As I alighted from the train on a dreary November day in Geraardsbergen, a small and sleepy town in East Flanders, I had not had a good morning. First, a rather unfortunate failure to set my alarm clock the previous night meant that I awoke several hours later than expected.
Second, I missed my train connection in Denderleeuw, as there is no direct train from Brussels on weekends and the train from Brussels to Denderleeuw was 15 min late. So, I found myself running down the platform and, to my surprise, the train to Geraardsbergen hadn’t left yet! This feeling of relief was not to last: the train manager saw me running, smiled and shook his head as he looked the door and did NOT let me on the train. The train departed as I angrily shook my fists at its receding frame, cursing the smug bastard and pondering the implications of my fate. The next train to Geraardsbergen did not leave for an hour and this left me considerable time to look around Denderleeuw.
Always happy to look around a new city or town, I thought that I would at least make the best of the experience. Alas, let me tell you, Denderleeuw is quite a depressing place. Upon leaving the station, I was instantly aware that I was in Belgium: there were several frituur stands, or shops selling French fries to be found throughout the country, though in Denderleeuw they were all closed. A further survey of the town’s streets revealed a paltry selection of shops: a bakery or two featuring Broodautomaat (a sort of automatic bread dispenser that one inevitably sees in Flanders), an empty pharmacy, a stationary-cum-convenience store aptly named the Paperclip, and a curiously crowded funeral parlor, which seemed to be the highlight of fun on a Saturday morning in Denderleeuw. This all seemed decidedly odd to me. Nevertheless, it was heartening to know that the citizens of this dour little town could order a tombstone, buy a magazine, and have a snack from the adjacent bread dispensers while they were at it. After a heading down a few more deserted streets, I scuttled back to the station with one resounding thought: Denderleeuw was not the place for me.
When the hour in Denderleeuw was at last up I climbed grumpily into the train to Geraardsbergen thinking to myself that the trip had better be worth my sufferings. I hoped optimistically that this town known for three M’s: 1) mattentaarten, 2) Manneken Pis (a statue of a urinating boy like its more famous cousin in Brussels), and 3) Muur (a large hill, known as ‘the wall’), would be a pleasant destination. And indeed it was: the town was charming, attractive and friendly.
I had of course come to Geraardsbergen to taste the famous mattentaart, and I left the station famished and looking for sustenance.
I doubt that many people outside of Belgium are aware of the mattentaart, or as it is known in French, the tarte au maton, so you might be wondering what the pastry actually is. The most important element is the filling, made with matten or maton, a curdled mixture of whole-fat milk and buttermilk; other ingredients include sugar, almonds and eggs. The matten, sugar and egg filling is then surrounded by simple puff pastry.
The matten creates a texture approximating that of a slightly dry cheese cake, which makes sense: cheese cake is often made with cottage cheese or ricotta, both produced from milk curd like the matten. However, cheese cake also contains cream cheese, sour cream, or double cream, which bind the mixture and result in a lusciously moist cake. The taste of the mattentaart filling is not unlike that of the French-style cake tarte au fromage blanc.
So why did I go to Geraardsbergen to try the mattentaart? Two reasons: first of all, the mattentaart is recognized by UNESCO as coming from Geraardsbergen, and second, since 2007 the pastry has benefited from European Union Protected Geographical Status (PGS), which means that not only does the fully-prepared mattentaart truly originate in Geraardsbergen or neighboring suburb Lierde, but the ingredients used in its production as well. This status is similar to the French AOC or appellation d’origine contrôlée, on a European level.
Geraardsbergen takes the mattentaart very seriously, and the town is simply covered with bakeries serving mountains of these tasty pastries. Even in such a small town, there is a distinct hierarchy of bakeries, and only a few of them have the privilege of belonging to the official mattentaart society, the rather ominious-sounding Brotherhood of the Mattentaart or Broederschap van de Mattentaart. When researching bakeries for my trip, I decided I would sample from a few shops, both official and unofficial, to get a feel for the difference in taste between the different versions. Fortunately, I was already slightly familiar with the mattentaart as I had previously tasted ersatz versions in the rather ubiquitous Panos bakeries found throughout Brussels. I bought examples from three bakeries in central Geraardsbergen, one or two to eat immediately and the rest to be sampled with a small group of dessert-loving Flemish friends later in the day: the most famous place for mattentaarten and pillar of the Brotherhood, Olav’s Mattentaartenhuis, and two non Broederschap bakeries, Broodhuis and Rossignol.
The differences between the three versions were quickly apparent. The samples from the Rossignol bakery were most disappointing: the pastries had a dry, chalky interior, which crumbled to bits as soon as I poked and prodded it. Furthermore, the puff pastry shell was dense and chewy, unlike the feather-light airiness I was expecting, and had far too much salt which clashed with the slightly sweet interior. The overall experience left me thirsty and weighed down, as if I had voluntarily swallowed a brick. Puah.
On the other hand, the samples from the other two bakeries were far superior, though the panel of ‘mattentaart judges’ I assembled were not in agreement as to which was best. I prefered the samples from the Broodhuis, as the interior was neither dry nor crumbly, but slightly greasy. Upon letting the filling ooze back into my mouth, I distinctly detected more butter; you can never use enough butter, as chefs from Julia Child to Nigella Lawson will tell you. Furthermore, the puff pastry shell was slightly crisper and thinner, unlike the comparatively thick layers of the examples from the other bakeries. My Flemish friends, however, preferred the mattentaart from Olav’s mattentaartenhuis, which they deemed ‘echt‘ or ‘true’: the crust was flaky but slightly hard, and the interior was most definitely cheesy, neither moist nor dry. There was not a hint of grease. I suppose this is how a mattentaart is supposed to taste, but I preferred the sample from the Broodhuis bakery: it was more similar to the cheese cake that I knew and loved.
I’m getting ahead of myself, though, as the ‘judging’ didn’t take place until later that evening, upon my return to Brussels. Back to Geraardsbergen. I armed myself with a few mattentaarten to eat immediately and decided to go on a mini-hike of the Muur, the formidable hill that I mentioned earlier. Once I reached the top, I happily tucked in to my supply and looked out at the view. The pastries were tasty, but I found myself unsatisfied – I simply needed a different taste in my mouth. I therefore headed back down the hill in search of something else. As I headed towards the station, thinking I would eat something back in Brussels, I saw yet another bakery with huge piles of mattentaarten in its windows. Initially, I started to walk past it, but then a beautiful raspberry and cream cake caught my eye. Drool. I stood outside, trying to fend of its siren calls, telling myself that I should be sensible and eat something healthy, and that after all I had come to Geraardsbergen to taste the mattentaarten and not other cakes. My feeble arguments were to no avail. The cake had my name on it. But then, as I savoured its deliciously refreshing flavor a few minutes later, I thought, why should I have denied myself such a gorgeous pleasure?
Sometimes life presents us with unplanned choices and we must decide whether or not to seize the moment. It is all well and good to follow an established itinerary, but at the end of the day, we must enjoy ourselves. As Julia Child said, “Life itself is the proper binge.” Well said, Julia.