Friday, January 30, 2015

In Search Of Mustard In Ghent

Mayonnaise or mustard? For me, unless it is with frites, or French fries (an oh so tasty but not so good for you habit I've developed since moving to Belgium), the answer is always mustard. But of course not just any mustard will do. French's mustard, the standard bearer that is synonymous with mustards in the United States, will never cut it for me. Now give me a smooth and tangy Dijon or a rustic mustard filled with tiny seeds that pop when you bite into it and I'm a happy camper. Actually, with the exception of the afore mentioned French's, there are few mustards I've tried and not liked and I'm always open to trying a new version. So when I heard about a little mustard shop in the Belgian town of Ghent I knew I had to check it out. After all, two of my favorite food and travel resources-- the New York Times and AFAR magazine -- have all written and raved about the mustard. I did and now not only do I know what all the hype is about, I can say I am a fan.

The Tierenteyn's have been making their mustard in Flanders since 1790 and today the tiny Tierenteyn Mustard shop is centrally located on Ghent's Groentenmarkt. Two Tierenteyn brothers started producing the mustard and a popular story has Napoleon and his soldiers discussing its virtues. Who knows if this is fact or urban legend but the mustard's popularity has transcended centuries with the secret recipe has since been passed down from one generation to the next. Made of dark mustard seeds as opposed to the light ones found in Dijon mustard, the seeds were originally hand ground, making the cost of the mustard accessible only to the wealthy residents of Ghent. Today the process is automated but the resulting product is just as delicious and coveted by mustard lovers from all walks of life.

Walking in the door of Tierenteyn is like stepping back in time and reminded me of visiting an old fashioned pharmacy. The mustard "factory" is located in the basement of the building with the small shop above it at street level. As I discovered it can quickly become crowded when a hoard of mustard seeking tourists descends. Floor to ceiling shelves are lined with blue and white crocks of various sizes. You can select the size you want and a friendly shop clerk will fill it with mustard. Or you can opt for a plain glass jar with a screw top but splurge on the crock since it is just so pretty and really adds to the experience.

So what does the mustard taste like? The mustard is smooth and golden but unlike most American style mustards it is tangy and hot; almost biting if you are too eager in your first taste. My initial reaction was that it had the heat of a good Chinese mustard or even included horseradish (which it doesn't). It isn't quite Dijon but it is close; Colman's mustard is similar but again, not quite the same. For me, this is what makes Tierenteyn mustard unique and oh-so good; I've never had anything quite like it. I've slathered it on sandwiches, added it to homemade salad dressings and even used it as a marinade for meat. Any way I use it I love it.

Made without added preservatives it doesn't have a long shelf life but will reportedly keep in the refrigerator for about two months. They don't ship and the only place to buy it is at their shop. So if you're in Ghent stop in with cash in hand (they don't accept credit cards) and try some for yourself. As I've almost finished with my crock I know I'll be heading back soon. After all, I need to get my fill while I'm in Belgium since that's a long trip from the U.S. to buy mustard.

If you go:

Tierenteyn Mustard Shop
Groentenmarkt 3
Ghent, Belgium
 +32 92 25 83 36

Open Monday-Friday 0830-1800; Saturday 0900-1230 & 1300-1800
Cash only; no credit cards accepted

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Mons 2015: This Year's European Capital of Culture

In yesterday's blog post I shared pictures from this past weekend's opening event for Mons 2015. Today I'm going to explain what Mons 2015 is and some of the things I have to look forward to in the coming year. (Again I keep telling myself that it is just so cool that I have all of these great events taking place literally blocks from my house!).

So what is a European Capital of Culture? Simply put, it is a cultural initiative within the European Union that annually showcases the cultural heritage of selected cities.

Since 1985, the EU Council of Ministers has been selecting between one and five European cities to carry the title for a one year time period. The first city to carry this designation was Athens, Greece and since then cities large and small, capitals and provincial outposts throughout Europe have worn this designation with pride. This designation has been used as a tool for urban renewal, job creation and economic growth as well as an opportunity to highlight the sometimes neglected artistic and cultural aspects of a community. In a 2004 study the European Commission found that being selected as a European Capital of Culture has created longterm transformation for chosen cities. Simply put, this designation is a big deal. And that brings us back to Mons.

Yes, Mons. This little city is the southwestern part of Belgium, often overlooked and neglected is a 2015 European Capital of Culture. (Mons shares this year's title with Plzen, Czech Repubic). I had known about this designation when we first moved here a year ago. At the time people were referencing it but the details were vague. We heard that the year would be filled with activities but that was all we really knew. A new train station was being built in anticipation of all of the visitors who would be descending. We've been watching the construction's progress, or lack there of, over the past year and wondered if the station would really be completed in time. (It turns out our doubts were founded with the projected completion date now being the "end of 2015"). A large wooden piece of public art by Belgian artist Arne Quinze went up...and then came down. As residents of the city center a month ago we received a notification informing us of street closures, residential parking bans and driving restrictions within the city. I began to wonder if this designation was going to be more of an inconvenience for us than anything else.

But then, Mons 2015 officially opened. As the weekend approached the streets looked cleaner and more litter free than usual. Barriers and no parking signs were placed on corners and intersections. Roads began to be closed. In anticipation of the parking and driving ban we made plans to hunker down for the weekend and enjoy the festivities by foot. (Again, this is the great thing about living right in the center of the city). The theme for the opening festivities was "Illumination". As in lights. And sure enough, after a snowy then rainy morning the weather cleared up and illuminated art displays filled the city's squares, parks and open spaces. I'll admit the silver foil ponchos that were handed out to make the audience a part of a "living mirror ball" were a bit weird and perhaps I didn't see enough of them to truly appreciate their intended effect. But the larger than life, multi-colored sculptures that filled the Belfry park were spectacular. (We can see the belfry from our house and have been watching its changing color displays for weeks but it was great to finally be able to see it up close). Then there was the fantastic fireworks display that we could actually view from the second story of our house. But our favorite exhibit of all was the one involving fire. Located in Place du Parc, impressive displays involving fire and water filled the streets and green spaces. There were the giant flame filled balls that were suspended from a crane, candle lit arches over all of the park's walkways, giant fire pits that served as both warming stops and art and artists playing with fire and flames. A band performed under and flame filled stage. It really was a spectacular sight to behold.

I'm not sure what I expected to see but I must say I was impressed by all of the evening's events. Sure the crowds (not as bad as I had anticipated) and blocked streets were an inconvenience but it was all worth it. I've always loved the way Europe embraces public art, both the traditional and envelope pushing displays, and the Illumination event highlighted the best of public art. I'm now excited to see what the rest of this year of culture holds in store. And apparently others feel the same way. CNN's travel section named Mons as one of the top ten destinations to visit in 2015 and Britain's The Guardian has been covering this year's activities in Mons. If the media hype is to believed, the crowds are going to come. Am I ready? Yes. I can't wait. It really is a great time to be here in Belgium.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Mons 2015: Illumination

This year Mons is a European Capital of Culture. Here are a few pictures of the opening festivities of Mons 2015. The theme was "Illumination".

Friday, January 9, 2015

Counting My Blessings

If you asked me to sum up this week I'd say that it has been blah. For the past few days I've felt as thought I've been walking around in a fog that no amount of caffeine can jolt me out of. After the hubbub of the holidays its been back to normal around here (whatever that is). It is the first week back to work and school after a long break and it has simply dragged. I've been struggling to find the motivation to do everything from go to the gym and grocery shop to put away the rest of Christmas and simply get organized. I've been in a writing funk and been unable to really sit down and put a complete thought to paper. There have been lots of partial ones but not much else. Of course the weather hasn't been helping. We've experienced a few blinding glimpses of sun but it has been mostly rainy, gray and windy in these parts. I affectionately call it "Belgian weather" but I'm over it now.

And then there has the been the news. After weeks of not really keeping up with current events I've been inundated with horrifying and heart wrenching news. Yet another plane crash with over one hundred still unaccounted passengers makes me realize that life can literally change in an instant. This week's terrorist attack in Paris that killed twelve people who were doing their jobs has simply made me sick to my stomach. Add in a shooting at a Veteran's clinic in Texas, lethal bone chilling temperatures over much of the East Coast of America and the seemingly endless suicide bombings in Afghanistan, Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries and it is all enough to make even the happiest person feel depressed. I mean, what is our world coming to when tragedy and violence are becoming the hallmark of how we live?

But all of this news does put my own complaints in perspective. The long week? The weekend is now upon us and as bad as the week has seemed I am grateful that my family and friends are all safe, healthy and well....alive. The packing and getting organized? It will all happen in good time--perhaps even this weekend. The weather? It may be unpleasant but its nothing a good raincoat and pair of boots can't handle. After all, this is Belgian weather and if I let it stop me from getting out I would never be able to leave the house. And the writer's block? Perhaps this little piece has helped me break through it. If nothing else, writing this has gotten me thinking and made me realize that in this increasingly scary world, I have a lot to be thankful for.