If a delicious meal of local, artisanal products, in a beautiful setting, with 70 new friends sounds like a good idea, make friends with Vrienden van de Smaak in Belgium.
Back in June, I received an intriguing invitation from a friend in Hasselt. “Do you want to have a locavore dinner at a castle in Limburg, with a group of foodies?” Diana obviously knows us well.
When I asked what I should bring, she replied “comfortable shoes, and your plate.”
Of course, I couldn’t resist a little advance research. The event was organised by Vrienden van de Smaak (Friends of Taste or Les Amis du Goût), Diana informed me, and I was curious about the concept.
Simply put, Vrienden van de Smaak is a group that organises meals of local produce, in exceptional locations, with the goal of uniting foodies over great food. (You know this is a concept we can get behind.)
Each meal is catered by a different, adventurous chef, who must prepare the majority of the food on site. And what sites they are… the locations range from secluded forests to farmers’ fields. The location of our meal was definitely one of the highlights of the day.
We hopped in the car and headed west. So far west, in fact, we were almost in the Netherlands, or Germany. We drove through the tiny village of Sint-Pieters-Voeren, with the mission of finding the church. Our only instructions – ‘Park in the lot beside the church and follow the signs. You can’t miss it.’
We parked and found our little group of friends from around Flanders and looked around.
Sure enough, tucked behind the church parking lot, we spotted the tower of an impressive brick building. We grabbed our plates and trudged through the damp field. Through the trees, we found… a bar?
Yes, this was going to be a unique afternoon.
At the bar, we handed over our plates. We wouldn’t see them again until the end of the meal. We were asked to write a little note on the back, giving our best wishes to the diner who would enjoy their meal on it. Then they were added to the colourful stack of dishes and we were handed our cocktails.
Drinks in hand, we continued through the trees to a sprawling garden. It was there we could see the Kasteel De Commanderie in all her splendor.
The castle is privately owned and not regularly open to the public. The owners themselves gave us a tour of the grounds and the little fish farm operating on-site. (Later, we would have the chance to peek inside the imposing building.)
First, the reason we were here, the food. We trooped into the castle’s inner courtyard, where white tents covered a long table, adorned with the colourful plates everyone donated (to be returned at the end of the meal).
We took our seats, introduced ourselves to our dining companions and read the notes on our plates. It was a fantastic icebreaker.
We passed around baskets of soft, nutty bread, fresh from a bakery in nearby Aubel, and drizzled it with walnut oil from the Haspengouw, Limburg’s famous produce region.
Our starter was a tartar of the mackerel farmed here at the Commanderie, accented with a chutney of courgettes and topped with local cream.
Each course was paired with a local beverage. We washed down our starters with a crisp Pinot Blanc from Domein Pietershof, just a few minutes from where we sat. That’s local!
Next up was sea bass ‘en papillote’ opened tableside with a flourish. This was served with tomatoes and fresh, organic herbs from the garden of Chateau Neercanne. The fish was paired with an oaked Chardonnay from Crutzberg, in Sint-Martens-Voeren.
Our main course was veal. We had smelled it grilling throughout the meal and it lived up to expectations. The meat arrived with bulgur and a green salad with Madeira sauce that was a work of art. The Pinot Gris came from Apostelhoeve, just over the border in Maastricht.
The beautiful weather held, almost until the end of our meal, when the heavens opened. Luckily, our tent protected us from the worst of it and the staff quickly handed out blankets to those of us who were chilly.
We escaped the downpour with a tour inside the Commanderie, where we admired the stunning wall murals.
The rain had eased off by the time dessert was served – and dessert in Limburg must consist of the fresh fruit famous in this region. Our trifle was filled with summer fruits and white chocolate.
We also had the legendary Herve cheese (smells so bad, tastes so good) and fruit syrup from the Wiertz farm in Sint-Pieters-Voeren. Our sweet courses were paired with local dark and cherry beer from local Rick’s Bier.
Even our coffee came from a roaster in Rotselaar. It was truly a meal celebrating the best of the region and you could taste it in every bite (and sip!)
While this particular meal will never be recreated, you can have your own Vrienden van de Smaak experience this summer. Visit their calendar for details, and sign up to the newsletter so you don’t miss out!
The dinners aren’t cheap (€ 119, € 149 or € 175, depending on the meal and location) but when you consider the effort and care taken to source unique locations and extremely local and sustainable ingredients, the price it well worth it for the experience.
Of all of the unique dining experiences we’ve had in Belgium, this is one of the most memorable, and also the most in line with our philosophies about slow food. If you’re looking for a truly special way to enjoy the best of Belgian produce, don’t miss Vrienden van de Smaak.