creative chit-chat

Bart Belmans

Herborist at Sanguisorba

It’s a luxury to be able to eat whatever we feel like, whenever we feel like. What about the natural course of things?  We seem to have forgotten that fruits and vegetables are seasonal, extremely diverse and far from perfect. Bart Belmans from Sanguisorba doesn’t practice traditional farming. In his plant nursery, he experiments with forgotten vegetables, edible flowers and wild herbs. Star Chefs are a regular at Sanguisorba, but Bart is charmed by an interest from an expected corner. "Recently, someone from a Chip Shop came to ask if I could grow parsley in the garden. The man was looking for fresh tartar sauce to accompany the fries. Speaking of a change of mentality! That’s fantastic!” We don’t get any coffee, nor biscuits nor sweets. Bart really wants us to taste what he’s been experimenting with outdoors.


There is a revived interest in what you do. People gradually begin to grow their own plants and vegetables.

People are starting to plant in their gardens and balconies and some are even removing tiles from the street. In the district Zurenborg (Antwerp) you can see many clinging plants and there are also urban guerrillas taking care of the empty spots and bringing more green into the city.


And a few kilometers outside the city, there is a large green oasis, called Sanguisorba.

For a horticultural plot of land this is actually quite small. For cauliflower and tomatoes you normally need at least 5 to 6 hectares and we only have 1,5. But we are growing rapidly. A few years ago this was a horse meadow. With what I grow, I can provide for my own living. And although I'm a vegetarian, this place has a lot to offer. If I had to close the gates behind me, I think two years will pass until I’d have to go to a grocery store.


All is lush, it seems like everything grows here.

That is true. We make no distinction between herbs and weeds. We’re now experimenting with the thistle weeds. Many weeds are delicious and contain many vitamins. Everything is usable. And in nature there is no such thing as a bounded forest where plants grow nicely in a row. Everything grows here, and all plants have a story. Here is the black mush chervil, half vegetable, half herb. As soon as we crossed the border areas in the plant zone, a new world opened up for us (Bart and his business partner Piet De Bolle). I’m talking about the forgotten or historical vegetables.


What do you mean by forgotten vegetables?

In the past, people intuitively looked for food. Previous to the time of the potatoes, there were more nutritious tubers, like wild chestnuts, sugar carrots and there was a vast knowledge of medicinal plants. But this knowledge got lost and consumption has become more important. Truss tomatoes no longer smell and they all have the same shape. We wanted to operate differently, so we went back to the origins, to the old vegetable families to purely work on flavor and nutrients. And so we get the best restaurants as our customers. Each plant grows at its own pace and the range of forgotten vegetables is growing every day.


Are there many kinds of vegetables that we don’t know about?

Of course and it goes much further than that. Chefs inspire us with their recipes and we cultivate very focused. This way we get specialized into the craziest things, such as the Mexican olive cucumber, the penguin cucumber, the Black monnic chili and the oyster blade, which is great with a glass of cava. We grow new types of edible flowers, such as Hot Lips. And the more you go back in the plant’s herbal history, the brighter the colors and flavors.
Everything grows here, from all corners of the world. And all vegetables are allowed to bloom in our gardens. That’s because the flower of the vegetable is often better than the plant itself. When the root is not useful, we use the stem. When the stem is not good, we use the leaf, or the flower and then the fruit. Therefore we have a longer harvest. The crop continues to grow and muster.


Sanguisorba is basically a playground where plenty of experimentation takes place.
There is a lot of creativity here.

You can't even imagine! We love to get plants out of context and let them grow. We have a salad bar where we mix different seeds. We also brew our own beer, Pimpernelle, and a bakery in the neighborhood uses it to make bread. It’s passion that creates so many crossovers.


Where does your love for nature come from?

My mother was passionate with culinary and medicinal herbs. First we lived in Deurne (suburb of Antwerp), but afterwards we moved to a greener area where my mom began to experiment with plants and herbs. So the love for everything that grows and blooms comes from her. I did horticultural studies, but I found it too industrial. Then I worked as a gardener in a nursing home for 18 years, but after a while it didn’t fascinate me anymore. Then I started my own company. I continued cultivating my mother’s 'strange' plants, but there was no market. And growing the culinary herbs was too much limited by seasons. We wanted to enrich the seasons and hence our desire to innovate.


But it’s also very hard work.

We work 24/7, but from late November to mid February we close the gates and we seal everything to protect it from frost. In calm periods I teach, I go to agriculture & garden fairs and search the web for new crops. I'm always on the lookout for novelties.


Sanguisorba carries the organic label. How important is this label for you?

The label allows us to play on different fields. We use no chemical fertilizers and sprays, nor heated greenhouses. Everything is given time to grow and we work with seasonal vegetables. One day Piet said: “Why don’t we go for an organic label?” As soon as you request this label, you are subjected to controls. You can pretend to be an idealist, but it's also important to know your soil is healthy. And the organic label complements our overall vision.

And what about mechanization? If you want your nursery to grow, you have to innovate, no?

Men deal with fast cars, farmers with their tractors. This discarded machine here is our Rolls Royce. (laughs) We apply little mechanization in the sense that we recycle what others throw away. Nothing is new and most machines we fixed and assembled ourselves. We have an old planter and we call it our ‘social machine’. When we go planting, we sit next to each other, and this way we can finally chat. And as a little extra, we have a stash for Pimpernelle to quench the thirst (laughs). We work hard to live hard.
We are excited about what we do, we work in fresh air and the working environment is relaxed. We expect our company to grow, but not too fast.



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Coffeeklatch stands for ‘Slow journalism using a fast medium.’ Magali Elali and Bart Kiggen created the blog as a creative chitchat featuring creative entrepreneurs in their homes over coffee, including interesting people telling intriguing stories. It celebrates storytelling and creativity in all its forms, from fashion design to architecture. Read More


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