While Belgian chocolatiers hog the limelight, bakers are the country’s unsung heroes. In their modest, unflashy way they craft fabulous – albeit understated –treats. Those in the know will be just as enthusiastic about buying a box of good Belgian biscuits as a box of chocolates to take home, and in Antwerp queues will regularly form outside the leading bakeries and biscuit makers.
With outstanding cakes and tarts being produced all across Belgium, competition is fierce and pastries are therefore sold at remarkably keen prices. It is not surprising, then, that the bread is also very good, ranging from French-style baguettes to dark and heavy rye breads, plus everything in between. More surprising perhaps are the high-quality biscuits. Many of these are quite plain and dry, sablé biscuits, for instance, and rely for their effect on the subtle flavour of the ingredients and the texture achieved when baking.
Some measure of the range of biscuits available (if in non-artisanal form) can be glimpsed by looking at the excellent ones produced by the commercial company Jules Destrooper, of Lo-Reninge in West Flanders: sablés, butter crisps, almond thins, dentelles, florentines, butter galettes and waffles and so on. Jules Destrooper biscuits are sold in supermarkets, while the biscuits sold by specialist shops in Antwerp are treated as much more precious commodities, sold by weight, like chocolates (or gold). Accordingly these shops are often beautifully and enticingly presented: places of pilgrimage and wonder.
In the centre of the Grote Markt stands a fountain statue depicting the legend of a mythical Roman soldier who freed Antwerp’s inhabitants from Flemish folkloric giant Druon Antigoon. Demanding a toll from anyone who wanted to cross the bridge to reach Antwerp, if refused the giant would cut off one of the traveller’s hands and throw it into the river.
That was before a young soldier, Silvius Brabo, came along and defeated Antigoon in combat, and to avenge the giant’s victims he cut off Antigoon’s hand and threw it into the river, thus liberating the city. This is the fantastical origin of the name Antwerp, which literally means, “Hand throwing”.
A hand is one of the symbols of the city, and is seen on its official crest. Biscuits have been made in the form of little hands (handjes) in Antwerp since 1934; typically, they are made of butter-rich shortbread with almonds. Handjes are patent-protected: only members of the syndicate of bread, pâtisserie, chocolate and ice-cream makers can produce them. Since 1971 handjes have been made in chocolate as well, and you can buy Antwerpse handjes in both biscuit and chocolate form from a number of pâtissier-chocolatiers, for example at Château Blanc by the cathedral.
It’s easy enough to spot Bakkerij Goossens as you walk down Korte Gasthuisstraat, close to the city centre: there is usually a long queue of devoted (and patient) clients waiting at the door – a sure sign of its exceptional quality. This is the oldest bakery in Antwerp, founded in 1884 by Philippe Goossens, now run by the fourth generation of the family.
They make bread, biscuits, pastries and cakes – gingerbread, stollen, marble cake, cheesecake, éclairs and much, much more – all produced using time-honoured techniques, and they are particularly famous for their roggeverdommeke: rye bread with raisins. When you finally get in, you’ll notice that Bakkerij Goossens is a small and reassuringly old-fashioned shop. It retains some features dating back to its origins, but a refurbishment in 1930 added a bit of grandeur; the lettering on the black marble slab over the door on the façade also dates from that time.
Little has changed since (except the refrigeration units). (Note that Chocolatier Goossens, founded by Réne Goossens in 1955, is another enterprise entirely – but equally as celebrated.)
Just down the street from Bakkerij Goossens is another famous bakery, celebrated in particular for its speculoos (hard, cinnamon-flavoured shortcrust biscuits) and almond thins, as well as its Antwerpse handjes – and its inventive and topical window displays made of huge biscuits. Philip’s Biscuits is often compared to Maison Dandoy in Brussels, a distinguished manufacturer of high-quality biscuits.
But whereas Dandoy was founded in 1829, Philip’s Biscuits is a comparatively new kid on the block, established as it was in 1995 by baker Philip De Corte. Be prepared to wait: queues can be long – but meanwhile you can taste the biscuits from samples invitingly presented in dishes on the sales counter. You will also have time to admire the elegance of the shop; it is like taking a step back in time as you take in the delicate spiced aromas and the traditional wooden speculoos moulds that decorate the walls. Speculoos are a typical product of Belgium (and indeed the Netherlands).
Although available all year round, they are particularly associated with Christmas, and bakers will produce biscuits in the shape of Saint Nicholas (or Sinterklaas, the precursor to Santa Claus) to mark the beginning of the Christmas holidays. Philip’s Biscuits likewise step up to the season with speculoos in the form of Sinterklaas and plenty other Christmas symbols large and small – trees, angels and so on.
Close to Antwerp Zoo, the magnificent, architecturally eclectic Centraal Station and the Diamond District – where 80% of the world’s uncut diamonds are traded – you’ll find the celebrated Jewish bakery and confectioner Kleinblatt. This family firm was established in Krakow, Poland, in 1903, but moved to Antwerp in the early 1920s. Hirsch Kleinblatt, son of the founder, and his wife Regina set up the Antwerp outpost, while his two brothers worked in the diamond trade before the 1929 crash, then switched to baking and in 1931 they moved to their current address.
By the Second World War the family were scattered, but some of the survivors returned to re-establish the bakery, and it is still run by members of the extended Kleinblatt family. Today, Banketbakkerij Kleinblatt is noted for its bread, biscuits, cakes, tarts, pralines (filled chocolates), ice cream, sorbets and fresh pasta – all strictly kosher, and all prepared on the premises. The bread includes Eastern European rye breads, bagels and plaited challah for festivals. They make sachertorte and New York-style cheesecake, and all kinds of traditional festive cakes and pastries in line with the Jewish calendar. In spring, queues form for their eagerly awaited blueberry buns – a community favourite that is also sought out by many visitors from around the world.