Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Veggie Capital of the World. Ghent.

Vegetarian meal from Restaurant Avalon (Photo from Herbivores' Heaven)
G

hent is a small Belgian city with a population of about 250,000 people. Like many European cities, it has a long history dating back to well before the Middle Ages. Present day visitors can soak in all that history simply by viewing the imposing architecture of its Medieval churches and the houses of rich traders.

Much of Ghent's historic heart can be seen in the old city center which was decreed to be vehicle free, making it the largest pedestrian only zone in all of Europe.  Truly a walkable city!

Ghent is also a port city and a university town.  Every year, about 60,000 students come to study here and thanks to them, the place has a young vibe to it.  I think that Z, who just graduated from university, will feel at home here.

As I started to read up on Ghent, of course, it was the history side of things that I initially focused on.  What landmarks are there that we should see?  But surprisingly, I didn't get far before something else sidetracked me - something that sheds light on the progressive side of Ghent.....it's vegetarian side.

In 2008,  Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, suggested that the most useful step ordinary citizens could take to help combat climate change would be to stop eating meat.  How can this be?

Image from theguardian.com
 Well, according to the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), meat production accounts for 18% of annual greenhouse gas emissions — more than transportation, which accounts for roughly 14%.  That is contrary to what most people would think.

In fact, estimates are that emissions from livestock, largely from burping cows and sheep and their manure, currently make up almost 15% of global emissions. Beef and dairy alone make up 65% of all livestock emissions!

However, setting aside the emissions issues, each year, millions of acres of rain forest are cleared for ranching which further accelerates climate change.  I most certainly saw the impact of this in Madagascar where 90 percent of the landscape of the island country has been slashed and burned to support agriculture.

Lastly and the one issue that probably hits home for most people, especially those living in the *wealthier* countries, is that eating too much meat carries with it higher risk of certain health problems, including heart disease and some cancers.

So, what does all this have to do with Ghent.  Well, they took all the information about eating meat to heart and in 2009, the City of Ghent put its support behind an campaign created by the Belgian vegetarian organization EVA (Ethical Vegetarian Alternative).  Called *donderdagVeggiedag*  (which translates to Meat Free Day), the campaign promotes a meat free day on Thursdays.  That made Ghent the first city in the world with an official weekly vegetarian day.

From the EVA webpage on donderdagVeggiedag.
As well intentioned as the donderdagVeggiedag campaign might be, it's one thing for the city to ask its citizens, especially those who love the meat heavy Belgian cuisine, to go meat free, its another for the people to actually do so.

But the city was determined to not fail and so it carefully developed strategies, for schools, restaurants, and city employees, to promote its meat-free Thursday.  For example, starting in 2009, Ghent’s municipal schools and daycare centers began offering a warm vegetarian lunch on Thursdays; children bringing lunch to school on Thursdays are encouraged to go vegetarian.

Ghent also developed communication strategies to reach its 250,000 residents. These include an annual high-profile event, a signature list for citizens to express their commitment, a website and a monthly magazine.  There are even cooking classes and cookbooks that provide home cooks with recipe ideas for meat free meals at home.

Last but not least, the city worked to gain support from the Ghent food world and published street maps, available for free,  indicating locations of restaurants that are wholly vegan, wholly vegetarian or have vegetarian options on the menu.

It's not possible for the city to made donderdagVeggie dag compulsory but apparently, it has taken off.  Today, the city is known for being exceptionally veggie friendly.  While I am not a vegetarian, I am very conscious about eating meat on my health so I have indeed cut back on my consumption of meat so going veggie free one or more days out of the week is not unusual for me.  Z is a product of the American food culture and he's at an age where eating large quantities of meat is not unusual.  But I think he can handle a veggie meal or two so I'm planning for at least one meat free meal in Ghent.  For omnivores like us, it all boils down to taste - if it tastes good and is filling, we won't miss the meat.

So, I decided to at find out the names of some of the more popular vegan/vegetarian restaurants in Ghent.  Four names consistently popped up on the radar.
  • Lekker GEC
  • Avalon
  • Greenway
  • Komkommertijd
Komkommertijd is an all you can eat buffet place which is always good when you have to feed someone like Z who can eat enough food to fill the backend of a Mack truck!  Reservations are recommended but you have to call in.  Hmmm.....is it worth it to call international just to make a reservation?

Avalon is suppose to the fanciest vegetarian restaurant in town which means it could come with a price tag to match.  Will have to check out a few more reviews to decide.

Vegetarian meal from Greenway (Photo from Pure! Food & Travel)
Greenway looks like a good bet.  Casual kind of place with an English menu to boot!

Lekker GEC is located right across the street from Ghent’s central train station.  We'll be arriving by train, from Bruges, so we might just pop in there for a meal.  The place is entirely vegan - should be interesting as I've never eaten vegan.

Who knew that in researching the historic landmarks of Ghent,  I would be so wonderfully sidetracked learning about Ghent's progressive side?  I'm looking to a healthy visit!  I hope Z and I will leave with a better appreciation of a veggie diet or at least a not-so-much-meat diet.

Oh....and the city is working on being more eco-friendly as well.  The motor boats that use to ply the waters of its canals are now manpowered!