The Flemish Primitives, Bruges

During the fifteenth century, Bruges was an affluent centre of culture and sophistication. Residence to the dukes of Burgundy, a major trading hub, home to the Order of the Golden Fleece and the focus of Italian banking in the North, the town was plump with prosperous patrons looking to indulge their artistic impulses (and to show such fancies off). Attracted by this – as well as the city’s cosmopolitan charm – artists from across the area collected here.

Coincident with the start of the Renaissance further south, this migration spawned an independent creative movement characterised by realism, empirical perceptions and the physical illustration of man as opposed to one inspired by older art and concentrating on ideal beauty and perfection. Early Netherlandish, late Gothic, Ars nova…it took society three hundred years to settle on an apt title for these men: Flemish Primitives.

This term, symbolising the start of something new whilst associated with a community celebrated for their nostalgia for the pure and spiritual, technical innovation and highly skilled practice, was thus an ideal and essential choice of name by the Flanders Taste Foundation (FTF), for an annual event, held in Bruges, to foster and further Belgian gastronomy.

The occasion for this year – only the second meeting of its sort – was 8th February at the Concertgebouw Brugge. Seventeen so-styled primitives – regional chefs with seventeen Michelin stars amongst them – along with guest-chefs (holding fifteen more), scientists, farmers and food experts gathered for one day.

Last year, the theme had been food pairing; this year, it was technology. Each chef had been encouraged to work with a university or company in order to uncover something brand new and original. Although this was a fairly tall order, five world premieres were promised.

For a few, the event actually began the night before. Guests were invited to a reception by the FTF, where, Peter Montbailleu, head of the organisation and Bernard Lahousse, the event manager, each offered their welcome and set out their hopes for the next day. Accompanying their speeches were experimental cocktails and specially-prepared snacks from some of the primitives themselves.

Afterwards, chefs joined visitors for dinner at the Concertgebouw. Although arranged by Peter Goossens (of 3* Hof van Cleve) and Sergio Herman (of 3* Oud Sluis), what ensued was a very traditional Belgian meal: croquettes aux crevettes grises, anguille au vert and dame blanche – prepared at the table.

On Monday morning, the concert hall was packed with over 1,200 eager spectators. The principal action would unfold on stage, but there were several breakout sessions on throughout the day hosted by the likes of Chris Loss (Culinary Institute of America), Alok B. Nandi as well as various Belgian universities.

As if to set the tempo and mood, the show started with a lively performance by a troupe of acrobatic entertainers dressed as chefs; instead of rings, pins and juggling balls, they used knives, leeks and raw mackerel.

Succeeding short speeches from Peter and Bernard, Peter Goossens was invited to introduce the event. Although not a primitive himself, the respect for this special guest – considered by many to be the godfather of Belgian gastronomy –was patent.

Immediately, it was the first of the five world-firsts: working with ultra high pressure. On a trip to Tokyo, Japan and the Hattori Nutrition College in Shibuya, a small group of chefs originally tasted the potential of using intense pressure on seafood when offered sardines prepared under one-thousand bars of pressure. They were so impressed that, upon their return, they sought the advice of Bernard who introduced them to Stefan Töpfl at the German Institute of Food Technologies. The results of this collaboration were detailed and demonstrated here by Filip Claeys (De Jonkman) and Rudi Van Beylen (Hof ten Damme). They asserted that although pressurisation was already common as a means of preservation, by using a much higher level of pressure than ever before, the texture and flavour of ingredients could be changed – without any cooking. By placing shellfish in vacuum-pouches with cold water, then exposing them to six-thousand bars of pressure – such as would be felt sixty-kilometres below sea level (in actuality, an impossible depth) – ‘cold pasteurisation’ was possible.

Samples of mussels, clams and cockles were circulated as evidence. Fat, succulent, very flavoursome, if rather salty, the effects were more convincing than expected. More surprising than anything else however was that these were a week old: fished seven-days ago and uncooked – yet still absolutely edible. Although only currently feasible on an industrial-scale, promising applications already include inculcating ingredients with specific flavours such as oysters with champagne (by using solutions/liquids other than water within the vacuum-pouches); and the ability to amplify the natural sweetness of fruit.

Sang-Hoon Degeimbre took to the stage and returned to his roots with kimchi. In Korea, this is a very traditional staple dish composed of seasoned pickled vegetables – the most common being cabbage. As with sauerkraut, sourdough, miso and yoghurt, fermentation is essential in its making. To explore this further, Sang turned to Xavier Nicolai from the Meurice Institute in Brussels. Their cooperation led to the use of lactic acid fermentation instead of traditional vinegars. They found that by keeping vegetables together with a lactic starter in a vacuum for one week at room temperature, adding a yeast autolysate and finally clarifying the mixture in a centrifuge, they were left with desirable acidity minus the harshness of vinegar; more so, their texture and colour were also improved.

The Roca Brothers from Girona were arguably one of the day’s biggest (three-)star attractions. Joan, Jordi and Josep were accompanied by Héloïse Vilaseca of the Alícia Foundation. Whilst she discussed distillation with Rotaval 2 and the various applications of this new prototype, los Hermanos Roca each spoke at length on new dishes, desserts and alcohol pairings respectively. Perhaps the most memorable topic was Jordi’s. Taking such household perfumes as Eternity by Calvin Klein and Trésor by Lancôme, he declared that by deconstructing these fragrances into their base scents, he was able to translate them into desserts. ‘Perfume has so many edible ingredients – flowers, herbs, spices, so the food connection is natural,’ expounded the young pastry chef.

Then, after cooking sous vide was put under the magnifying glass by Yves Mattagne (Sea Grill), Wout Bru (Chez Bru) and Bruno Goussault of the CREA Institute, Dries Robberechts from the University of Gent (UGent) appeared. He introduced ‘the ten commandments for the Belgian gastronomy of the future’. These comprised a set of guidelines, formed by and to be followed by, the primitives. The ten points are repeated below:

  1. Local ingredients. Work with regional products.
  2. High-quality ingredients. Work with products of the best quality available preferably in Belgium. Work with seasonal products in the right season.
  3. Producer orientation. Chefs have the power to control the quality of the ingredients by making specific choices and demands. Belgian chefs are partly responsible for the motivation of producers to supply the highest quality.
  4. Consumer orientation. Chefs have the power to broaden the palate and to revalue or upgrade specific products by paying attention to forgotten, seasonal and local products, or products with low intrinsic value.
  5. Inventiveness and openness. Be open to new techniques and products. Strive for innovation and improvement.
  6. Inventiveness and cooperation. Strive for intensive cooperation between chefs, the industry and the scientific community. Information exchange is particularly important, also between chefs.
  7. Innovation and tradition. Innovation and tradition are not opposites. Have respect for traditional Belgian cuisine by including this respect or tradition as such in dishes.
  8. Tastiness and well-being. Strive for food which is tasty above all, but also keep in mind to provide a state of well-being during and after the meal.
  9. Moral responsibility. Strive for the use of products that have been produced in an ethical, ecological and sustainable manner.
  10. Multisensorial tastiness. Strive for an optimum and ample stimulation of all senses of the consumer. Create a socially agreeable and exclusive experience.

Last before lunch, Belgian food critic Jean-Pierre Gabriel chaired a panel discussion featuring Peter Goossens, Herman Konings (‘trendwatcher’), Fiona Morrison (Institute of Masters of Wine) and a personal friend, Trine of Very Good Food. They talked of gastronomy, the media – especially new media – and the interaction between the two. By the time the debate had to end, it was clear that Trine stood on one side of the line (obviously in support of social networking) whilst Goossens stood on the other, arguing that it had little effect on diners’ decisions and that chefs themselves were too busy to use the internet in such ways.

Immediately after the break, Sergio Herman (Oud Sluis) entered the auditorium, receiving a rock star’s welcome (it’s all relative). With him he brought another world premiere and his new book. After plugging the latter, he showed everyone the former. Working with KULeuven, a system using microchips had been developed that allowed sauces to be spread across a dish in specific patterns once already at the table.

The Flemish Foodies followed. The theme was Leffe Blonde. Jason Blanckaert (C-Jean) and Olly Ceulenaere (Volta) each played videos of themselves cooking recipes using this beer whilst Manuel Wouters (Sips) made cocktails with it. Kobe Desramaults (In de Wulf) had a VT too, but also went two steps further. First he made another dish live on stage and then brought out one of his suppliers – a local farmer.

Kristof Coppens (A Priori) and KULeuven unveiled the Crycotuv, which they had teamed up to design and build. This new machine enables chefs to freeze and defrost foodstuffs by using liquid nitrogen under a vacuum – an approach that does not damage internal cell structure and therefore does not result in a loss of flavour and colour. The same device also allows for the aromatisation of natural products.

After a joint speech from Alex Talbot (Ideas in Food) and Chris Loss (Culinary Institute of America), Jean-Yves Wilmot (Pâtisserie Wilmot), also working with KULeuven, revealed an edible gel that did not need gelatine or other gelling agents. Instead, it was based on enzymes and the pectins naturally present in fruit.

Throughout these presentations, backstage interviews were conducted with several of the chefs – Sang-Hoon Degeimbre, Filip Claeys, Kobe Desramaults, Bart de Pooter, Rudi van Beylen – and these can be seen at (in French).

The day’s final segment commenced with Vicki Geunes (t’Zilte). He illustrated possible alternate uses of a Nespresso machine including with freeze-dried food. Here he used a capsule of beet juice in place of coffee, producing a beetroot cappuccino with Alpro soymilk, freeze-dried lard, peanut and shellfish.

American guests Harold McGee and Audrey Saunders were accompanied by ‘one of mixology’s global poster boys’ Tony Conigliaro from the UK to discuss and demo various cocktails and the science behind them. The beverage motif continued with the award for Sommelier of Year. Ten candidates – one from each Belgian province – were nominated; the prize went to Pieter Verheyde from Hof van Cleve.

Bart de Pooter talked of his newly redesigned restaurant, De Pastorale, and of how he formulates his dishes and menus before Gert de Mangeleer (Hertog Jan) and Sander Goossens (Hôtel de Charme Les Airelles) came on. They gave a lesson on the interpretation of ingredients; seven products were selected and each of the two chefs made their own course using them. After this pair, Dave De Belder (De Godevaart) and Jonnie Boer (De Librije) were meant to speak on extraction techniques, but as the Dutchman was unable to make it, De Belder spoke on his own.

The penultimate presentation was the final of the five firsts: EmulsionFire. 2009’s Gault Millau Chef of the Year, Roger Van Damme (Het Gebaar), showcased a method that used magnets to make longer-lasting, finer emulsions. The new process, utilising the same machines employed in the cosmetic industry, is significantly quicker and safer than existing techniques and also enables new textures to be tried.

In the same manner that the day began, it ended. Dominique Persoone (the Chocolate Line) and James ‘Jocky’ Petrie (the Fat Duck) delivered a high-energy, high-pace performance to wrap things up. The Willy Wonker-esque Belgian, one of only three chocolate makers featured in the Michelin guide, and the Scottish pastry chef ran the audience through several dramatic displays entailing levitating chocolate disco-balls, bubble machines and an ejaculating cake – like Blumenthal created for his UK-TV mini-series ‘Heston’s Feasts’ last year. After donning waterproof anoraks and sitting through a clip from Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs, the crowd also received a parting gift of two small chocolate truffles.

A lively marching brass band replete with dancers entered the auditorium to see guests out. It followed them into the foyer where some said goodbye, some lingered a little longer whilst others retired upstairs for canapés, drinks and, later, Belgian biscuits…

The event certainly felt a success with spectators and presenters noticeably satisfied to have played their part in this year’s proceedings. If I were to have one minor niggle – and it is not so much a criticism as simply something that I feel could be improved upon – it would be that there were not enough interactive presentations on. Video was the preferred medium throughout the day and, although this was to some extent understandable given that it was impossible and/or impractical to show much of the actual execution of most of the innovative technology described, it would still have been nice to have had more live demos and crowd involvement. Admittedly though, it is a fine an difficult balance for where the Flemish Primitives stand out and stand separate to other similar food events is this strong technical and scientific perspective.

Nevertheless, as a guest, the busy day was engaging and entertaining whilst also very informative – both with respect to the new and novel techniques on show as well as to what Belgian gastronomy is about and where it is going. Some of what impressed most was the sense of togetherness between the chefs. They came across as a close-knit group of individuals all pushing in the same direction. They possessed a firm belief in modern Belgian cuisine and its place in the greater scheme of things; and they were keen to prove the same to everyone else.

Personally, something that occurred to me was that to understand the Belgians better, one ought to first look North – to Copenhagen. The influence and evident effect of noma’s René Redzepi is rising and noticeable nearly everywhere. The new naturalism he has nourished by focusing on his unique terroir – on Nordic ingredients and Nordic cuisine – has made noma arguably the world’s most exciting restaurant. Chefs and food-lovers alike have flocked to the Grønlandske Handels Plads to taste and experience this edible spectacle and the Belgians are no exception. What it seems that many  have returned home with is an aspiration and confidence that they can do what Redzepi has done with their own terroirs.

The Primitives have done a little more than just this though. In addition to finding fresh inspiration in old local traditions, they have also made technical innovation a key detail of their new direction. Bernard emphasis as much: ‘this is the core idea of Flanders Taste Foundation. We want to be the link between chefs, companies and research institutions. We have one goal – to create innovation, keeping in mind the essence of the kitchen, taste.’ Peter continues, ‘it’s amazing to see all these chefs collaborate. The former generation was pretty much closed and on their own. This new generation thrives on cooperation and friendship. That is the strength of this event.’

This amalgamation of approaches enables one to draw further parallels with those early, original Flemish Primitives. Embodying both the mediaeval artistic heritage of northern Europe whilst also a response to Renaissance ideals, their art was labelled both Late Gothic and Early Renaissance before being recognised in its own right. Thus these chefs, drawing on new naturalism as well as more scientific (maybe molecular…) means, have created something of their own. Something Belgian. Something worth noticing.

9 Responses to “The Flemish Primitives, Bruges”

  1. 1 Ben March 25, 2010 at 12:42 am

    Different and fascinating to the point that I don’t know why else to say right now. I’m glad you’re writing again!

    A long period between the event and blogging it.

  2. 3 ChuckEats March 26, 2010 at 4:34 am

    i’m glad to see Alex Talbot (and Aki) being recognized in these circles – their food has a lot to offer in terms of vision & creativity

  3. 4 Trine March 27, 2010 at 4:42 pm

    Great read, Snobby and fab. photos. New cam really shows 😛

  4. 5 Magdalena March 31, 2010 at 11:18 am

    very interesting.
    I will refer to lactic fermentation.
    This is very typical for Eastern and Northern European nations, first of all.
    Natural fermentation and in particular, lactic acid fermentation process, is something which is a part of our culture and our culinary heritage – cabbage, cucumbers, beets, celery roots, and in Russia tomatoes as well. It was the most simple and the cheapest way to have delicious vitamin bombs in a poor society.
    However, adding a yeast is not necessary. People add simply a bit of organic rye bread, all spice, bay leaves, garlic, dill weed, after around a week one can enjoy sour-acid liquids (vegetable juices or starters for soups) or vegetables.
    Sour starters for soups are made also from fermented rye flour or fermented rolled oats.
    Primitive 🙂

  5. 6 Food Snob April 1, 2010 at 11:11 am

    Cheers all for the comments.

    @Magdalena thank you for the additional insight!

  6. 7 Kiren Puri April 3, 2010 at 2:26 pm

    Great article/post. Thanks. K

  7. 8 Cafe Bruges October 18, 2010 at 1:37 pm

    It means, the ‘most beautiful city of Belgium’ and ‘The Venice of the North’ has a tremendous past of rich and sophisticated culture and traditions… Great..

  1. 1 Molecular Gastronomy, Belgian-style « Mouthwatering (Recipes and restaurant reviews) Trackback on March 25, 2010 at 1:08 pm

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