The qualities of inventiveness and craftsmanship, which in the Middle Ages created the magnificent central Gothic cathedral and the ornate guild houses of the Grote Markt, filtered down through the centuries and fed into Antwerp’s nineteenth-century industrial revolution – while latterly it has fuelled the city’s celebrated fashion houses and modern art scene. Along the way this spirit has created products and brands that have survived the vicissitudes of history to become part and parcel of Antwerp’s identity. Antwerp may be a modern, forward-looking city, but it cherishes its heritage and its legacy as well.
Some of this legacy is what it means to be part of Flanders. Up until the second half of the twentieth century, French-speaking Belgium – Brussels and Wallonia in the south – was in the ascendant, dominating Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north through the power and wealth of its heavy industries that grew out of coal and steel. French likewise was used – imposed even – in various contexts in Flanders up until recently; it certainly used to be the language of restaurant kitchens. This has changed as the balance of economic power between Flanders and Wallonia has been reversed, yet vestiges of the history remain. Hence you will still see the French form of “Antwerp”, “Anvers”, in various names including Filet d’Anvers and Elixir d’Anvers.
A long history is the common thread in Antwerp’s classic streekproducten (regional produce). This is also attached to a remarkable stability over time: several of these ‘made in Antwerp’ products have been produced at the same address for decades – so not only are the products themselves historic and remarkable, so too are the buildings in which they are created.
De Koninck is Antwerp’s most famous brewery, and very much a part of the city’s heritage and identity. It was founded in 1833 as a brewhouse attached to a beergarden; the De Koninck family ran the business until 1919, when they joined forces with the Van de Bogaert family, and the company was still family-run until 2010 when it was bought by Duvel-Moortgat (makers of Duvel beer). They still brew on the same site to the south of the city centre, near the green, leafy Koning Albertpark. In 2015 De Koninck opened a hi-tech visitor centre on the historic site, where you can see the brewing process and sample the wares.
De Koninck is a pale ale made purely from malt with Saaz hops – golden, elegant, smooth and balanced – and 5.2% alcohol by volume. The beer is meant to be drunk in a chalice-like glass called a bolleke, and is best sampled in a traditional pub like the Café Den Engel in the Grote Markt (surrounded by historic drinking memorabilia). Here you can also try De Koninck’s two other beers, Triple d’Anvers (8% ABV) and the blond Wild Jo (5.8%), which is fermented with wild yeast.
These hard, coffee-flavoured toffees are made by Confiserie Roodthooft, a family company established by Louis Roodthooft and Johanna Stoops in 1925, with a factory southeast of the city centre. The striking building was designed by pupils of Victor Horta, the great Art Nouveau maestro, in a mixture of Art Nouveau and Art Deco style – as witnessed in the intricate, interwoven ironwork garage gates. The factory is still there, still producing Mokatines and other toffees and sweets, now under the direction of Patrick and Jean-Jacques Stoops, great-nephews of Louis Roodthooft.
Confiserie Roodthooft has been making Caramella Mokatines since 1934 – always to the same secret recipe. Mokatines have always been distinguished by their wrapper, which features a Bedouin man in a striped cloak, which gave the sweets their colloquial name Arabierkes. The name Mokatines, of course, relates to mocha coffee, originally from Mocha in Yemen. The sweets and toffees are now produced in seven flavours besides Mokatine: butter, chocolate, chocomint, ‘Pickrich’ (liquorice and mint toffees) and so on, and are available from supermarkets, confectioners and tourist shops throughout the city.
This delicious yellow liqueur – in its distinctive octagonal bottle with bright yellow label – is made to a recipe devised in 1863 by an apothecary and doctor called François-Xavier de Beukelaer. Made from a base of 32 plants and herbs, it quickly gained a reputation as an effective digestive, and was soon being exported around the world. Elixir d’Anvers is still a family business, and since 1894 has operated from one of the oldest distilleries in Belgium, an elegant brick factory just south of the city centre.
The concoction is still made to the original recipe: the 32 plants and herbs are macerated, then distilled and left to mature in oak casks, a process that takes about five months (resulting in a liqueur weighing in at 36.9% alcohol by volume). Today it is served as both a digestive and an aperitif, or used in cocktails – for example the Elixir d’Anvers Old Fashioned, with lemon juice, Angostura bitters and lemon zest on ice; and the Elixir d’Anvers Wallbanger, with vodka and orange juice on ice. Elixir d’Anvers can also be used as a flavouring in cooking, the company’s website gives several examples of how it can be added not only to desserts, but also to pâté, scallops, mussels and fish soup.
Filet d’Anvers is a form of charcuterie made from beef that has been seasoned with salt, dried and then smoked over scented woods – perhaps beech or pine – and herbs such as juniper berries, to give it a distinctive nutty flavour. The cut of meat is silverside (from the hindquarter). Sliced wafer thin, it is typically used in an open broodje (openfaced sandwich), often with a layer of cream cheese. It benefits from a touch of sweetness, so a more elaborate open broodje might include onion chutney or caramelised pears.
Filet d’Anvers can also be fried until crisp and served with vegetables such as asparagus. The tradition of making filet d’Anvers dates back hundreds of years: it owes it origins to the need to preserve meat and the desire to maintain good flavour. In the past it was often made with horsemeat. It is now produced by specialists all over Belgium, including those in the forested areas of the Ardennes in Wallonia. But it is still also made in and around Antwerp.
For instance the Michielssen family from Schoten, near Antwerp, have been producing filet d’Anvers since the 1970s. Their facilities are now ultra-modern, but they still respect the essential traditions. Filet d’Anvers is also widely available from butchers and supermarkets across the city, while the tradition of using horsemeat has not entirely vanished. A company called Equinox, in Wijnegem (just to the east of Antwerp) proudly produces gerookt paardenvlees (smoked horsemeat) in various forms in the filet d’Anvers style.