Belgium has long been a serious beer drinker’s destination, and when combined with great foods, a week’s trip is a delight. The entire country—Wallonia in the south and Flanders in the north—is chock-full of great breweries and restaurants. That’s too much to tackle in one week so we focused on Flanders—with a visit to the capitol, Brussels, which straddles the north-south political, social and psychological divide of the country.
Gasthof ‘t Hommelhof Brasserie
Where to start? Anywhere is perfect, but the sleepy village of Watou in the southwest part of Flanders, almost a stone’s throw from the French border, is as good as any.
“I arrived 17 years ago from Antwerp in a village between two breweries, so it was an easy decision to cook with beer,” said Chef Stefaan Couttenye of Gasthof ’t Hommelhof Brasserie in Watou. The two breweries Chef Couttenye referred to are Brouwerij Van Eecke, a three- minute walk past the church and across the village square, and Brouwerij St. Bernard, also in Watou.
As a result of all this, Chef Couttenye has not only turned ’t Hommelhof into a destination restaurant for food and beer lovers, he’s also become a beer cookbook author with Het Bierkeukenboek (The Beer Kitchen Book).
One of Chef Couttenye’s great-grandfathers was a brewer in nearby Dranouter, so he figured that “beer was in my blood.” He was raised in Antwerp and, against his parents’ wishes, he studied cooking at the Hotelschool Ter Duinen in Koksijde, Belgium. After years of apprenticeship and working as a sous chef in restaurants in Belgium and France, he was presented with the opportunity to open his own restaurant in what was a run-down dance hall in Watou. At that time, the village was becoming a summer destination for artists and poets. To set himself apart and attract customers, he focused on beer in his kitchen.
“It was clear in which direction I had to go,” Chef Couttenye said. “I would start experimenting with beer. I would attempt to revitalize the ancient tradition of cooking with beer and creating a new, modern version more in tune with modern eating habits.”
Couttenye has succeeded in his task. Beer menus in Gasthof ’t Hommelhof Brasserie change seasonally, and the restaurant is warm and inviting, presenting meals in several different rooms.
During the early spring, a special menu features the pride and joy of nearby Poperinge—hops. Not mature hops, which won’t be ready for harvest until the end of the summer, but tender young hop shoots are the bill of fare on the Hopsheutenmenu (Hop Shoots Menu), which may include:
• Blanquette of lamb’s tongue, skrei (Norwegian cod) and fried hop shoots with Poperings Hommelbier (brewed by Brouwerij Van Eecke).
• Smoked Scheld eel bavarois with an espuma and a hop shoots salad; Geuze Boon (brewed by Brouwerij Boon) jelly scented with smoked eel.
• Guinea fowl fillet from Zillebeke and a drumstick confit with St. Bernardus Tripel (brewed by Brouwerij St. Bernard), creamy hop shoots and spring vegetables.
The house beer is Cuvée ’t Hommelhof (7.0 percent ABV), a blend of Kapittel Abt and Watou’s Witbier (5.0 percent), both brewed by Brouwerij Van Eecke. This beer is recommended with all of Couttenye’s meals. It has the aroma of a classic witbier, sharp and clean with a hint of orange and coriander. The flavor is malty and rich with the witbier characteristics tempered by the strong, malty and sweet Abt.
For those who arrive after the hops shoots are gone, Couttenye changes his menu seasonally. The three-course beer-tasting menu in early May featured choices of:
• Grevelingen special oysters, or beer and cheese soup, or beef carpaccio in a Cuvée ’t Hommelhof Marinade with goose liver cream and Parmesan slivers, or salad of shrimp scampi with a yogurt dressing of raspberry beer and balsamic vinegar.
• Rabbit stew in Kapittel Blond (Brouwerij Van Eecke), or fried monkfish infused with tomatoes, bacon and shallots in Watou’s Witbier, or leg of Ham in St. Bernardus Tripel.
Brouwerij Van Eecke
Brouwerij Van Eecke down the street from ’t Hommelhof dates to 1862. It’s still family-owned (one of the 15 members of Belgian Family Brewers) and has only five employees producing about 18,000 hectoliters of beer a year. The brewery maintains a fleet of 10 trucks—each driver has 100 accounts—for villagers who can have their favorite Van Eecke beers delivered to their doorstep as in the olden days.
There are several lines of beer brewed at Brouwerij Van Eecke:
The Kapittel abbey beers come from recipes from the Catshill Monastery: Pater (6.0 percent ABV), Blonde (6.2 percent ABV), Dubbel (7.5 percent ABV), Prior (9.0 percent ABV) and Tripel Abt (10 percent ABV). The word Kapittel means the managing board of an abbey, which consists of the abbot and the prior, thus the names of the beers.
Poperings Hommelbier (7.5 percent), brewed with hops from nearby Poperinge. Hommel is local dialect for hops, explains Michael Russe of the brewery, and the varieties grown include Hallertau, Kent Goldings, Saaz and Challenger.
Watou’s Bière Blanche (5.0 percent ABV), a classic witbier.
Leroy Christmas (7.5 percent), a beer brewed since shortly after World War I. This beer is named after the Brouwerij Leroy in Boezinge, owned by the same family that owns Van Eecke.
Brouwerij Van Eecke and Leroy own 100 pubs, with the most interesting and quirky next door to the brewery, managed for the last seven years by Mira. Her style is eclectic, incorporating elements of popular and kitsch culture from the last century: paintings, record covers, lamps, etc. Asked how to define her style, Mira said: “It’s my hobby. I don’t think about a style, I just do it.”
Restaurant Den Dyver
About 50 miles north of Watou is the medieval city of Bruges, a UNESCO World Heritage Center since 2000. The city center is a maze of winding alleys and canals. Whether explored on foot or on water, it’s an architectural delight. And then there are the beers and the restaurants.
Chef Guido Vandenbussche runs the kitchen at Restaurant Den Dyver in Bruges, and his son, Achim, handles the front of the house. They specialize in cooking with beer and pairing food at the table.
“I usually prefer to drink beer,” Achim said, “but on the table I prefer wine—except I drink beer with a sauce made with beer. Then there is an explosion in the mouth.”
Chef Vandenbussche spoke of specific ways in which he cooks with beer.
“I create meals from an entire animal,” he said, “such as lamb. I cover the legs with dark beer and seasonings for four hours at 55 degrees C in the oven. This tenderizes the lamb. For duck, I use old wood for smoke and soak it the same way as lamb. Salmon, however, requires whiskey. For fish, I use a wheat beer or a blond beer. I make a meringue with gueuze, and for a chocolate mousse cream it’s a Trappist beer. I try to use beers in different ways. You can do a lot of things with beer.”
The house beer at Den Dyver is a sweet, blond ale brewed by Brasserie Dubuisson Frères in Leuze-Pipaix, known for its beer called Bush, which for legal reasons is renamed Scaldis in the U.S. so as not to infringe on the Anheuser-Busch name. There is no beer list. Instead, the Vandenbussches pair specific beers with each course.
On an early spring beer tasting menu, Chef Vandenbussche served a three-course meal that consisted of:
• Amuse Bouche: octopus, cucumber and tomato sauce; gazpacho garden peas; and fish apple radish tapioca.
• Redfish fillet, cauliflower mousse, grilled welsh onion, wood sorrel popcorn with cloves served with Urthel Saisonniere (6.0 percent, Brouwerij de LeierthLeyerth online), or asparagus and basil, grilled beef carpaccio, herring cavier, smoked hay oil served with Dormaal Wit Goud (8.0 percent ABV), Brouwerij Hof Ten Dormaal.
• Baked Norwegian codfish and monk’s liver with lemon thyme asparagus, nettles, radish, bacon crumble served with Poperings Hommelbier (7.5 percent, Brouwerij van Eecke), or duo of lamb, Arabica sauce, Jerusalem artichoke, turnip tops, rye toast, mash of sweet potatoes with chili pepper served with Adriaean Brouwer Dark Gold (8.5 percent, Brouwerij Roman).
• Strawberries with rhubarb verbena ice cream, Gueuze meringue served with Rodenbach (5.2 percent, Brouwerij Rodenbach).
That might normally be enough for one night, but any beer visit to Bruges is forfeit unless as many visits as possible are made to what might be the best beer café in a land of many excellent beer cafés. Café ’t Brugs Beertje (Bruges’s Little Bear), run by the most magnificent of hosts, Daisy Claeys, specializes in Streekbieren (beers of the region). There are about 300 beers with five available on draft.
One other beer specialty restaurant in Bruges is Bierbrasserie Cambrinus. The restaurant has a list of 400 beers, eight on tap, in a historic building dating to 1699. Among many beer items on the menu, Cambrinus offers cheese croquette and salad made with Achel Trappist beer and Belgium’s famous carbonnade flamande made with Gulden Draak from Brouwerij Van Steenberge.
About 25 miles south of Bruges is the small city of Roeselare, where the rococo city hall on the central market square dates from the 18th century. The city hall, market hall and the belfry have been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
A famous brewery in Roeselare is Brouwerij Alexander Rodenbach, which dates to 1821 and is now part of the family-owned Palm Breweries (the other beer brands being Palm, Steenbrugge, Boon and Estaminet). Rodenbach is a specialty among specialties for Belgian beers, a sour, red beer blended from a mix of young beer and beer aged for two years in oak barrels. It’s during this aging that the beer is infused with aromas and flavors of at least eight strains of yeast and lactic acid bacteria.
The regular Rodenbach (5.2 percent ABV) is a blend of 75 percent young beer with 25 percent aged beer. Rodenbach Grand Cru (6.0 percent), much sharper on the palate, is a mix of about 33 percent young beer and about 67 percent aged beer. There are experiments ongoing at the brewery to produce a beer with a blend made from 3-year-old aged beer.
Belga Queen Ghent
Ghent is another medieval city, reminiscent of Bruges. But although a larger city, the Ghent historic city center seems smaller and quieter. It has all the charm of Bruges, but seemingly fewer tourists. Ghent is about 45 miles west and north of Roselaresee above.
The top beer restaurant in Ghent is Belga Queen, a concept restaurant for new Belgian gastronomy. There is another location in Brussels, both conceived by chef and restaurant designer Antoine Pinto. The focus of this concept is to prepare foods that are grown in Belgium—Belgian locavore. Pinto has a business relationship with Palm Breweries, so without fail his restaurants feature many Belgian beers and all of those brewed by Palm. Even the wines are Belgian in that they come from Belgian winegrowers around the world.
Belga Queen Ghent is housed in a former grain storehouse known locally as the Spijker, which overlooks the canal and bridges of the historic Graslei section. The décor is modern, and the menu pairs foods with beer. There are also several dishes made with beer:
• Duck fillet, sauce with
Boon Kriek and orange, julienne of dried tomatoes, biscuit with Old Bruges served with Palm Royale, 7.5 percent.
• Belgian Charolais tenderloin, sauce of Orval reduction with broken pepper (or Béarnaise), seasonal vegetables and cone of fresh fries BQ.
• Salmon marinated with Rodenbach and herbs, mild mustard sauce, blinis and sour cream.
• Brewers menu: Thin slices of beefsteak tomato with goat cheese and rocket salad, crunchy ham from the Sûre Valley; Verrine d’asperges, œuf écrasée and gamba; the duck fillet from above; and Belgian cheeses with a sabayon of red fruit and homemade vanilla ice cream.
De Groote Witte Arend
The city of Antwerp is about 40 miles east and north of Ghent. Antwerp is a harbor city alongside the Scheldt River. The city is famous for its 16th century architecture, chocolate and beer. This is where the Palm Brewery is located.
To pair Palm—and other beers—with a meal, one place to go in Antwerp is the restaurant named De Groote Witte Arend (The Big White Eagle), which was a former convent from 1903-1970. It’s now dedicated to fine food paired with beer. The beer list has more than 100 entries, 11 on tap, and there are even four house beers: De Arend Blond, Dubbel, Tripel and Kriek. On that big beer list it’s possible to order beers from five of the six Belgian Trappist breweries and six of the 13 lambic breweries or blenders.
De Groote Witte Arend offers different beer tasting menus through the year. One recent menu featured the Grimbergen Abbey beers from Brouwerij Alken-Maes:
• Baked curried mussels with Grimbergen Blonde sauce served with Grimbergen Blonde (6.7percent).
• Fillet of pork with Grimbergen Optimo Bruno beer sauce, seasonal mash of potatoes and carrots served with Grimbergen Optimo Bruno (10 percent).
• Sabayon of Grimbergen Tripel served with Grimbergen Tripel (9.0 percent).
Although it’s completely possible to remain at De Groote Witte Arend for an after-dinner beer from the restaurant’s huge list, the city is too full of great beer cafés not to wander the streets. Of course, there’s the world-famous Kulminator, with 30-page beer menu, but also not to be missed are ’t Oud Arsenaal, Grand Café Horta (the only place in Antwerp to drink unfiltered Palm), ’t Antwerps Bierhuijskehuyske, Den Engel, ’t Waagstuk, Quinten Matsijs, Paters Vaetje and Café Beveren, something akin to a locals-only townie bar across from the Scheld River. When you walk in, everyone will stop talking and stare at you until they finally ask questions in Flemish; the owner may also let visitors play the Decap organ. On the same street as De Groote Witte Arend is De Vagant, a bar that specializes in almost all the many Belgian and Dutch jenevers.
Monasteries might be thought of as places of austerity in all things—including beer and food. This might be the case for the everyday life of the monks, but the six Trappist monasteries in Belgium that brew beers for sale to the public have a history of having their rich, flavorful ales paired with fine food at the best restaurants. One of these is in the rural village of Westmalle, about 20 miles east and north of Antwerp.
“We were pairing beer with food many years ago,” said Marleen Hurdak of Brouwerij der Trappisten Van Westmalle in the village of Westmalle. “Starred restaurants have been treating our beer like fine wine for a long time.”
The brewery at the monastery—brewing since 1836—was the first to use the terms doubel and tripel for its beers (un-trademarked terms, Hurdak lamented), and continues to brew these beers. Fifteen years ago, when the number of monks declined to 23, they stopped working at the brewery but still make cheese that they sell to the villages of Malle and Westmalle. The monks and other workers also tend to the farm, which consists of 200 chickens, 120 milk cows and 150 calves. The monks might reopen a bakery at the monastery.
Besides double (7.0 percent ABV) and tripel (9.5 percent), the Westmalle brewery twice a year makes Extra (4.8 percent), a blond ale that is a softer and smaller beer and that is sometimes enjoyed by the monks at festive occasions. Extra and the other beers can be tasted up the street from the Abbey at the Café Trappisten with menu items such as fried cheese croquettes and a croquette of gray shrimps. Guests can also order a Half and Half of Doubel and Tripel, which is a wonderful blend of the darker, malt-rich doubel and the spicy, blond tripel.
No trip to Belgium is complete without a visit to the country’s capitol, Brussels, about 45 miles south of Westmalle.
There are many great beer cafés and restaurants in Brussels, both in the historic city center and outlying neighborhoods. There’s also a place for serious beer lovers to learn how to pair food.
“I’m obsessed by flavor,” said Chef Bert de Coster of Cooking Time, a cooking school in Brussels. “I look for balance when cooking with beer, and at the table I like to compare more than one beer with the same dish. A perfect match is difficult.”
Chef De Coster said he’s only had four “culinary orgasms” in his life, and one of them involved beer—white asparagus with a hard-boiled egg, crushed parsley, melted butter and Westmalle Tripel.
At a recent beer-inspired Cooking Time session, Chef De Coster had the students prepare the following menu:
• Veal carpaccio with
mackerel, fresh ginger, Worcestershire sauce, salt and pepper, topped with sliced potato frittes and fresh mayonnaise on the side—served with a Vedett Witbier, (4.7 percent ABV), too tame for the food, and La Trappe Witte Trappist, (5.5 percent), a much bigger flavor from this Dutch Trappist beer to match the flavors.
• Cod on mashed potatoes—La Trappe Witte Trappist continued as the preferred beer.
• Mashed potatoes with spring onions.
• Leeks cooked in butter with a sabayon sauce, which is made from nine egg yolks, nine eggshells filled with Duvel [a strong golden ale], oil and pepper, a green onion garnish and finally topped with mussels.
• A dessert of beets, Boskoop apples, raisins, Lifemans Cuvée-Brut and sugar—served with Cuvée-Brut (6.0 percent) from Brouwerij Liefmans, a perfect sweet-sour-cherry beer to complement the sweet and fruit in the dessert.
Beer at the Museum Café
Beer pervades the life of the Belgians, and this carries through to what can be the most pedestrian of eating places—a museum café. At the Belgian Comic Strip Center in Brussels—a museum dedicated to Belgium’s rich history of comic strips—the café serves a special beer commissioned by the Marc Sleen Foundation, located across the street on the Rue des Sables. Sleen, considered a living legend, was a prolific comic strip artist starting in the 1940s. His best-known strip is Nero, an eccentric adventurer and detective. The beer, best described as a hoppy Belgian pale ale (6.5 percent), was brewed by Belgium’s highly regarded brewing engineer and professor, Dirk Naudts, who formed De Proef Brouwerij in the village of Lochristi in 1996.
A Final Meal
Brussels has many great beer cafés, but a final beer and food “culinary orgasm”—let’s hope he wore his food condom—is possible at Moeder Lambic Fontainas on Place Fontainas, a short walk from the Grand Place in the city’s historic area. A simple plate of a salmon quiche, with both smoked and nonsmoked salmon, accompanied by a traditional gueuze, in this case, Cantillon, was Belgian beer and food perfection.