The Ruins in Ghent

Although I only stayed overnight in a handful of cities last summer, I often made day trips to nearby smaller, quainter European towns along the way. While travelling in Belgium, everyone says “go to Bruges, go to Bruges” and I thought about it, but that damn heat wave… Instead, I went to a similar quaint, canal-ridden, castle-bearing, sleepy little sidewalk-cafe-having town called Ghent. There I had one of the most stunning photographic opportunities and most memorable experiences of the whole trip.


I prioritized Ghent over Bruges for my small town detour for one main reason: the ruins of the Abbey of Sint Bavo. As I learn more about the history and development of churches and cathedrals in Europe, I’ve come to realize that there are not that many styles. About 7 (I’m not counting Revival and Modern, fite me). And of those 7, I’d say that 3 are the most common and distinct in the places I visited: Romanesque, Gothic, and Baroque. They’re stunning! High arches and flying buttresses, lots of fiddly bits on the architecture and beautiful decorations. However, churches within the same style are not overly unique unless you are an architectural scholar. I have now seen nearly a dozen Gothic style cathedrals, and I would be hard pressed to tell them apart without other landmarks.

Am I jaded? I don’t think so, because I do still think they’re stunning, I just don’t feel the need to prioritize another Gothic or Romanesque cathedral. I’ll go and admire one if I’m going to be in the neighborhood, but I don’t put it on my “to-do” list anymore. I might still go see a few more Baroque ones before I’m tired of that style, and I’m quite looking forward to seeing more Byzantine. What I do love is finding the cathedrals (or other historical landmarks) that are unique in some way, that bear the mark of history, of a life lived.

The Abbey of St. Bavo promised to be just that. Ruins left unrestored yet maintained, and only open to the public a few hours a week to prevent them from being damaged further. I was fascinated and determined to go. I found the opening hours and even emailed the caretakers to be sure I didn’t need a reservation, and then set about making sure I would be in Ghent on a day I could go inside.

This turned out to be a Sunday, which meant Ghent was even sleepier than normal. I’ve been living in Asia so long that I forgot about Sunday as an off day in the West. Although, to be perfectly honest, I think that western Europe closes down even more than America on Sundays. Live and learn.

I looked into transit options (oh how I gnash my teeth at the transit of EU countries, but that’s another post) and found a “hop on hop off” boat! I’ve done hop on hop off buses before, but this would combine my desire to take a canal tour with my need to get around town. For the moment, lets just skip the challenges involved with getting from my Airbnb in Brussels to the main boat jetty in Ghent. Wave your magic wand, and there we are. The last bus of the series let me off directly in front of Gravensteen Castle where my day of “quaint European town” began.

Gravensteen Castle

I studied the boat tour schedule. It only had 6 stops and it was an hour between boats so I wanted to be sure I knew where to go and when to be back to get on for the next leg of my journey. I wanted to start at the castle, hoping to explore it before the boat even started running that morning. For those of you who imagine European castles as these lonely stone fortresses in the middle of rolling green hills and woodland, let me disillusion you. The Lord’s Castle was the center of town. Back in the feudal days, serfs worked the land around a castle, but the markets would be held within the castle’s courtyard. Also during times of war or bad weather, people would move in bringing families and livestock with them to be safe behind the walls while Vikings or whoever attacked.

In some cases, those castles and farms were left empty for long enough that you get the Disney picturesque castle in the middle of nature. For many places, the castle continued to function as the center of town as the town got bigger and bigger around it, eventually turning into a modern city. In Ghent, it’s a giant fuck off castle in the middle of everything. You can’t actually get far enough away for even a proper photo because it’s so surrounded by traffic and other buildings. It dramatically changes the atmosphere of the public square to have a giant castle overseeing the open air restaurants and sidewalk cafes, though.

Canal Boat Bus

I checked into the boat bus and grabbed some coffee. I also topped up my water bottle at a decorative public drinking fountain. I saw these in several places during the summer. They look like a small artistic fountain, similar to what you might put in your back garden at home if you’re feeling fancy, but they dispense potable water (they have signs, don’t drink out of fountains without signs). Additionally, there is usually a little bowl at the bottom so dogs out for a walk can get a drink, too. It’s a wonderful way to provide a public service of free drinking water (not common enough in Europe if you ask me) while still beautifying the park or public street.

The canals in Ghent are truly beautiful and the hop on/off tour goes father through the canal infrastructure than than most of the other boat tours on offer. Our driver was young and friendly and spoke English well. Perhaps because it was Sunday there were not many other tourists, so we chatted about Game of Thrones and Harry Potter as well as the city itself.

I skipped several of the stops because I was still worn out from Paris and the heat wave, but I chose 3 to get off and have a look around. My sightseeing was somewhat hindered by the massive stages being constructed all along the main street and public squares. My guide informed me that the following week would host a huge festival in town. I’m not actually sad I missed it, since I never had enough energy that trip for crowds, so it worked out for the best.

Saints, Dragons and Devils!

I visited St. Peter’s cathedral, which was very predictable and yet still pretty. There was a woman with two children sitting just inside the door and begging. She was not the first begging immigrant/refugee I saw during my travels by any means. I tried to give when I could, although I still struggle with giving money. I’ve read a number of ethics debates about this topic and still can’t decide, so I gave them the food I had in my bag that I’d been planning to eat for lunch.  

Having given away my picnic, I went in search of another snack, but nearly everything in Ghent was closed on Sunday afternoon.  I was attracted by a nearby sign advertising waffles, waffles I never found. Instead, I ran into an art installation of dragon skeletons which was far more interesting. While I was taking photos, someone came by and asked me if they were real and almost didn’t believe me when I said “no, they’re dragons”, until he read the small informative sign. They were part of a display for a children’s museum. 

 

Continuing through the inner courtyard, I emerged behind the cathedral at the abbey where I found the orchards and vineyards and a less obscured view of the buildings.

From the boat I got a good view of the castle of Gerald the Devil. I was initially disappointed that I didn’t get to go inside, but it turns out that nowadays the building is not actually interesting on the inside. Gerald himself was nicknamed “the devil” (Duivelsteen in Belgian) because of his dark complexion and hair color. He didn’t do anything remotely devilish to earn the moniker. Additionally, while the building has an interesting history ranging from a meeting place for knights to an insane asylum, it was most recently used to house the national archives. According to Wikipedia, it’s not even good at doing that, and has been on the market since 2010. Cool name, though.

Lunch Stop, the Soda that Yodels

I got off the boat again at the stop nearest St Bavo’s and immediately set about finding lunch. This was a bit extra challenging since I was also suffering from mobile data issues that day (another post is forthcoming). I can usually get Google Maps to work just on GPS, you can’t plan a route, but you can usually see where you are but suddenly I had no map at all! No where in my plan did I account for this. You can say what you like about guidebooks or paper maps, but suddenly having my GPS not work is no different than loosing your map or guide book unexpectedly.

I had given away my picnic lunch already, and I should have just gone into a Carrefour to replace it for a similarly low cost meal, but I was freaking out about my map, since I needed it to find St. Bavo’s, and I really wanted to sit somewhere cool and comfortable after so much walking in the hot sun.

I found a burger place called Jack’s. I splurged on the set and got fries and a drink and tried a drink I’ve never heard of before. It was described as “an herbal drink” and the best way I can describe it is as an herbal infused sparkling lemonade. I have since researched the drink Almdudler and learned that it is the national soft drink of Austria, that it is named after yodeling in the alpine pasture, and that it no more has a description of it’s flavor than Dr. Pepper. Seriously, try and explain what that tastes like to someone who’s never had it. Anyway, I liked it more than Dr. Pepper.

The burger and fries were huge and the cashier gave me some extra sauce because I couldn’t make up my mind about the flavor. I did start learning to love mayo on fries while in Belgium, but I think that’s because their mayo was so much better than Hellman’s. It took me a long time to finish eating, and I wrapped half the fries up for later.

     

I drastically overspent on lunch, since a good deli sandwich and a drink can be had from any grocery store around for close to 5€. It’s another lesson in planning. I did get to use the WiFi and the restroom, which are otherwise pay-to-use in most public places in Europe. (oh how I missed the free public restrooms in every subway station in Korea)

Sint Bavo’s Abbey

My map came back to life in the restaurant’s WiFi and I was able to plot the route from Jack’s to St. Bavo’s before leaving.  When I crossed the last bridge (canal towns have a lot of bridges), I could see what I was pretty sure was the right place but no visible way in. It looked to be completely surrounded by a fence. I walked clear around the perimeter in search of the entrance. Tragically, I went the wrong way and went nearly all the way around before finding it. On the way out later, it was obvious that if I’d headed straight to the square white building, I would have found the gap in the fence right away. You know, in case you end up going some day.

At first I was surrounded by a maze of tall rectangular trees. Completely befuddled I took a few pictures in hope of solving the mystery later (spoilers, I did). In many of my travels, I don’t worry too much if I don’t know what something is at the moment I encounter it. I just try to take enough reference pictures amid my artistic ones to do more research later. Research is how I make the holiday last longer. I visited this abbey in July, and here it is the end of November while I do the last of my research about it.

The ruins themselves were everything I hoped and more. Inside the walls of the Abbey was a rambling network of crumbling walls and once-rooms bring reclaimed by nature. I forgot my physical discomfort almost at once and began to take photo after photo, pausing between sets to admire the details of centuries old carvings and stonework.

I walked through courtyards and down hallways and found spiders and snails and bumble bees in the flowers, and the wild berries. I found where stone carvings had fallen from walls or been pried from floors and were laid side by side on display. There were beautiful corridors with arched ceilings, rooms that had lost their ceilings and now we’re indistinguishable from courtyards.

There was a Roman style bath area with a secret winding staircase up the short tower where the remains of an art installation collected dust. Someone had done a project through social media about communication online and all the responses were published in newspaper form. Perhaps once they were there for visitors to take away, but the layers of dust and cobwebs told me it had been a while since anyone had looked at them. 

About halfway around the space, I met up with a table of volunteers who had informative booklets in many languages. One helpful lady explained a little about the places I’d seen and then showed on the map where I would go from there. I thanked her very much and took the booklet off to a bench in the shade to look through it and to take pictures of the articles for reference.

I didn’t read the whole thing at the time but I did discover the purpose of the tree maze out front was to outline walls of the original church, now long gone. While reading the history of the abbey, I was approached by a black cat who very desperately wanted to be friends. Sadly I’m allergic and had to decline the offer for pets, but I took pictures instead.

When I finished skimming and recording the brochure information, I headed up a far less secret stairwell and went inside a space that had retained all its walls and ceiling. I was greeted by a huge and looming partial crucifix. The cross and arms were gone, leaving only the faded wooden head and body of the suffering Jesus gazing down the stairs at those who entered.

Monastic chanting was piped through a hidden sound system, giving an appropriately medieval and gloomy air to the dark and gutted room. The walls were lined with rescued stone carvings of saints and martyrs, but rather than being the main display, they served as the walls upon which a modern photography exhibit was mounted. It was a strange contrast to see the brightly colored photos against the dark and crumbling remains of the abbey’s old artwork, all topped off with the eerie and Gothic music.

Moving back into the sunlight I continued to be awed by the variety of spaces. Wild grapes growing along one wall, pieces of statues littering the grass or reassembled in part and mounted wherever space allowed. I wandered until my feet couldn’t take it, then I sat until I could walk again. Even with many other visitors it was overwhelmingly peaceful and stunningly beautiful. Only when I felt like I’d explored every possible inch did I out to catch the last boat back to the town center and my train back to Brussels.

I took so many beautiful pictures that afternoon, please enjoy the video slideshow.

A Short History Even Shorter

The binder I was given had a map of the grounds, and 8 typed pages of information. About half of that was a detailed description of the rooms, including architectural style, building materials, and original use. I am not an architect, I couldn’t actually follow most of this part without my eyes glazing over. The second part was more interesting to me, since it encompassed a brief history of the abbey. I am not going to try to replicate the same level of detail here. If you REALLY need to know, comment, and I’ll post the photos of the pages I took, but for everyone else, here’s the very short ‘short history’.

7th century: Missionaries showed up to convert people. They built an abbey with the backing of the Merovingians. A rich nobleman became a monk and went off to live as a hermit, taking the name Bavo. After his death, his remains were transferred to the abbey which subsequently bears his name.

9th century: Vikings! Not yet converted Nordic types were still raiding the land, and loved to raid churches cause people donated like mad, and also decorated with lots of silver, gold and other valuable things. Way to put your money far away from the soldiers, guys. Vikings burned it all down. Twice.

10-12th century: The Roman Empire finds Ghent is on it’s side of the river and offers Imperial protection at last (meanwhile poor St. Peters which I visited earlier that day was left on the French side!) Under the shining eye of Rome, the abbey was not only safe, but experienced a period of growth, getting lots of beautiful Romanesque architecture which makes up the majority of the stone ruins seen today.

16th century: Charles V is rude. He pulled off a bunch of shenanigans to embarrass and shame the locals of Ghent, culminating in the ordered destruction of the abbey, and the use of it’s building materials to create a military citadel. The citadel was completed in 1545, but was destroyed in 1577 by the Calvinists, then rebuilt again in 1584 by the Spanish. It underwent nearly constant de- and re-construction until it was finally abolished in the mid 19th century.

19th-20th century: Conservationists had to fight against industrialists for the space. There’s a whole sordid affair over the meat merchants’ iron grip on Ghent during the 19th century and they managed to claim the abbey land for an abattoir at the height of their power. After much cajoling by conservationists, the abbey ruins were given to the city of Ghent on the condition a museum was established on the site in 1887. In 1936 the ruins were made a historical monument by Royal Decree; however, the abattoir remained in operation until 1989.

Now: The Neighbors of the Abbey formed in 2007 as a volunteer group to upkeep the museum and to organize visits for tour groups and solo travelers like myself.

 

 

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The Foods of Cherry Blossom Season

20160401_141325The last two years of living in Korea has been cherry blossom heaven. I had amazing experiences at the nation’s biggest cherry blossom festival in Jinhae both years (2016, 2017) and didn’t see the same thing twice. When I announced my move to Gyeongju, the museum without walls, everyone said “oh what a beautiful place! you’re going to love the spring”. And I was. I was excited to love spring until it turned out to be the bipolar spring from hell. It’s late April still vacillating back and forth from  10C with rain 30C with sun. Neither the flowers nor I know what to do.

I was so ready for a couple weeks of stunning cherry blossoms and sunny afternoons by the lake and river, but instead I got about two days (both of which I was working during) and then the rain drove all the blossoms away.

Since I couldn’t attend a cherry blossom festival this spring, I’ve decided to focus on the other bounty of cherry blossom season: the themed food and drink. Bearing in mind I’m not in Seoul where the trendy boutique cafes all live, I decided to try and find as many cherry blossom themed consumables as possible in my small town of Gyeongju.

This is by no means a comprehensive list. Every town has a few local variants, and who knows how many tiny cafes and bakeries were selling their own seasonal specials that I never even encountered. Nonetheless, it should be obvious that cherry blossom season isn’t only a feast for the eyes.

Coffee:

2016-04-15 15.45.30Starbucks Cherry Blossom Frappuccino: This one is available in several countries. It’s a seasonal milkshake style beverage. I like that it wasn’t too sweet. I don’t feel like it tastes especially floral, but it’s pink and festive and fun, so why not?
3 stars

Ediya Cherry Blossom Latte: As a result of the Starbucks trend, every other cafe here offers some variation on the cherry blossom latte/frappe. Ediya is probably the most famous, but I found it to taste like strawberry milk. The iced latte version was thicker than flavored milk, but not all the way to frappe/milkshake status.
1 star

Bliss Blooming Latte: The one coffee shop I really wanted to visit this year and didn’t get to try was the cafe Bliss out by Bomun Lake. They have a latte with a “blooming” blossom. A confectionery of some sort that expands in the coffee. No other branch offers this cherry blossom special. I saw the video online and was instantly captivated. However the lake is rather far away and I never made it out there a second time after learning about it. I’ll put it on the list for next year.
(not rated)

Kanu Spring Blend: This is my go to instant coffee brand, a phrase I never would have believed I could have uttered 5 years ago. I admit, I did try it at first because of the ads, but it’s so much better than most of the other packet coffees in Korea that it soon became a staple at my office desk for emergency pick me ups. I was so excited to see it show up in the seasonal line up, but I haven’t seen it in any of Gyeongju’s shops.
(not rated)

Drinks:

20180325_135358Cherry Blossom Soda: GS25 is a major convenience store brand here in Korea and they also have their own line of drinks and snacks. In the spring, they offer a couple of cans decked out in cherry blossom art. The pink can is a bright pink bubbly soda pop that wins hands down for the most floral flavor. It reminded me of drinking sweetened rose or orange blossom drinks in the middle east. I don’t know if it’s made from real cherry blossoms or if they use a more common flower to get the flavor, but it’s legit. My only complaint was that it was so insanely sweet I had to dilute it. I wanted to mix it with gin, but I haven’t found a local supply since moving here. I tried it with water, but that didn’t work well. Finally, I mixed it with milk, Italian soda style, and that was delicious.
4 stars

20180423_200958.jpgCherry Blossom Grape Juice: The green can was actually my favorite drink of the season. Instead of a soda, it’s green grape juice with the same intensely floral flavor as the soda. It doesn’t have the crazy pink dye, or the bubbles. It’s a bit less sweet, and it has some tasty fruit jelly bits in the bottom. It was still strong, but I diluted it with just water and it was perfect. I’m thinking of buying a bunch to stash for the summer.
5 stars

Cherry Blossom Milk: Koreans love flavored milk. Banana is the most popular flavor here, but I’ve seen several others including green grape and apple. While perusing at a local 7-11 I noticed a single serving milk container with pink blossoms on it. Upon closer inspection, it was indeed cherry blossom milk. It wasn’t bad, only mildly too sweet and somewhere between floral and fruity. Worth drinking once, more than once if you love sweet milk.
2 stars

Alcohol:

Hoegaarden Cherry Beer: It’s technically cherry flavored and cherry blossom scented, but it was released seasonally and decorated with pink blossoms. I was expecting it to be similar to a lambic, but it ended up tasting more like a shandy made with cherry-ade. Not too sweet, and certainly not bad.
3 stars

Kirin Sakura Viewing Can: This beer is decorated with the signature unicorn dancing amid the sakura. Kirin is a Japanese beer company and sakura viewing is an important part of spring. The seasonal can is decorated to put you in the mood for spring, but the inside is the same classic Kirin taste. I happen to like Kirin beer, so this wasn’t a big disappointment.
3 stars

Soju: I saw posters around town for soju (the Korean distilled rice wine) that had cherry blossoms on the label, and usually when there’s something on the soju label other than bamboo it signifies flavor, so I was very hopeful when I finally found some. Sadly, it turned out to be regular soju, which I don’t care for as much as the cheongju (like soju, but smoother with less of that nail-polish-remover aftertaste).
1 star

Foods:

20180311_163719.jpgCherry blossom popcorn: GS25 is a chain of local 24 hour convenience stores. The same brand that created my favorite floral soda and juice, as a matter of fact, and they didn’t stop at drinks. Amid the food offerings was a light pink bag of cherry blossom popcorn. This was my first find of the season this year and I wasn’t sure what to make of it. When I opened the bag, I was hit by a powerful and pleasant perfume making it clear that this was not merely pink popcorn, but genuinely floral. It was sweet and tart, with a base coat of kettle corn and a top note of something like Smarties. I didn’t realize at the time, but I suspect it was made with actual cherry blossoms. More later.
4 stars

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Cherry blossom Pepero sticks: By now the world knows Japan’s famous Pocky sticks: crisp shortbread sticks dipped in chocolate and other flavors. When my family lived in Japan in the 80s (yeah… old) the iconic treats weren’t available in the US and I spent years pining for them after we moved back to America. Although Korea has gotten past it’s hatred of all things Japanese enough to import Pocky, they also have their own national brand of the delicious snacks called “Pepero”. There’s even a national holiday for Pepero where all the stores sell huge boxes and decorated gift sets and we all buy and exchange boxes of Pepero. Not Pocky. The Lotte brand of short, double dipped pepero are delicious anyway, but then I spotted this special pink package and had to try it. The first dip was white chocolate and the top coat had the same sweet/tart taste that I’m coming to realize is the ‘authentic’ cherry powder flavor. It was more creamy than sweet, which was refreshing. It’s not going to replace chocolate as my favorite Pepero flavor, but still enjoyable.
3 stars

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Cherry blossom frozen yogurt: Since many coffee shops here are also dessert cafes, it wasn’t only coffee drinks that came in exciting cherry blossom themes. Yogurpresso is a dessert cafe that specializes in, as you can imagine by the name, frozen yogurt and espresso drinks! Unlike American fro-yo, this is quite tart, like actual yogurt instead of ice cream with an identity crisis. The large “blossoms” are crisp meringue and the sprinkles are some kind of candy. It might be one of the preserved cherry blossom additives. I’ve seen them mostly advertised out of Japan. More likely they are random berry flavored sugar bits. However, the little carafe of pink milk down there is the cherry blossom flavor. A tiny pour over to add floral goodness to the sundae. It was tart and refreshing with a variety of flavors and textures to keep it interesting.
4 stars

Cherry blossom pastries & snack cakes:

Once again in a convenience store (they are truly ubiquitous) I found a rack of blossom themed snack cakes. I’m not a huge fan of the packaged pastries here in Korea. Although they are super cheap, they are far inferior to the fresh pastries offered on every other street at the cafe/bakery combos like Tous le Jous and Paris Baguette. I got one bun to try, but it turned out to be strawberry creme. The darker red is red bean (a common bun filling and one I actually quite like), but I prefer my red bean filling with fresh cream. The strawberry was too sweet and there wasn’t anything cherry blossom about it other than the pinkness. The other snack you see here is a variant on the ever present snack cakes. I read this one before grabbing it and it’s also just strawberry and cream cheese. I didn’t bother to buy it after all.
1 star

Festival food:

I didn’t go to any festivals this year, but I decided to throw in my festival food observations from previous years. Every festival in Korea has shaped and colored cotton candy. I’ve seen cartoon charaters, animals, and abstract art created in spun sugar. Cherry blossom festivals of course bring out cherry blossom shaped cotton candy. I didn’t eat any because I figure it’s all cotton candy flavored when we’re talking about festival street carts.
(not rated)

I did eat the cherry blossom fried ice cream at last year’s festival, however. It’s not very pretty, and it’s hard to tell in the paper cup that it is blossom shaped, but you can sort of make out the petals at the top? The best part of this treat is watching them make it. The vendor removes a super frozen blossom of ice cream and dips it in batter before dropping it in boiling oil right before your eyes! When it’s done, the outside is warm and crispy and the inside is cold and creamy. It was vanilla, and I loved it anyway.
4 stars

Honey Butter Cherry Blossom Potato Chips: I was not going to eat this. I saw it early in the season and turned away. This is because when I first arrived in Korea I tried the Honey Butter Chip. I do not know what the obsession with honey butter flavor here is, but you can get WAY too much stuff in honey butter. The problem was it was awful. It was cloyingly sweet and the butter was really potent (maybe because they use French fermented butter?) I was glad to have the experience once, but had no desire to repeat it.

Then I read another blog about Korean snacks and discovered that the limited edition seasonal flavor is actually made with domestic cherry blossoms, harvested from Chilgok County in north Gyeongsang. That’s really close to where I live!Untitled.png

Only 1.4 million bags were released, by the way. That sounds like a lot, but there are more than 51 million people in Korea, soooo I guess we’re sharing. As you can see, the chips are not pink. I’m fine with that since it means no dyes. The smell of cherry blossoms is the first thing that hits you when you open the bag, which is saying something, since potato chips have a fairly strong smell of their own. I tasted a crisp and was pleased to find that the cloying sweetness I’d disliked in my first honey butter experience was dampened significantly by a gentle floral tartness. I became extremely curious at this point. So many of the things I’d tasted had been more tart than floral, and I’d just been assuming it was a matter of artificial flavors, but this was made with real flowers!
4.5 stars

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The Last Word on Cherry Blossom Flavor:

I looked it up, because that’s me. I found that in Japan, there’s an ages old culinary tradition of salt pickling cherry blossoms in plum vinegar. But, Haitai Corp. was very clear about the Korean origin of the flowers they used (equally proud of the French origin of the butter they use, by the way). I broke down and worked on translating the package and ingredients list to try and get more information, but all I could gather was that it’s domestic Korean flowers and not artificial flavors.

My only conclusion is that cherry blossoms are actually tart in taste. This explains why every cherry blossom treat I tried was either a little sour or way too sweet. The flavor has to be treated more like lemon or green plum in contrast to sweeter flowers like jasmine or lavender. Considering how many times I was surprised by sourness, maybe I ate a lot more real cherry blossoms this year than I realized.

Happy spring and happy snacking!