The names of many of the streets and squares in central Antwerp evoke a busy commercial past, thriving on the concentrated energies of specialist trades: Schoenmarkt (shoe market), Handschoenmarkt (glove market), Lijnwaadmarkt (linen market), Koornmarkt (grain market), Eiermarkt (egg market), Melkmarkt (milk market) and the Grote Markt (main market). Few still host markets of any kind, but the tradition lives on elsewhere with specialist and general street markets almost every day of the week, selling clothes, flowers, books, antiques and, of course, food.
Napoleon supposedly referred to Britain as a “nation of shopkeepers”. He might equally have applied the same label to Belgium, which has a vibrant trading culture – and nowhere is this more apparent than in the markets of Antwerp. This is where visitors can see what they might call ‘the real Belgium’; where you can take in another side of the country that is not always visible from the kind of cultural attractions that tourists usually haunt. Great pride is taken in presentation and the markets are lively and full of quick-witted banter, still echoing with traditional traders’ cries.
Each year the Sunday market in Antwerp awards the title of Koning (or Koningin) van de Vogelenmarkt (king or queen of the Vogelenmarkt), to the stallholder deemed by a jury to have the best presentation, patter and rapport with customers. If a stallholder is elected three times he or she becomes Keizer (or Keizerin) van de Vogelenmarkt (emperor or empress) – like Napoleon himself.
Born in Antwerp in about 1533, the painter Joachim Beuckelaer is famous for his remarkably detailed market and kitchen scenes, which are almost photographic in their composition – an astonishing feat for the time. De Groentenmarkt (The Vegetable Market) was painted in 1567, and it features about 30 different fruits, vegetables and nuts including cabbages, cauliflower, artichokes, marrows, grapes, blackberries, pears, apples, hazelnuts and walnuts. Spilling out of baskets, this produce is as central to the painting as the five men and women who make up the energetic market scene. Beuckelaer was known to weave symbolism into his art, and fertility must be a theme here (and possibly immorality).
He also painted graphic pictures of meat and fish markets, a skill he no doubt developed while studying under his uncle, Amsterdam-born Pieter Aertsen (1508–75), who painted similarly elaborate market scenes. De Groentenmark now hangs in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp, one of the great art collections of Belgium – Antwerp is, after all, the city of Baroque painters Rubens, Jordaens and Van Dyck, among others. (Unfortunately, the museum is currently closed for renovation, due for completion at the end of 2018).
On Saturday and Sunday two of the city’s best markets take place in and around Oudevaartplaats and Theaterplein, an adjoining street and spacious square just south of the city’s principal shopping street, the Meir, and notable for the large and high canopy that fronts the modern municipal theatre, the Stadsschouwburg. The ‘Exotic Market’ on Saturday, lasting from 8am to 4pm, is of greatest interest to food lovers. All kinds of traders turn up to sell their goods: Italian, Greek and Spanish cheeses and other specialities, nuts and dried fruits and so on. There are also local producers selling cheese, bread and pastries, meat products such as blood sausage, plus seasonal fruit and vegetables and fresh fish. Vans and stands offer a wide variety of street food including Vietnamese spring rolls, Moroccan pancakes and Thai dishes. Look out too for classic Belgian equivalents: frietjes (chips), kroketten (cheese and shrimp croquettes) – and, of course, waffles.
The Sunday Vogeltjesmarkt (or Vogelenmarkt) runs from 8am to 1pm and is a much bigger general market. It takes its name from the old bird market (“vogeltjes” means “little birds”), which moved here from the Meir in 1912. For centuries birds intended for table or cage were sold at the Vogeltjesmarkt: ducks, geese, chickens, pigeons, partridges, snipe, herons and songbirds. You will still find live chickens and budgerigars here, but now most stalls sell clothes, toys, leather goods, electronic gadgets, antiques and curios, and there are plenty of food stalls and street vendors here too, outnumbered today but still whetting the appetite with local and exotic colours, aromas and flavours.
Waffles are classic Belgian street food, associated with markets and fairs and the seaside. They are also a festive treat and most Belgian families have a waffle iron (or modern non-stick electrical equivalent). Waffles are such a simple pleasure: a batter of flour, milk, eggs, yeast, butter and sugar, toasted until crispy brown then dusted with icing sugar. It seems impossible to eat a waffle without getting a dusting of sugar snow on your clothes, which is all part of the fun. Aficionados will tell you that there are two main kinds of waffles in Belgium: Brussels waffles and Liège waffles.
The primary difference is that the latter are harder and have crystals of sugar embedded in them. Brussels waffles are lighter, softer and are often eaten with Chantilly cream and a topping of fruit or chocolate. But, in fact, every cook has their own recipe. If you can’t get a waffle at the weekend markets in Antwerp, go to celebrated tearoom Désiré de Lille, which specialises in waffles and pancakes and all sorts of sweet goodies. Maintaining the street-food tradition, Désiré de Lille also sets up a huge stand at the Sinksenfoor, Antwerp’s great summer funfair, which lasts from late May to mid-July.
Each year a lively Christmas market takes place in central Antwerp, lasting from 5 December (the day before the Feast of St Nicholas) to the first Sunday in January. It stretches between the Grote Markt through the Handschoenmarkt and to the Groenplaats, against a backdrop of some of Antwerp’s most spectacular historic Pop-up bars offer warming glasses of Glühwein (mulled wine) or schooners of Belgian jenever, which is called “Dutch gin” in English but is also made in Belgium, notably in Hasselt in East Flanders. Unlike gin, jenever is designed to be had neat. While it is now produced in any number of premixed flavours including lemon, chocolate, cinnamon and liquorice, the straight stuff, with its subtle flavour and purity, provides a warming rebuff to the winter chill.