Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Highlight #11: The House of (Beer and) Cheese.

These are in no particular order, did I mention that? OK. Why, then, am I going in reverse numerical order, as if to make a big fat deal out of #1 if I ever actually get there? I don't know. Shoulda coulda woulda.

Oh, hey... do you like beer? Cheese too? I gather it's a big thing these days, pairing beer and cheese. No, scratch that, it's been a big thing for at least a decade now. Hey, you know who else loves beer and cheese? The Belgians. And they are pretty good at both of them. Don't get upset that most Belgians would prefer to drink wine with their meals, including their cheese. That's a global affliction, and Belgium is very close to France. But the beer-and-cheese thing, that's catching on there too.

OK, let's talk about meccas. Not the Mecca but small-m meccas, the kind that all travelers have. They're like bucket lists except you don't scratch them off the list and you don't worry about kicking the bucket. Instead you just feel a pull to visit there one day, or again, or repeatedly. In the Belgian beer world, the Kulminator is a mecca for people who like old Belgian ales. Moeder Lambic Fontainas is a mecca for those who like hops and lambic on draft. Westvleteren is a mecca for those who like the holy and hard-to-get. And so on.

So, how about a new mecca for the beer-and-cheese heads?

I might have been there. In the sprawl that shoots south of Antwerp, there is a town along the A12 road called Aartselaar (which in the competition for Belgian-town alphabetical supremacy is up there with, I don't know, Aalst I guess). In this town is a groovy little shop called Camembière. It's a good name, a name that signals exactly where this is going. Out front the canopy even says, "Kaasaffineurs, Biersommelier." This is a place of expertise.

Philippe Wagman and Mieke Foubert are the proprietors. Philippe is a former construction engineer who followed a childhood dream to be a cheese monger. "I let everything fall down for this, and it's much nicer. ... I wanted to do this since I was 13, but I think my parents didn't take me seriously. And I never got it out of my head. ... I found cheeses amazing. How do you start with cow's milk and end up with so many different kinds of cheese?"

The beer part came later, "about 10 years ago," he said. "I was frustrated when I ate good cheeses and a bottle of wine. I like wine, I have nothing against wine, but I found it frustrating. ... The wine didn't match with most of the cheese I was eating. So I thought, 'Why don't I try it with beer?' And I found some really nice combinations. Everybody speaks about beer and cheese combinations now. Ten years ago it was, 'What are you doing?'"

In Limburg there is a vocational school for professionals called SYNTRA, and it's one of the programs in Belgium offering a "beer sommelier" or zytholog certification these days. Philippe got one to put alongside his long-held interest in cheese affinage.

The question of what to pair with what is the subject of ongoing experimentation, but Philippe and Mieke have no shortage of ready suggestions. Some useful results came out of a judged tasting that put 12 of the country's more interesting beers against a varying selection of three cheeses per beer. The judges then ranked the strongest pairings. The top four pairings, for your reference:
Rodenbach Grand Cru with Grevenbroecker
Westmalle Tripel with Old Brussels
Oud Beersel Oude Geuze with fenugreek Geitenkass
Saison Dupont with Pas de Rouge
I took some Grevenbroecker and Pas de Rouge with me to munch with the chosen beers that evening. Not an organized tasting but I had a hell of a time. And one of these days I ought to scribble something on Belgian craft cheese and its parallels with Belgian craft beer. But not today.

Camembière stocks about 90 beers at last check, with plenty of good taste and an eye toward what pairs well. Also a wide variety of cheeses, plus charcuterie and other nibbles. There is a small table or two for sitting down for a snack, but large groups will need to make other plans. There is a De Lijn bus stop nearby for the ambitious, but those with cars will find it easier. It's pretty close to Steenhuffel, if you want to check out Palm's Brouwershuis tap. Bring some stinky cheese in there with you, while you're at it.
So for me, that's a highlight. More to come. Here's an explanation if you're wondering what I'm up to.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Highlight #12: Best of the Browns.

Q: What's better than a shiny, modern, specialist beer café with hundreds of great bottles and taps from which to choose?

A: An utterly brown one, with a small handful of great beers.

I'd like you to meet the Brumaire. This is a real neighborhood brown café in Saint-Gilles, a corner bar that looks like so many others, with Stella Artois signage and smoky regulars sitting out front, holding court. Once inside you have the requisite gaming machine and little bags of potato chips or sausage bites. Inexplicably for such a small place, there are stage lights and a disco ball.

I counted 37 beers on the wall-mounted list, made from those slats and little plastic letters like you used to see in hospitals and elementary schools. To my shame, I took no photo of this. But among the usuals were Jambe de Bois, Witkap Stimulo, Hommelbier, and a few Trappists than included Orval, Rochefort 10, Westmalle Tripel, and Chimays blue and white, the latter being on draft.

Plus Saison Dupont.

Translations are imperfect, but maybe this is like an American hole-in-the-wall dive that happens to have Sierra Nevada on draft, or a British "community pub" that happens to have well-kept Taylor's Landlord. A jewel.

So there I was in the middle of a long foot-trek from central Brussels to Moeder Lambic St-Gilles -- which is just a couple of blocks away -- drinking a Saison Dupont in one of the brownest cafés in Brussels, which automatically puts it in the running for brownest worldwide. Nibbling on those awful, wonderful little sausage bites. Trying to figure out where they boogie when the disco ball goes into effect.

So for me, that's a highlight. More to come. Here's an explanation if you're wondering what I'm up to.

Highlights of a Belgian Swing.

So my current project is a big fat book full of Belgian stuff. Tell you more soon. What I want to say just this moment is that I got to 156 beery cafés across that country on a three-week swing last summer. That includes several that were shut, and it also includes 15 breweries. I mean "café" in the broadest sense here, encompassing restaurants and brewery taps and night spots and museums with bars (in Belgium, a museum without a bar is a paltry thing).

The number is nothing to boast about. Many were unremarkable, and I drank a lot of water and coffee between scenic country drives and city tram rides. I could think of better things to do, and often I did. But as work goes, you know, it was all right. OK, better than all right. My point is this: There were highlights.

So I have some pretty swell suggestions for you.

I've come up with a list of a dozen favorite places from my summer swing. I hope they'll help other folks plan their own. Bear in mind, I'm not calling these the 12 best cafés in Belgium (although a few would certainly be on that hypothetical list). These are just my 12 highlights, the spots and moments that pleased me most. Best I can remember. In no particular order.

I'm going to ration them out, partly because I hate really long posts. Also because each of them deserves a post of its own.

Stay tuned for the first:

11. House of (Beer and) Cheese: about Camembière.
12. Best of the Browns: about the Brumaire.