The art of bread
Decades of baking bread in the small basement of the Oud Huis Himschoot means that merely entering the shop is to be overwhelmed by an entrancing smell. Combine that with the sight of golden loaves on old wooden racks tucked into a historic building on one of Ghent's most picturesque squares, and it's easy to see why this is a favourite bakery of both locals and tourists alike.
After a failed attempt to increase output, the Himschoot bakery realised that hand-made was the only option
Mark Raynaert, a life-long baker, digs his hand deep into a bag of bloem -regular flour - and then reaches into a bag of roggebloem - the rye flour used to make the best-selling roggebroed - and compares the two, explaining the difference in colour, texture and weight. Standing there after a long night shift, hands covered in white, a wealth of knowledge seems to radiate from him.
It is obvious he is continuing in the tradition of the original baker, Himschoot himself. During the First World War, Himschoot made the most dense, nutritious and very filling bread. While most other loaves weighed in at about 600 grams, his were 800 to 900 - yet sold at the same price. Himschoot's reputation as a great baker grew, and the name became synonymous in East Flanders with good bread.
Today, the bakery sells about 600 loaves a day of more than 70 varieties. The four small ovens downstairs run all night long, as Raynaert and three other bakers work in the hot basement, with oven temperatures at 220 degrees.
"When I was growing up, I saw my dad bake bread and learned how to make it from him," Raynaert explains. He began work as a baker at 19.
Raynaert spent three months with the original Himschoot before the bakery's namesake retired and sold the business. Raynaert stayed on and eventually bought it himself in 1983. For 17 years, he worked tirelessly, seven days a week, from 22.00 at night until 14.00 in the afternoon. "I missed out on a lot," Raynaert admits. "I didn't get to go to parties or celebrations. It was really hard on my wife. I wouldn't do it again. While I enjoyed the work, it is a hard, hard job."
Mark's crowning achievement is his bio bread. When he saw the weekly organic market held on the Groentenmarkt outside his bakery every Friday, he realised he could sell there, too, provided he used different ingredients. He now makes six types of bio bread: muesli, sunflower, pumpkin, linseed, sesame seed, a surprising melon seed and a cutely named koala bread, with an Australian bio flour.
In 2000, Raynaert sold the bakery - but continues to work there three days a week on an all-night shift. "Life is much better now," he smiles.
In the meantime, the current owner of Himschoot Bakery, Philippe Van Melle, is trying to pin down the essence of this infuriating, fickle talent known as baking. It turns out it's not so easy. Trying to replicate Raynaert's lifetime experience, passion and dedication is a heady task.
Van Melle, owner of two Ghent restaurants, purchased Himschoot when he noticed the iconic shop where he bought bread as a child was for sale. He at first attempted to recreate the successful recipes in larger ovens at a different location with more baking capacity. His goal was to fill orders from surrounding hotel restaurants - the Marriot among them - that wished to serve their guests the famous Himschoot bread.
But bread baked by others in another location turned out differently. He quickly learned that the famous Himschoot bread could only be made at the Himschoot bakery - and, it seems, by only one man. "It just wasn't the same quality," Van Melle says. "We had the same recipes, the same ingredients, but somehow the end result was just not the same."
Now he's trying to learn baking directly from Raynaert. He has a few years until Raynaert fully retires to try to produce the same quality bread. Otherwise, when Raynaert leaves, he takes the Himschoot legacy with him.
No recipes, please
Van Melle's first lesson is that baking doesn't come with a recipe. Nine years ago, he was amazed to discover that, in all the years since the bakery's existence, there was not a single recorded recipe. Everything was taught by hand, in person, baker to baker. When Van Melle, 49, asked Raynaert how to make a certain bread, Raynaert did what he always does; he grabbed a handful of this, two handfuls of that, a pinch of this. Van Melle's solution was to measure Raynaert's hands to see just how much a handful of flour was.
But in the end, he had to give up and admit that it takes something other than a recipe to bake bread, which is part science, part artistry. Even if it's baked in the Himschoot cellar, Van Melle can tell when it's not a Raynaert loaf.
"He can work with dough that is wrong and make it right," says Van Melle.
Raynaert is training three apprentices at Van Melle's behest, hoping that the bread at Himschoot will continue to be excellent decades down the line.
While Van Melle studied law and applies his strong business sense to his growing food empire in Ghent, he is also happy to continue with tradition. He grew up on Himschoot's bread and is saddened by all the chain stores and mobile phone shops in what were once mom-and-pop enterprises. It's both his ability to recognise a good product and his nostalgia for the shops of his childhood that keeps him inspired.
Last year, another famous Ghent Bakery, Patisserie Bloch, shut down, saying it could no longer manage financially to produce its baked goods by hand. Van Melle now employs three former Bloch bakers, who continue to make their desserts from traditional recipes.
"If the food isn't good, people aren't going to buy it," says Van Melle. "You can sell the wrong products in the right shop. The bread at Himschoot is well known, and an excellent baker makes it. The pastries at Bloch were well known in their own right."
And so he has the right product and soon, two shops. Limited in the amount that can be produced in the single bakery, Van Melle has opened Huys Himschoot on Donkersteeg a few blocks away to sell the famous Bloch pastries. There you can also, for the next few years at least, sample the best-made bread in Belgium. Get it while it's warm.
Himschoot is open seven days a week from 7:30 to 18.00 (but come early for a good selection)
STORAGE: Kept in its wax bag, bread will last up to three days. Pop it in the freezer to make it last a week longer.
TO SLICE or NOT TO SLICE: Each bakery offers the option of running your loaf through a slicer. Some people believe that by not slicing the bread, it will stay fresher longer, but bakers shrug at this idea. Bread is not really meant to last for longer than a couple of days.
- Roggerverdomme is quite famous, plus it's fun to say. It's the Himschoot's favourite bread, the rogge, or rye, combined with dried fruit in a small, slightly dense loaf. People rave about it; the shop sells up to 40 loaves a day and 70 on the weekend.
- Chocoladebrood is a small rectangular loaf filled with chocolate pieces. Eat it fresh out of the bag, if they have any left.
- Mueslibrood, a round loaf, is also very popular, and it's easy to see why, with huge pieces of fruits, nuts and grains.