A Shame of International Proportions
Although not as well known for its cuisine, Belgium by no means takes a culinary back seat to its kissing cousin and next-door neighbor, France. France is Belgium’s biggest beer export market, and in turn, tiny Belgium consumes a respectable 24.3 liters of wine per capita, 70 percent of it French.
In both countries, asking for a real beer with dinner in a good restaurant is like ordering a BLT in Baghdad. There are beer specialist restaurants in Belgium, especially in touristy Bruges, though they are few and far between. Beers in bistros and brasseries are too often the bland brands of global brewers. Carbonnade, the Flemish national dish, is a hearty beef stew made with beer, but often served with red wine.
This is a shame of international proportions, since there are beers for every palate. Perhaps the reason lies in the fact that many, but by no means all, of Belgium’s best-known beers are on the sweet side. Beers like Westmalle, Duvel, Chimay, Corsendonk and Lindemans’ fruited lambics have the residual sugar of a French Sauterne, Vouvray or Coteaux du Layon—wines seldom served with the main meal. They are superb pick-me-ups, soul-satisfying digestives, and delightful with dessert, but just too sweet for daily dinner.
Fortunately, there are plenty of exceptions—like Witkap Pater, marvelous with mussels; Saison Dupont, delicious with fresh fish; and bone-dry Lindemans’ Gueuze Cuvée René, with a nutty, damp cave character that is a fine match for blue cheese and hearty soups like waterzooi.
Beers, here, defy categorization. They may be seasoned with honey, mint, chocolate, fruit, spices and herbs, including, of course, hops. If not actual ingredients, the aroma or taste of leather, tobacco, oak, caramel, coffee, plums, black pepper, salt air, and even dirty socks are waiting to be discovered in various beers. Finding foods to match such disparate flavors in the beer is an exploration equivalent to practicing the Kama Sutra.
Flanders extends to both Belgium and France. French Flanders, just north of Champagne, celebrates with stylish bottle-conditioned bières de garde, like Castelain—delicious with veal in cream sauce, pork with apples, and onion soup.