This story was originally published in Dutch on MUNCHIES NL.
Welcome back to Last Call , where we visit watering holes around the world to collect life advice from their trusty barkeepers, learning everything from how to get over a broken heart to what drink orders will get you laughed out of their bar. In this installation, we visit a bar in Ghent, Belgium, which is legendary for brewing a love potion and only serving it to those who are deserving.
I'm a typical student. I do my homework every now and then, tackle a pile of moldy dishes once a week, and spend at least half of my measly monthly income on booze—particularly during the coldest months of the year.
In Ghent, where I've been living for most of my life, nothing feels better than spending hours upon hours in one of the tiny, well-hidden bars for which the city is known. It's not great for my wallet, but it's wonderful for bar owners like Betty (who would rather not share her last name: "The people of Ghent call me Betty from Rococo") whose establishments do exceptionally well on dark and dreary winter days.
Photo by Eva Vlonk.
Betty is well-known for her eccentric, all-out personality, but most famous for the love potion she brews in the basement of her bar.
This special drink is the stuff of legend. Liqueur d'Amour—French for 'love liquor'—isn't on the menu. Betty has to choose to give you a glass, which is supposedly a sign you'll soon be lucky in love, or that there is a bright future ahead for your relationship.
I've always been one of the fortunate people who is on the receiving end of Betty's generosity. I'm definitely happy with my girlfriend, but how much Betty has had to do with that is impossible to know. What I can find out, however, is why Betty brews her potion, and how she decides who will be served a glass.
Café Rococo and its owner both look equally interesting. Candles are the only source of light and there is no bar, because 'bar' is a concept Betty does not believe in. "[With an actual bar] I would have given up my life as a bar owner long ago; it's so antisocial." Instead, she has something she calls an open bar, so she ends up spending more time hanging out with her patrons than she does on the few square feet from where she pours them their drinks.
Betty is not afraid to speak up, and mentions on her menu that she 'doesn't have time for people who are in a hurry'. Based on Rococo's Facebook page, not everyone agrees with her, but if the legendary bar owner is to be believed, we should all be living our lives at a slower pace.
Upon entering, I try to order a beer, but Betty doesn't feel like going outside to get it (there isn't enough space inside the bar to keep all the booze cold). "It's too cold, she says, and serves me an Italian coffee instead. Coffee is one of her specialties.
Her bar has been around for 30 years—Leonard Cohen and famous Belgians like writer Hugo Claus and musician Sioen have frequented this place—and one of the best nights I've ever spent here featured Belgian musician Jef Neve treating me and the other guests to a spontaneous piano concert. People who want to play Betty's piano have to come on the weekend, and if they're lucky, she'll join them and sing a song.
Photo by Peter Detailleur.
The moment Betty serves someone Liqueur d'Amour, I seize the opportunity to ask her about the mysterious potion. When I ask if giving out the drink has to do with being lucky in love, she laughs, before getting a bit angry. "Love doesn't improve with this drink," she says. "That's not true. This drink is a reward for people who I think deserve it, because I feel they have great qualities. And that's definitely not everyone!"
Betty thinks it's too bad people come to her bar and wait to get a portion of the magic potion, instead of ordering it. "It's also not true that it's only available as a free giveaway," she says. "I think this story originates in the first year of me brewing it, because I used to give way too many glasses of liquor away. Recently, I haven't given away that many. Even on Valentine's Day not everyone gets it."
Betty will only disclose two of the potion's ingredients: cognac and genever, and only because she mentions they are are starting to become too expensive. While she is talking about the rising costs, Betty serves me a Liqueur d'Amour. It tastes sweet, like red fruits. "It smells like almonds and tastes like cherry", she says. "OK, I will admit to this, there is berry juice in it, but it still tastes fresh. It took me a long time to create this recipe. I started experimenting because I love cherry and berry genever, but always thought they were too sweet. This is ten times better."
"Some people are on a mission to uncover the recipe, but I don't share it with anyone", she continues. "Also, that's not the most important thing about this bar. It's about the music, the atmosphere, the conversations. It's not like I spend all my time brewing barrels of liquor."
When asked how she decides who gets a glass of her love potion, she answers: "People who are beautiful in their head, their heart, and their belly. When I think someone is beautiful, I show them. If I don't think so, I do too."
After Betty, there will be no more Rococo. She does everything by herself, and even during the annual Gentse Feesten (a citywide fair and important time for the city center of Ghent) she doesn't want any help. The bar and its owner are inextricably linked, and Betty has a deal with the owner of the building: after she quits, there won't be another bar in Rococo's place. "I'd love to do this job for another 30 years, and die in my bar—slowly fade, just like the candles here."