Those wonderful banquet masterpieces from the Low Countries’ Golden Age have always attracted our gaze with their carefully orchestrated bounty of golden ripe cheeses, oysters, bright red lobsters and the ubiquitous peppercorns twisted up in the faded page of an old almanac; set off against a cornucopia of blushing fruit accented by the sparkling glass flute of finest Moselle wine.
Our eyes and taste buds, in anticipation, are teased in by the graceful curve of a twisted lemon peel; sharp, refreshing, beguiling. Or, perhaps, we are offered instead a humble bread roll, a pickled herring and a frothy glass of beer that speaks to us of other times. Belgians, they proudly boast, live to eat.
Vermeer’s hypnotic Milkmaid or the contrast of a riotous gathering by Jan Steen or perhaps Snyders’s extravagant bounties of game provide a lexicon of potential flavours yet to come. For centuries, one of gastronomy’s best kept secrets has been hiding in the clear light of day, singing out to us from the gallery walls.
In pursuit of the flavours of the Golden Age, we uncover masterpieces of craft from the Michelin 3-star chefs Peter Goosens at Hof van Cleve and Jonnie Boer at De Librije – the tour itself is a series of privileged encounters with passionate providers of utterly exquisite food, from oyster farmers and beer fanatics, to chocolate artisans and cheese makers.
From the feasting of the Burgundian Dukes we move north via the sparkling wines of Zeeland to Utrecht and embark on a glorious feasting journey to Indonesia, courtesy of the legendary VOC East Indies Company. If God made the world, so the saying goes, it was the Dutch who made Holland. And, after tasting some of the Netherlands’ finest cheeses, you finally understand why the Netherlands was transformed into the larder of the world.
Ghent. Depart at c. 1.00pm from London St Pancras by Eurostar for Lille, and drive to Ghent. A walk to visit a producer of mustard and pickles precedes dinner at LOF restaurant, within the hotel. Chef Jasper Maatman’s cooking is inspired by the gastrobar concept. First of four nights in Ghent.
Antwerp. In Antwerp, the great port on the Scheldt has an abundance of historic buildings including the house and studio Rubens built for himself, fascinating and well stocked with good pictures. A visit here before sampling the curated cheeses of the world’s best ‘affineur,’ van Tricht, followed by a tasting of the rarest air-dried beef. Return to Ghent for some free time and perhaps a visit to the Museum of Fine Arts.
Ghent, Watou, Vleteren. Visit Ghent cathedral to see the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb polyptych by Hubert and Jan van Eyck, one of the greatest masterpieces of Netherlandish painting. Continue to the charming village of Watou for lunch in the heart of the Belgian hop fields. In the shadow of Ypres, a group of friends age golden beers to perfection in Ardbeg whisky casks or limousin oak barrels that once hosted Châteauneuf du Pape. Upon return to Ghent a tasting of exquisitely refined chocolate.
Bruges, Kruisem. With its canals, melancholic hues and highly picturesque streetscape, Bruges is one of the loveliest cities in northern Europe. The Groeninge Museum has an excellent collection by Flemish masters and the Church of Our Lady is home to Michelangelo’s marvellous marble Madonna and Child. Continue by coach to Belgium’s only 3-Michelin starred restaurant, Hof van Cleve, located in a farmhouse in the fields of Flanders. Final night in Ghent.
Yerseke, Dreischor, Utrecht. Drive to a family-run mussel and oyster farm on the shores of the Oosterschelde for a tour and tasting, then visit a nearby winery in the provincial village of Dreischor. Continue to the outskirts of Utrecht and the Rietveld House (1924), a landmark of 20th-century architecture. One of the best-preserved historic cities in the Netherlands, Utrecht features canals flanked by unbroken stretches of Golden Age houses. Dinner is an opportunity to explore some of the Netherland’s best rijstafel (Indonesian rice table). First of three nights in Utrecht.
Rotterdam, Leiden. In Rotterdam’s Delfshaven from where the Pilgrim Fathers set sail we taste lightly cured herring and the freshest of baby brown shrimp. Drive to Leiden and visit the The Museum De Lakenhal, reopened in 2019 after radical refurbishment. An early dinner nearby is a chance to feast on the national dish – hutspot.
Amsterdam. At the Rijksmuseum we feast our eyes and our appetites on Holland’s culinary past. Our visit concentrates on the major works in its unrivalled collection of 17th-century paintings, Rembrandt’s Night Watch and four Vermeers among them. After lunch in the museum restaurant, where chef Joris Bijdendijk celebrates gloriously modest Dutch produce, the afternoon is spent with the mother and daughter team of the mythic van Wees genever distillery.
Lunteren, Zwolle. In homage to the Netherland’s dairy culture we visit the Remeker farm to taste the only 100% grass-fed Jersey herd that produce a quite incredible cheese; complex, creamy, crystals of natural salt, deep and totally profound. Continue to Zwolle for a leisurely final lunch at De Librije, run by husband and wife Jonnie and Thérèse Boer. Jonnie has held his third Michelin star since 2004. Fly from Amsterdam to London Heathrow, arriving c. 9.00pm.
Gijs van Hensbergen
Art historian and author specialising in Spain and the USA. His books include The Sagrada Familia (2017), Gaudí, In the Kitchens of Castile and Guernica and he has published in the Burlington Magazine and Wall Street Journal. He read languages at Utrecht University and Art History at the Courtauld, and undertook postgraduate studies in American art of the 1960s. He has worked in England, the USA and Spain as exhibitions organiser, TV researcher and critic and is a Fellow of the Cañada Blanch Centre for Contemporary Spanish Studies at the LSE. Twitter: @GvanHensbergen | Website: gijsvanhensbergen.com
Price, per person
Two sharing: £4,090 or £3,950 without international travel. Single occupancy: £4,620 or £4,480 without international travel.
Rail travel from London to Lille (standard premier) on Eurostar; flights (economy class) with KLM (Boeing 737-800); travel by private coach for airport transfers and excursions; boat travel as indicated in the itinerary; hotel accommodation; breakfasts, 4 lunches, 3 amplified tastings equivalent to light lunches and 3 dinners with wine, water and coffee; all wine, spirit and food tastings; all admissions; all tips; all taxes; the services of the lecturer and tour manager.
Pillows Grand Hotel Reylof, Ghent: newly renovated 4-star boutique hotel, located in a Louis XIV style townhouse near Ghent’s historic centre. The Grand Hotel Karel V, Utrecht: converted from a 19th-century hospital in a quiet location within the city walls. Rated locally as 5-star. Single rooms are doubles for sole use.
Fish and shellfish are integral to some meals. We suggest this tour would not be appropriate for non-fish/-shellfish eaters.
There is a lot of walking and standing on this tour, and it would not be suitable for anyone who has difficulties with everyday walking or stair-climbing. There is a fair amount of driving, though no journey is longer than 1 hour and 30 minutes. Average coach travel per day: 98 miles.
Between 10 and 22 participants.
Before booking, please refer to the FCDO website to ensure you are happy with the travel advice for the destination(s) you are visiting.