Bensoir! It's me, Benjamin. I like to eat and drink. And cook. And write.

You may have read stuff I've written elsewhere, but here on my own blog as Ben Viveur I'm liberated from the editorial shackles of others, so pretty much anything goes.

BV is about enjoying real food and drink in the real world. I showcase recipes that taste awesome, but which can be created by mere mortals without the need for tons of specialist equipment and a doctorate in food science. And as a critic I tend to review relaxed establishments that you might visit on a whim without having to sell your first-born, rather than hugely expensive restaurants and style bars in the middle of nowhere with a velvet rope barrier, a stringent dress code and a six-month waiting list!

There's plenty of robust opinion, commentary on the world of food and drink, and lots of swearing, so look away now if you're easily offended. Otherwise, tuck your bib in, fill your glass and turbo-charge your tastebuds. We're going for a ride... Ben Appetit!

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The brewery where everything turns sour

So, this year I've got a bit of a travel bug biting me squarely on the ballsack, and as a consequence I'm metamorphosing into sort of a less amiable version of Michael Palin. One who has to pay his own way to go to places and doesn't have a TV crew in tow.

Essentially, the plan is to try and tick off 12 whole new countries in 2015, and given that I've already visited 30-odd, including most (though not all) of the closer ones, it could be a bit of a challenge, so I'm trying to get off to a flying start. Except that I don't like flying all that much.

Sampling beer at the Cantillon brewery
Last month we had a short break to Marrakech (and I'll blog a Moroccan tagine recipe once I've perfected it) and the other day we had an even shorter trip to the closest country I hadn't done yet - Luxembourg.

A really, really fucking short trip, actually. About 80 minutes. There's not an awful lot to do in Lux.

However, the upside of this is that we got to use Brussels as a base for a couple of nights to break up the 13 hour train journey, and there is plenty to do there. Especially if you like drinking Belgian beer.

Brussels stouts

I probably haven't even begun to scratch the surface of the drinking potential of this city. From the Moeder Lambic bars where authentic sour fruit beers are served on cask, to the tiny Nüetnigenough ('Greedy Glutton') brasserie where traditional Belgian food and beers are paired in a more intimate setting - try the Carbonade de Bouef made with Rochefort ale.

Lambic, sausage, malt grains and mustard - a great night out!
Then there's the hip and crafty Delirium Village where trendy youngsters can choose from dozens of draught and hundreds of bottled beers across several bars. And - if you like scary puppets and trombones  as well as great beer - the unbelievably-decorated Poechenellekelder, in the touristy bit by the famous Mannekin Pis.

(While I'd been to Belgium before, this actually was my first trip to Brussels, and I was surprised at how small Mr. Pis is - and I mean the entire statue, not just his pissing cock!)

But back to those deliciously sour lambic beers, and if that's your bag, a trip to the Cantillon brewery has to be on your to-do list.

Anarchy in the EU

If you've been on an organised brewery tour before, you'll probably know the slightly guilty feeling you get when your host starts glaring suspiciously in your direction just because you've eyed up something interesting in a corner and are thinking, just thinking mind, about wandering off from the tour for a moment. Like Charlie and Grandpa Joe.

Fuck knows what this did
But these crazy Belgians, with their 100+ year old traditional lambic brewery just let you walk around and see everything for yourself, unsupervised, at your own curious pace. Even on a brew day.

It's impossible to imagine a brewery of similar size and stature allowing this sort of shenanigans over here, but for a visiting beer writer, it's a fucking awesome scenario.

You pays your very reasonable seven euros to get in, they hand you a leaflet, and you wander about watching the magic of fermantation as the miracle unfolds. When you're done, you can head back to the bar and have a couple of free samples.

And it is really quite a lot like Willie Wonka's Chocolate Factory in there. Whirring, clunking noises abound, the smell of crushed malt hits your nostrils at every turn, and watching the spinning and churning and flowing is really quite mesmerising.

They're very trusting, these Belgians. I don't think I'd trust Grandpa Joe Public with open vessels containing of gallons of wort.

Bits of ancient, disused equipment are left in situ alongside the current working kit, so you'll see cobwebby bottling machines from the 1930s alongside brand new keykegs, freshly racked for export market.

Whirr, clunk, the magic at work
If you read the leaflet, you pick up interesting little factoids along the way, despite the notable lack of supervision:

For example, I had no idea that Cantillon only brews Lambic variants, that the brewing season is Winter-only, and that the youngest lambic ever made available for drink is a full year old - most of it then goes on to be blended with fruit, or with older lambics, and matured for even longer.

And the fruity ones are proper fruit beers. None of your gimmicky, Fosters Radler shit here. Fuckloads of real sour cherries go into the kriek. I've seen the big sacks.

Unlike most Belgian breweries, Cantillon do produce a fair amount of cask for a few outlets in the city (in one evening I found the regular lambic, kriek, framboise (raspberry) and faro (sweetened) available, which really isn't bad).

With its long maturation time, it's a style that lends itself really well to the cask, so long as it's served nice and cool, and it would be great if Cantillon exported to the UK in this format.

I'm left wanting more, and while I still want to tick off another ten new countries this year, the prospect of a return to Belgium to check out more of its breweries is a sorely tempting one. And it is only a couple of hours on the Eurostar...

I might just have to stand for the European Parliament and get myself sent to Brussels while we're still in the business of sending folks there!

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