An advocaat evolution
Els places a cloth on top of the small jar, holds it in place with her chin and ties the twine around it expertly. The bow is perfect, every time. This jar of De Klok advocaat is now ready for storage, where it becomes thick before being shipped to one of hundreds of retail outlets across Flanders.
De Klok single-handedly revitalised the market in Flanders for the traditional egg-based liqueur
I, like many others, became familiar with De Klok at a Christmas market. Every year, I buy a bottle of their chocolate jenever. De Klok focuses the taste on the alcohol rather than the chocolate, making it less thick and sweet than other brands. I much prefer this more grown-up approach to making the creamy versions of jenever, the spirit made from juniper berries for which the low countries is famous.
The small company in Serskamp, East Flanders, makes only four kinds of jenever – chocolate, vanilla, the traditional lemon and the coveted krieken op jenever. That last one comes in a jar rather than a bottle and includes a generous portion of whole cherries.
Quality over quantity
The less you make, the better you can perfect it is the guiding principle behind De Klok, which has been in business since the 1940s, when rail worker Raoul Galle started a side-line in delivering spirits from wholesalers to retailers. He eventually left his day job to make his own line of liqueurs such as amaretto, parfait d’amour and advocaat, which is made with egg yolks, milk, sugar and alcohol (usually brandy or a non-flavoured jenever).
He called his company De Klok, a name that was given to one of the jenevers produced in the area. Klok means “bell” in Dutch and has historically been used by Flemish business owners quite frequently, probably because of its Catholic church symbolism.
Now Raoul’s son, Dirk Galle, runs the company with his wife, Veerle Van de Velde. When they took over in the mid-1980s, says Van de Velde, interest in sweet liqueurs with a high alcohol content was at an all-time low. “We had two choices,” she tells me from her home office: “Close down the company or re-brand it with a whole new look.” They chose the latter, though they couldn’t have known at the time how successful they would turn out to be.
They stopped producing most of the liqueurs but kept the advocaat. “At that point, advocaat was really not popular anymore,” says Van de Velde. “People would say, ‘oh, I know that from Christmas at my grandmother’s,’ but they were not buying it at all. It was a forgotten product.”
The couple re-dressed their packaging in Old-World style, with a simple but pretty label, a cloth cover and that hand-tied twine. Then they went out to the markets, where people approached with caution. “They had heard of it but had never tried it,” says Van de Velde.
Although the thick, yellow liquer had always been in cookbooks and made by the older generation, it had all-but disappeared from the retail market. It’s unthinkable now, just 20 years later, when advocaat is so easy to find at any grocery story and often served in cafes with your coffee. “We started the revival,” says Van de Velde. “I can name you five or six companies who are now doing what we started doing, even copying our packaging.”
De Klok employs only 10 people, including Van de Velde and her husband, so it’s astonishing that the advocaat – and the jenevers and their lines of chocolates – are all hand made in their small factory. They even break open and separate the eggs by hand. (Other companies simply buy egg yolk in large containers.) There are no preservatives in De Klok’s advocaat, but the alcohol content naturally preserves the liqueur “for years”.
De Klok’s advocaat recipe comes from Raoul Galle’s own mother and has two extra ingredients that are top secret. It also contains 22% alcohol, more than the average 14 to 20%. The texture and consistency are excellent and the taste indeed strong, but not too strong for my liking. Nor for the experts: De Klok won silver medals at both the 2009 and 2010 World Spirits Awards for their advocaat, and took home the Best in Class honour in 2009.
They would have won gold, claims Van de Velde, were it not for some judges being convinced that advocaat should be thinner – drinkable. De Klok’s is not: It’s so thick, you have to eat it with a spoon, but this is the way Flanders prefers to enjoy its advocaat. Their krieken op jenever, in fact, did win a gold medal in 2010.
That recipe comes from Van de Velde’s mother. “She said: ‘If you’re going to sell advocaat, you have to sell krieken op jenever’.”
De Klok also makes chocolates (some filled with advocaat) and a winterkoffie, made with jenever and coffee, to drink warm. A few other products – jam, chocolate paste and honey – are made outside the country but according to their own recipes. De Klok has a shop on their site in Serskamp and also sells their products at Christmas markets in Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp and Leuven as well as in speciality shops across Brussels and Flanders.