Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Beers of Belgium come better when Brown: On to Brussels!

Brussels, of course, is as far as most English tourists customarily reached, after Bruges and Ghent (both of which have a flourishing beer culture). The Eurostar connection is reversing that trend: now it is easier to go direct to the capital, then backtrack north to the scenic wonders of Flanders (well: there are those two). Since Eurostar tickets include free onward travel to any other station in Belgium, that's a no-brainer.

Once in Brussels, the trick is to head for the Metro and avoid the grim bit around the Midi station.

The same applies to the concrete desert at the other end of town, around the Schuman gyratory. That's le Quartier Européen. View the Berlaymont and the granite-and-glass Justus Lipsius building, if you must, at a safe distance. Venture no closer. When the EU sessions are on, it's awash with limousines, police, and self-important politicos on expenses: any mere peasant, the underwriter of those expenses, is an unwelcome intruder. Other times, it's a morgue. Either way, it's over-priced, over-rated, and needs to be kept over there.

A kingly start

Out of season, in the cold, the Grand Place was tolerably light on tourists. that meant it was possible to find a seat in Le Roy d'Espagne and watch the evening light show on the façade of the Hôtel de Ville. A problem remains: Le Roy d'Espagne is a tourist trap: the beer list is short, unadventurous, stuffed by the big breweries (the aim, remember, is to avoid InBev), and not cheap. So Malcolm went for the Chimay Bleue. The price apart (€6.10 for 33cl bottle!), this was an acceptable but not surprising strong brown ale. Was it round the corner, at Le Cirio in Beursstraat/Rue de la Bourse, that a similar issue arose, to be solved by Ciney Brune? That beer, too was quite adequate, average, unremarkable.

The uplifting bit

As sold to the Lady in Malcolm's Life, the Brussels excursion was cultural. So the kulcha thing had to be done. Hence a protracted tour of the newly-reopened (as a separate exhibition space) René Magritte rooms at the Musee des Beaux-Arts. How many permutations on a few basic themes can a man take? Far more involving was the domestic Horta Museum, on a tram ride down the south side, at Rue Américaine.

Something of a surprise was the vast classico-fruity Palace of Justice, athwart the end of the Rue de la Regence away from the Museums. One account has this as the biggest single building erected in the nineteenth century: the central hall has the proportions of a major railway terminus, so that boast is quite credible. It's by no means a "beautiful" structure, but it does impress (rather in the same way as a bulldozer). It's also a tram stop on the way out to Louise and the shopping drag. This allows a supendous free view across the city from the edge of the Place Poelaert. Poelaert was the architect of this monster, which required the demolition of an entire working-class quarter: the term "architect" instantly and properly became a Belgian term of abuse.

The Lady in Malcolm's Life deals with crossing streets where foreign lunatics are driving cars on the wrong side of the road thus: follow the young. They've got more to lose. They'll know the routine. If they can make it, the rest of us stand a chance. Outside the Palace of Justice she refined this a degree further: follow the young robed lawyer. After all, it needs a brave or desperate driver to take out a lawyer. In passing, the ring road of Brussels is a race-track to be avoided: nor is Belgian signposting the acme of helpfulness.

The elbow-lifting bit, resumed

Between these spirit-enhancing activities (and there were others) needed to be fitted the processes of eating ... and drinking.

The eating bit solved itself by le Grand Café being on the opposite corner to O'Reilly's Irish Pub. Now, Malcolm has mixed experiences of these "Oirish" joints in European cities: this one qualifies for the dismal end of the listing. Unless one is desperate for free wi-fi [password: A1B2C3D4E5F6, if Malcolm recalls correctly], steer clear. So, a quick scamper across Boulevard Anspach to find competently served food.

Le Grand Café's beer list is thin, featuring the usual InBev fizzes (that huge Stella Artois sign outside gives fair warning). It does include some decencies:
  • Pauwel Kwak, a plum pudding of a dark amber beer. It's strong (8%) and drinkable. Alas, it is served in the most pretentious manner possible (the website should be an indicator) . Named in honour of a coaching-inn owner, the proper glass is a foot-of-ale, supported in a wooden neck-stretcher. For Malcolm, derisive mockery from the Lady in his Life determined this could never be a drink of choice.
  • Both blond and brown Kasteel beers from the Von Honsebrouck brewery of Ingelmunster. The pale brew is quaffable, and 7%: of the brown more anon (see below).
  • Rodenbach Grand Cru. Now this is a difficult one. It's a dark-ruddy ale rated at 6%. It's sharp, and flavourful. It has a very acetic aftershock. It's definitely a take-it-or-leave-it beer: Malcolm took it the once, an experience he would not have missed, but is not rushing to repeat it.
Going up in the world

Drinking was also done elsewhere, particularly when the Redfellow entourage was heading to and from the upper town. A convenient roosting point, then, was Place du Grand Sablon. Here are a nest of decent little cafés, and (just a bit away) a stonkingly fine one. In the environs are a mess of arty-farty shops and galleries, providing ample opportunity to mock the tastes of others. There's an upper-class version of a flea-market, flogging "antiques", many weekends. Mustn't omit Wittamer, that Tiffany of chocolatiers (Tiffany & Co itself is plonked at the intersection of Avenue Louisa and the Petite Ceinture, convenient for lawyers and ladies who lunch).

The Lady in his Life and Malcolm sought shelter from the unbalmy mid-December breeze in a couple of the Place du Grand Sablon's cafés. Liquidly this involved:
  • Rouge Chimay at L'entréee des Artistes, deceptively light on the palate for its 7% rating, yet a bit crusty and tart on the tongue, too. The brasserie is pretentious enough to have its own clip on Youtube;
  • A thoroughly decent Westmalle Trappist Dubbel in La Kartchma, which pretends at Art Nouveau, across the square. As for the beer, it does what it says on the bottle. What Malcolm would like is to try this one on draught: it is rumoured to exist.
There remained two bibulous treats in Brussels.

Le Perroquet

Off Grand Sablon follow Rue Watteau. At the top find an unprepossessing café on the corner: le Perroquet. It looks a bit dowdy, but it is an unreconstructed and genuine art-nouveau. The cuisine is unpretentious, little more than a superior sandwich bar: pitta breads with umpteen fillings, salads, to be completed with home-made cheesecakes, chocolate cakes, strudels ... to die for.

Malcolm, of course, was here for the beer. Trappistes Rochefort comes in three grades, differenced only by coloured caps and numbered roundels: red 6 (@ 7.5%), blue 8 (2 9.2%) and, the pick of the litter, black 10 (an awesome 11.3%: surely an up-the-wooden hill to beddie-byes drink). Explain the logic of all that.

Since this was early afternoon, choice fell on the 8. Beautiful, just beautiful: mahogany brown in the glass, and it drinks like treacle. There is something very subtle in the brew: Tim Webb identifies it as pinch of "coriander in the mash". This is a beer and a venue to die for; Malcolm on his second bottle heard the angels calling. And came back next day for more of the same.

Ready for home

The Lady and Malcolm were on the mid-evening Eurostar, so it was an early foddering, back at that staple, Le Grand Café.

Before the main course, and a bottle of decent red plonk, there was time for one more. As Malcolm said above, Le Grand Café's beer list isn't the longest. But, as mentioned above, ...

.. it includes the Kasteels from Van Honsebrouck, blond and brown. The Bruin comes in at 11%. When Malcolm requested it, the waitress had a double-take, and asked did he know it was strong. Oh, yes! Think barley wine with chandeliers, bells and knobs on. It takes no prisoners. And, for nudging the memory, don't miss one of the most inventive brewery web-sites around. Sphere: Related Content

1 comment:

yourcousin said...

Man if I ever make it back to Europe I'm going to hit you up for a pub tour. But as it is, I'm buying PBR with quarters right now. Don't ever let anyone romanticize the struggles of the working class

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