Beer Writer of the Year Simon Jenkins enjoys a long weekend in the bars and cafes of Flanders. After all, when you can fall asleep just off Hull, and wake up just outside Bruges, why wouldn’t you?
“WITH your Norwegian fish, I’d like you to try the De Koninck Amber beer. Its orange fruit bitterness will compliment the soft oiliness of the seafood.”
We’re a weird lot, us Brits. We brew a huge range of beers – but when we dine out we usually open a bottle of wine. The idea of pairing beer and fine food is slowly catching on in the UK, but the Belgians have been famous for it for centuries.
A friend and I are eating at Den Dyver, an unassuming, plain-fronted restaurant close to one of Bruges’ many canals. Inside, boss Guido and his team have for 20 years been matching top-quality cuisine with some of Belgian’s many hundreds of beers, in a sumptuous restaurant of crisp linen and gleaming glass, candles and polished wood.
We’ve opted for the beer banquet menu, and over the course of two hours are served with a series of small, beautifully-prepared dishes each with their recommended beer. Actually, not so much recommended as prescribed; you’re not given the option to disagree. So there’s full-bodied Mac Chouffe (8.5% ABV) with Iberian pork cheek, spicy Pimpernelle (8%) with monkfish, rich Timmermans wheat beer (4.5%) with pigeon. Each choice, elegantly described and explained, works perfectly – and not a moule or a frite in sight.
The night at Den Dyver is the highlight of our long weekend, which starts with a P&O ferry crossing from Hull and the hour’s drive to Ghent, first stop on our whistle-stop tour.
The best way to see Ghent is on foot, and our guide Claud has planned a devilish route around his home town, which not only takes in all the major sights, but calls in at a significant number of bars on route. I suspect he’s done this before.
So after pointing out the belfry and the Gothic St Bavo’s Cathedral, he brings us to Chez Leontine, a waterside restaurant whose house beers – the citric, slightly clovey Blond and the medicinal Bruin – prove a nice foil for our substantial lunches. The rich beef and gravy of the Flemish Stew and the full-flavoured fish, potato and prawn Waterzooi, are chosen to provide much-needed stodge to soak up some alcohol.
On the terrace outside, as tourist boats ply the canal, we are treated to a further local specialities, the curious Mammeloker (6%) which combines clovey, minty tastes with some soft rich caramel; the blonde and palate-cleansing Gandavum (7.5%) and then the amber, honeyed Klokke Roeland, which at 11% ABV is the strongest beer I make acquaintance with on this whole trip. Customers are sensibly limited to three 25cl glasses a session, but one was enough for me.
After showing off some more of this lovely cobbled city’s historic delights, Claud winds up his tour at Ghent’s own Gruut brewery, owned and run by brewer Annick De Splenter, who has revived an ancient tradition of using herbs in the brewing process. Where possible, her beers are unfiltered too – “we keep the beer like it is, with all the nice ingredients” – and while not revealing which herbs she uses, she reveals they number just three: one for bitterness, one to provide a refreshing taste, and one to ensure the stability of the head. Which is promising, because my head is in dire need of a little stability right now.
Gruut is open to the public; the brewing vessels sit alongside the stylish bar, so you can eat and drink while watching Annick and her colleagues working their alchemic magic.
She talks us through the range, the beers growing in flavour and strength as we go. First the pale and refreshing Wit (5%), next the easy-drinking Blonde (5.5%), and then caramelly, almost Trappist-like Bruin (8%), which uses chocolate and nuts to create a distinctive rich flavour with a prodigious aftertaste. “I thought of the idea while skiing,” she adds, for no good reason.
But my favourite is the soft and malty Amber (6.6%) which has some of the characteristics of an English pale ale – despite no hops being used in the mash.
Later we take a trip a mile or so south of Ghent to the Brouwerij Huyghe, which was established in 1906, but traces its ancestry to a 17th century brewery. Although it produces a range of weird and wonderful fruit beers – many hybrid simply blends of pale lager and fruit concentrate – its most famous beer is the rich, clovey and fiercely potent Delirium Tremens (8% ABV). My head’s really throbbing now.
Thankfully I find some peace at Ghent’s Poortackere Monasterium, which dates back more than 700 years and was a nunnery until as recently as 1998. With its high ceilings, austere decor and furnishings and its feeling of hushed and cloistered calm, its conversion to a hotel has stayed faithful to its rich history. Boozed-up blokes on stag weekends would not be at home here.
After a sobering night in the nunnery we are back on the road, this time from Ghent to Bruges. Driving into the historic centre of Bruges can be a bewildering experience, with its ancient labyrinth of narrow streets, bridges and sharp corners. By a legendary feat of navigation we find our way to the exquisite Huis Koning, a family-run guesthouse with just three luxurious bedrooms, and a canalside terrace, ideal for an outdoor breakfast. With a maximum of six guests, you can be assured of wonderfully friendly personal service.
Bruges is truly gorgeous. Every street, every alleyway, holds some beautiful surprise - stone towers and bridges, canals, gardens, street cafes and chocolate shops. It’s just like in the film, but without the gangsters or the dwarf.
We join a party of tourists for a trip round De Halve Maan (half moon) brewery. The brewery runs a polyglot of tours all day long, so after being briefly entangled in a coachload of enthusiastic Taiwanese we find our way to the English one. After the tour, we enjoy a glass of their rich and ruby red Brugse Zot Dubbel (7.5%), before embarking on a half-hour boat tour winding through the city’s maze of waterways. And there’s just time for a spot of bar-hopping, a favourite pastime in these parts, before we head for that splendid beer banquet at Den Dyver.
Later, after a lazy walk through the icy moonlit night we reach Brugs Beertje, a poky two-room alehouse famous the world over for packing around 300 beers into its cellars and fridges. The walls are crammed with posters and panels celebrating beers old and new, the atmosphere sensuous, intimate, bohemian.
The next day we take in a little more of this historic city, and relax in the grand market square, where bars and restaurants with ranks of street-side tables compete for our attention. We choose one, and sit for a while in the sunshine, soaking up the scene. It’s a great way to end our weekend escape, before we head sadly back to Zeebrugge and the overnight hop back to sober real life.
Simon’s visit to Belgium was organised by London-based Tourism Flanders-Brussels (Tel: 020 7307 7738) whose website visitflanders.co.uk is packed with information about the region, its history, about places to visit and accommodation.
P&O Ferries sail to Zeebrugge and Rotterdam from Hull. Prices start from £109 each way for a car and two passengers on the Hull-Zeebrugge route, inclusive of an ensuite standard cabin. For more information, or to book, call 08716 646464 or visit www.poferries.com
Among places Simon which visited on his tour are:
Brouwerij Huyghe – www.delirium.be
Gruut Brouwerij – www.gruut.be
Poortackere Monasterium – www.monasterium.be Chez Leontine – www.chezleontine.be Den Dyver – www.dyver.be Huis Koning – www.huiskoning.be De Halve Maan Brewery – www.halvemaan.be Brugs Beertje – www.brugsbeertje.be
For further information about Bruges, visit www.brugge.be
For more about Ghent, go to www.visitgent.be