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 GrevenbroeckerI 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.
Westmalle Tripel with Old Brussels
Oud Beersel Oude Geuze with fenugreek Geitenkass
Saison Dupont with Pas de Rouge
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.