel. +32 (0)9 223 5555) website to see the restaurant’s opening times, menu and to make a reservation. Pakhuis is known for its seafood platters and operates an organic farm in the Burgundy region of France. From there the kitchen sources pork, lamb and free-range chickens.

Find out more about the city via the Visit Ghent website. The Visit Flanders site is also a useful source of information about the surrounding region.

Stuart Forster, the author of this post, is an award-winning travel writer. His work has been published by BBC Good Food, Discover Benelux and Wanderlust.

Thank you for visiting Go Eat Do and reading this post about Oyster Sunday in Ghent, Belgium. Planning to visit Belgium? You may also enjoy this post about the Wasbar café in Ghent and Touring the ruien in Antwerp, Belgium.

Photos illustrating this post are by Why Eye Photography.

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A version of this post was initially published on Go Eat Do on 30 October 2015.

People eat from a plate of oysters at the Brasserie Pakhuis oyster festival in Ghent, Belgium.
A plate of oysters at the Brasserie Pakhuis oyster festival in Ghent, Belgium.

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