An innovative campaign that aims to highlight the work being done at the Belgian coast to promote sustainability and the local restaurant trade is about to be relaunched.
Called “Sea of Flavours”, the initiative involves a group of restaurateurs, all based at the coast, who want to do their bit to ensure that fishing stocks remain as healthy as the seafood they serve in their establishments.
It follows on from the campaign, first launched last year, about North Sea gastronomy and where to enjoy it.
Several restaurants have been selected to participate. All are local chefs, using only fresh North Sea products to prepare some delicious dishes.
After probably the worst crisis to ever hit the horeca trade (caused by the coronavirus pandemic), the campaign will resume from the end of September, stretching all the way along Belgium’s coast, from west to east.
Frank Vansteeland, the official at Westtoer, the Bruges-based tourist authority who is responsible for the Sea of Flavours campaign, said, “At the Belgian coast we believe great food is a given. Nowhere else do you get to eat fish as fresh and prepared with such passion for the product and nowhere else is there such a direct and short link between sea and plate.”
The participating chefs rightfully extol the riches of the North Sea or, as one puts it, “Why put tuna or scampi on the menu while we can just as easily serve plaice, skate, cod, sole and shrimp, all caught nearby?”
The chefs take great pride in working with what local fishermen catch but also work with the so-called “bycatch” that often contains lesser known and (wrongfully) unloved fish. Bycatch are fish that are netted by ships by accident when other types of fish have been caught. A large proportion of bycatch is thrown back into the sea or turned into fishmeal because there is no market for those species.
As Frank says, “As a consumer you want to know where the food you eat comes from. That also applies to fish. By buying fish that has been caught by local fishermen you can be sure that you get to eat a pure product that was sustainably caught. The daily supply of fresh fish means that you end up with a product that is always fresh.”
He adds, “With the Sea Flavours campaign, we want to promote the local fish, from ‘boat to dish’. We want to support the local fishermen, the wholesale and retail sale of the local fishing trade and, of course, the chefs who work with local seasonal fish.”
Among the North Sea chefs taking part are 28-year-old Antoine Rabaut, of Feu d’or, on Albert I Laan in Nieuwpoort; Antwerp-born Dirk Crauwels, of Seasons, located on Manitobaplein in Blankenberge and Christophe Snauwaert, of Toi Moi et la Mer, situated on Ostende’s promenade who is well known for his ‘catch of the day’.
Each is keenly promoting the best of Belgium’s gastronomic traditions from, respectively, restaurants based in various parts of the country’s coastline.
Antoine, who comes from nearby Diksmuide (famous for its WW1 links), was just 22 when he took over Feu d’or six years ago. He totally transformed the restaurant into the tastefully furnished place it is today and “100 percent” backs the campaign, saying, “It’s a great idea and I am happy to be involved.”
His menu is regularly tweaked to ensure it reflects the rich variety of seafood available on his doorstep.
Antoine was trained at Hotelschool Ter Duinen in Koksijde and started his own business in 2013 with Newport Foodies. It isn’t just the local fishing industry and seafood that he’s promoting but other products and other producers such as those behind the lovely regional beers he serves.
The one cloud on the horizon is the ongoing health pandemic which, he says, is taking a heavy toll on the horeca trade generally but, having adapted, he remains quietly confident of coming through the crisis.
A few kilometres up the coast is Dirk Crauwels, who used to run a 180-seat restaurant in Antwerp but has owned the much smaller Seasons (it seats a maximum of 16 inside with a small outside terrace) for the past nine years.
As he points out, everything here (as at all the participating restos) is fresh including a customer favourite: prawns served in a mouth-watering sweet chilli sauce made from a secret recipe. In Dirk’s case, this also includes the meat, including the particularly popular lamb that is sourced from a butcher about 50 metres away.
Dirk, who has a couple of menus, a fixed option and one that changes every month, recalls the “very hard times” in the first two years after opening. “It’s then that you really have to prove yourself,” he says.
He praises Westtoer for their support and help with the campaign, stating, “They put a lot of effort into it and do some great work. This is particularly vital at such a precarious time for our trade.”
Like his coastal chef colleagues, Dirk likes to source his fish directly from local fishermen so as to ensure that he gets the freshest and purest. He insists that there is nowhere where the “chain between catch and kitchen” is as short as at the Belgian coast.
A third participant, Christophe Snauwaert, took over his restaurant, Toi Moi et la Mer, from his mother Mathy 13 years ago and has not looked back since.The 60-seat restaurant is located close to the city’s famous casino and, appropriately, directly overlooks the North Sea.
His passion for sustainability and promoting the coast extends to displaying a notice on the wall that warns of the dangers of plastics overuse and urges customers to “keep the beach clean”.
Having built up the business, Mathy handed over the reins to her son, now aged 47, who shares her interest in selling the merits of the wonderful range and quality of various kinds of seafood available on the Belgian coast.
This is reflected on the menu here, 90 percent of which unashamedly comprises fish dishes.
Christophe says, “I am not interested in serving scampi or salmon – only locally caught fish will do for me.”
He hopes the campaign will now inspire people in the rest of the country, not just those living at the coast or second home owners, to discover the Belgian coast’s “delectable DNA in all its simplicity and glory.”
Those sentiments are echoed by Frank, his colleagues at Westtoer, who, along with Dirk, Antoine and Christophe and other participating chefs, are all highly enthusiastic about the Sea Flavours initiative. They hope it will help boost trade and, just as important, better inform the wider public about the excellent work taking place at the coast to promote the wonders of the sea.
“We must learn to eat what fishermen catch,” notes Frank, adding, “The fishing for fish we want to eat and the dumping of the rest has to stop.”
One of the chefs involved in the campaign puts it particularly well, saying, “I don’t have a favourite fish, as long as it’s fresh and comes from the North Sea.”
The full list of participating restaurants are:
De Panne: Armalot, la Coupole
Koksijde-Oostduinkerke: Julia, Oh Restaurant, Willem Hiele, 8chef, Mondieu, Estaminet De Peerdevisscher
Nieuwpoort: De Wasserette, La Muse, MBistro, Feu d’Or
Oostende: STORM, Mange-Tout, le Bassin, Mathilda, Toi Moi et la Mer
Bredene: le Homard et la Moule, Lautrec
De Haan: Villa De Torre, Markt XI, de Kruidenmolen
Blankenberge: Seasons, Oosterstaketsel
Zeebrugge: Tijdok, Njord, ‘t Werftje
Knokke-Heist: Old Fisher, Brasserie Rubens