Friday, September 22, 2017

TRAVEL PRELUDES: Herring, preferably by the tail.


That's what I'm saying: Rotterdam style.

Dredge the filet in chopped onion, grasp the tail, and down the hatch it goes. Rick Steves displays proper form in this video.



In the winter of 1992, nearing the end of my post-communist teaching assignment in Kosice (now independent Slovakia), I took an overnight train to Brno (these days, in the Czech Republic), then an all-night bus to Rotterdam. I proceeded to spend a week in the nearby satellite town of Spijkenisse with Bram and Rie, elderly parents of Nelly, my former neighbor out in Georgetown.

Those wonderful days are a story of their own. Bram took great delight in showing me the sights, and one day we turned up at Scheveningen (a neighborhood in The Hague) for a sunny but frigid afternoon at the beach.

Bram wanted to know if I liked herring, and I answered affirmatively, imagining he meant pickled herring like I'd often had in Copenhagen. We found a fish vendor, and I was handed a cardboard vessel with what I assumed was raw herring (it's actually frozen, then salted for preservation).

Following my leader, I tipped my head and took a big bite.

Then smiled, broadly.

Back to Rick Steves ... who needs to understand that it isn't really pickled, you know.

Haarlem with Raw-Herring Breath, by Rick Steves

I’m under the towering church spire in the tidy Dutch market town of Haarlem, tempted to eat a pickled herring. The sign atop the mobile van reads: “Jos Haring — Gezond en Lekkerrr” (healthy and deeeeeelicious).

I order by pointing and ask, “Gezond?”

Jos hands me what looks more like bait than lunch, and says, “En lekkerrr.”

I stand there — not sure what to do with my bait — apparently looking lost.

In other Haarlem food notes, I see the De Ark restaurant has closed. That's shame. It was an old school slabs of meat and baskets of potatoes kind of place, stacked amid venerable wooden ambiance. It will be missed.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

ON THE AVENUES with THE BEER BEAT: Getting in tune with the straight and narrow.

ON THE AVENUES with THE BEER BEAT: Getting in tune with the straight and narrow.

A weekly column by Roger A. Baylor.

Really, has it been three years?

The following essay has not been published previously at NA Confidential, though it appeared on September 29, 2014 at The Potable Curmudgeon.

In the interim, time has a habit of marching on. Stone Brewing Company's location in Berlin has opened, bringing San Diego-style IPA to the German capital.

U2's 2014 album was received with indifference, and earlier in 2017, Daisy retired.

Last fall for our Sicilian excursion, I finally got around to taking my iPhone across the pond.

My attitude? It remains unchanged, thank you.

---

ON THE AVENUES with THE BEER BEAT: Getting in tune with the straight and narrow.

“You can feel that there’s something coming,” said Johannes Heidenpeter, who opened one of Berlin’s newest craft breweries, Heidenpeters, in the gritty-but-hip central neighborhood of Kreuzberg last December. “I think the time is good to change the taste of beer.”

Mr. Heidenpeter may represent the most iconoclastic and cosmopolitan take on Berlin’s newly developing beer culture: instead of traditional German lager yeast, he praises the aromas from the Belgian and English ale yeasts, and he eschews his own country’s favorite pale lager style of pilsner, or pils. Instead, as he explained when we met up the next day, his brewery offers an American-style pale ale as its standard pint, which uses non-German hops such as Cascade and Amarillo.

Yeah, well – I missed it.

In fact, while visiting the German capital for two enlightening days in September, I missed all the rest of the varied outposts of the Berliner New Beer Wave, too.

However, to be perfectly honest, my neglectful attitude toward this rebellion-in-progress was not intended as an overt political statement of any sort. It’s just that there was no time, this time.

My last visit to Berlin came way back in 1999, and an alarming quarter-century has elapsed since I spent a whole month in the then-divided city, just prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall. With only two days on the ground in 2014, what my soul (?) needed most of all was a refresher – a worldview booster, an agitprop enhancer, and perhaps a final contextual putting to rest of those ghosts inhabiting my beer cultures passed … except that some of them still flourish.

And so it was, quite successfully.

---

My 34th in a series of European vacations served both as reunion and greatest hits tour. Little new music was performed, apart from selective embellishments to arrangements tried and true – a new breakfast room at Brauerei Spezial, Schlenkerla’s youthful heir to the crown, and a Belgian-hopped beer and food pairing on the Grote Market in Poperinge.

The rich history of my connections with these beers, places and persons dates back to the late 1980s and early 1990s. In terms of impact on the course of my own beer business career, they were to me what the Ramones and the Clash were to U2 – and like the latter’s new album, it's all about these and other formative influences, invaluable and impossible to overstate:

Berliner Weisse … long before sour was cool, with the many choices of syrup entirely optional.

Those sublime smoked beers in Bamberg, the centuries of diligent craftsmanship they represent, and the local thirsts they slake.

Crisp, subtle Kölsch on a gorgeous autumn day, in the shadow of Cologne’s mountainous cathedral.

The amazing, unchanging Daisy Claeys and her life’s work of art, the seemingly eternal Brugs Beertje café in Brugge.

The stolid crossroads town of Poperinge, observing its hoppy heritage every third year with one of the most genuine and honest fests known to the world of beer.

Food and drink, too, in abundance: Escargot and beefsteak with De Dolle Oerbier; Leberkäse and Spezial Rauchbier; East Prussian meatballs with white caper sauce, beetroot and Berliner Pilsner … pork shoulder and mussels, Mahrs Ungespundet and Rochefort 10, espressos and currywurst, tartare and Hommel Bier, and a Doner Kebab for good measure.

---

It seems to me we’re all guilty at times of espousing a false dichotomy, in which there is mass-market corporate swill on one side and exuberant, innovative craft beer on the other, but the problem with hegemonic Cold Beer War dualism like this is that it utterly excludes a beer like Schlenkerla Märzen. Maybe it fits rather comfortably in the same metaphor with non-aligned nations of the 1970s.

Schlenkerla obviously isn’t swill, and it’s hardly innovative in the newspeakable sense of a hyacinth-infused, dry-meringued Triple India Pale Ale. Schlenkerla is as craft-based and traditional as tradition possibly can be, fully guaranteed to offend any oblivious beer drinker who believes that Bud Light represents brewing nobility (tell it to the AB-InBev global shareholders, dumbass), and yet is often ignored by today's hoarding narcissists precisely because excellence on purely traditional grounds isn’t sexy enough for selfies.

Yes, I’m slightly exaggerating, although I believe it to be the immutable case that both here in America and elsewhere, an informed grounding in certain eternal beer truths helps provide perspective when gauging flavors-of-the-moment in an understandably changing world. It’s what I’ve tended to forget, and what the September journey helped me to recall.

It was off the grid. I didn’t carry a phone, and there were no books available to consult. The object was to survey classic European beer styles, in their ancient, preferred public settings (with one exception, an amazing bottled Trois Monts from Northern France, supplied by my friend Jeff), and to go with my gut.

My gut turns out to have remarkably good taste, not that there were many doubts in my other mind.

Don’t get the wrong idea. Naturally, I support the continued innovative advance of “craft” beer. At the same time, it strikes me that the very last thing I want to see happen is every beer drinker in Bamberg waking one morning to the conclusion that India Pale Ale is the only beer for them. It’s a nightmare scenario.

Let there be an artisan working his or her side of the marketplace, providing alternatives for contrast and comparison, but don’t sacrifice those elements of tradition which still function as fundamental cultural markers, especially when they're doing as good or better a job of defining "craft" as the majority of "craft" brewers everywhere.

A damned fine Pilsner still is, and it pulls the Baltic right out of the Matjes herring. If I return to Berlin 25 years from now, I hope the pairing still works, and maybe I’ll have time to visit Heidenpeter’s newer tradition, too.

---

Recent columns:

September 14: ON THE AVENUES with THE BEER BEAT: Beef Steak and Porter always made good belly mortar, but did America’s “top” steakhouses get the memo? (link to come)

September 7: ON THE AVENUES with THE BEER BEAT: We are dispirited in the post-factual beer world.

August 31: ON THE AVENUES: On a wig and a prayer, or where's the infidel gardening column?

August 26: ON THE AVENUES SATURDAY SPECIAL: One-ways on the way out, because with downtown at a crossroads, they simply had to be exterminated.

TRAVEL PRELUDES: An eagle's nest, a tasting room; a study in brown.


At the precise moment of this post's pre-set publication, we're likely eating breakfast in Haarlem, a city that is much to my liking by virtue of having friends there, as well as its proximity to Amsterdam to the east, and the sea to the west.

To tell the truth, there have been occasions when I've stayed in Haarlem and not even bothered to go to the bigger city 20 minutes away except to fly home.

Granted, there are distinctive museums, cultural attractions, food, drink and frivolity in Amsterdam, and yet Haarlem always has struck me as just fine in its own right, smaller and no less interesting.

Whether Amsterdam or Haarlem, one classification of pub- or tavern-being that has always impressed me in Holland is the institution of the brown cafe. Here's a good description from a non-beer-centric source.

Brown Cafes

You haven't really tasted Dutch beer until you've tasted it in Holland, served Dutch-style in a real bruine kroeg (brown cafe). These traditional Dutch bars are unpretentious, unpolished institutions filled with camaraderie, like a British pub or an American neighborhood bar. In a brown cafe, pouring another beer is much more important than dusting off the back bottles on the bar; the ritual is to draw a beer to get as much foam as possible, then to use a wet knife to shave off the head between a series of final fill-ups.

Even if you're not a beer lover, venturing into a brown cafe in Amsterdam will give you a peek into the city's everyday life. In old neighborhoods, brown cafes are on almost every corner -- you can't miss them. Most have lacy curtains on the bottom half of the window, and perhaps a cat sleeping on the ledge. In winter (and sometimes into spring), their front doors are hung with a thick drape to keep out drafts. Once inside, you'll find the smoky, mustard brownness that's unique to an Amsterdam brown cafe, the result of years -- no, centuries -- of thick smoke and warm conversation.

There may be booths or little tables sprinkled around, but the only spots of color and light will be the shining metal of the beer tap and, perhaps, a touch of red still showing in the Persian rugs thrown across the tables (a practice that's typically Dutch, if you recall the old paintings). You'll feel the eons of conviviality the minute you walk into a really old, really brown brown cafe. Some have been on their corners since Rembrandt's time, haunted by the ghosts of drinkers past.

Naturally, the choice of beer in a typical brown cafe during the time of my first visit to Amsterdam in 1987 would have been Dutch golden lager, whether Heineken, Amstel, Brand, Grolsch or numerous others.

The whole of the Netherlands has long since exploded into pervasive beer craftiness, and I'm guessing this phenomenon has altered the selection in brown cafes just like it has everywhere else.

There are many great beer bars in Amsterdam these days, though my personal favorite is 't Arendsnest, which means Eagle's Nest. It's also the name of the man who founded it.

Morebeer is the company owned by Peter van der Arend, passionate beer lover and beerologist. He started his venture in the year 2000 when he opened the Dutch beer bar Proeflokaal Arendsnest, located at the Herengracht 90 in Amsterdam. Proeflokaal Arendsnest was the first bar to serve exclusively Dutch craft beers.

The Dutch word "proeflokaal" (test classroom) appears to be one of those only vaguely translatable concepts, although at root it implies something on the order of testing/tasting room, and may have originated from the habit of jenever (Dutch gin) distilleries operating sampling venues nearby.

When Peter van der Arend opened his specialty Dutch beer bar, there were only a few dozen breweries in the Netherlands. The number now is in the hundreds. He definitely was on the front end of a savory trend.

At the moment, breakfast. However, beer thirty will arrive, and if we've had the chance to explore Amsterdam this time around, hopefully a rest stop at 't Arendsnest has been included in the itinerary.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

TRAVEL PRELUDES: Haarlem's awesome Cafe Briljant is winding down (for now), but not before I have another drink there.

Are you going to have another beer?

Boris, my friend and original Haarlem connection, long ago introduced me to his preferred local pub, the Cafe Briljant (Brilliant). Founded by Rob Alphenaar in 2002, Briljant is an intimate monument to fundamental good taste.


On September 30, Rob will preside over the Cafe Briljant's final evening in business at the current location. Happily, I'll be able to drink a few beers there before this closing event occurs.


At this point in time, I've been away from Haarlem for so long that there's a risk of my transmitting unintended fake news, but it appears Rob's looking for a new building for Briljant; he intends to continue showcasing local music, whiskey and beer fests; his identity as a periodic "gypsy" brewer remains intact; and his sister bar (Lokaal - Dutch Beer Bar, the former Cafe Pitcher) remains viable a short distance away.

I've had a lot of great times and fine beers at the Cafe Briljant, and wish Rob the very best as he reformats. It just means we'll have to go back sooner than later, and have a look.

---

TIME TO REWIND

September 24, 2005 at The Potable Curmudgeon
Haarlem's Cafe Briljant

Rob is the patient, hard-working and beer-loving proprietor of the Café Briljant, which happens to be my friend Boris’s “local” café in Haarlem, Netherlands.


Kim, Rob, the Curmudgeon and Dewi at the Jopen beer festival.

The café is located on a quiet side street and is frequented by a diverse cross-section of the city’s lovers of well-tended ale (the local Jopen and Belgium’s La Chouffe, among others) and a civilized atmosphere in which to enjoy them.

My first visit to the Café Briljant came in 2004, when Kevin Lowber and I closed the highly successful Tour de Trappist bicycle adventure with three days on Boris’s floor and an evening or two of café crawling with him and our new friends Bill and Inge.

Unfortunately, Rob was unavailable for duty in July, 2004, having been packed off for a long overdue break by the café’s regular customers, who were concerned that he hadn’t had a vacation in more than two years, pooled their resources to organize a holiday for him, and volunteered for bar duty in his absence.

Now that’s appreciation.

For an evening’s session or a nightcap after dining in one of Haarlem’s seemingly endless supply of fine restaurants, Café Briljant is the ideal stop, neither loud nor boisterous, and suited for conversation and one of Rob’s thoughtfully chosen drafts and bottles. It seems that single malt lovers also have been known to savor a tipple at the small, comfortable café.

Rob’s web site, although in Dutch, is regularly updated and amply illustrates the range of activities that emanate from behind the bar.

I’ve never gotten around to compiling an official list of “sister bars” to Rich O’s Public House, but if such a list ever is assembled, you can bet that the Café Briljant will be on it.

---

POSTSCRIPT


In February of 2007 I took a week's beer hunting break in Belgium and Netherlands in the company of my pal Kevin Richards. Among the other attractions was Boris' (no numbers, please) birthday party in Haarlem.

In this photo from February, 2007, Rob is tending bar at Cafe Briljant, with Bill England (mentioned in the preceding) and Kevin chatting at the other end.

Sadly, Bill and Kevin died in 2016, roughly nine months apart. I just want to say that I think about them all the time, and there'll be more than one glass lifted to their memory in 2017 during the "return to Haarlem" segment of the trip. They'd both appreciate the irreverence of this closing toast to cycling togetherness masterfully articulated by Bob Reed:


Here’s to us.

May we never quarrel or fuss.
But if by chance we should disagree,
#%@* you, and here’s to me.

SHANE'S EXCELLENT NEW WORDS: Carrier squab just doesn't have the same ring.




Shane's at home making money, and I'm in Belgium spending it ... on youthful pigeons?

The book is called Cooking with Belgian Beers, with recipes by Stefaan Couttenye, owner of 't Hommelhof restaurant in Watou, Belgium. When it comes to local Westhoek foodstuffs, it's best to keep an open mind -- not to mention mouth.

What Is Squab? (D'Artagnan)

Squab are young pigeons that have never flown. For thousands of years, they have been a favorite meal for every stratum of society throughout the world. They were unequivocally the first domesticated poultry, even preempting chicken.

This may surprise twenty-first century Americans. More often we think of pigeons as annoying denizens of city monuments and buildings. In fact, these are rock doves, a relative of pigeons, and far less edible. Yet squab is considered a most exquisite ingredient in cuisines as distinct as Cantonese, Moroccan and French. The simple reason for squab’s universal appeal is the delicate, succulent flesh, truly unlike that of any other bird. Squab is a dark-meat bird, like duck and goose, yet the meat is not nearly as fibrous, rendering it far more tender. Its flavor, when properly cooked, is a lush, rich essence, reminiscent of sautéed foie gras, albeit with more texture.

Thanks to MW for reminding me that life's all about how you sell it. Let's hope someone at Gospel Bird takes note.

As you read these winged words, our time in Poperinge (with Watou nearby) is through, but if squab made it onto the personal menu card, I'll tell you about it later.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

TRAVEL PRELUDES: Ieper ... Ypres ... Wipers; the Great War and a passing of generations.







The three segments of this decade-old documentary -- Geert Mak's In Europa ... "1915 Ieper" -- last only 40 minutes, but it's an invaluable introduction to the lasting impact of World War I. 

---

I'm trying not to read very much into this breathtakingly trite observation, but time has a way of passing.

Between 2000 and 2008, I traveled to Poperinge seven times, five of them with a bicycle as integral component of the itinerary. However, 2017 will mark only the second time back since 2008, and in the interim, much has changed in Pops and environs.

Well, duh -- and yet it's always amazing the way a human mind can remain stuck in self-enforced sepia, visualizing a milieu as it was, as though life itself wasn't dynamic and ever shifting.

Westhoek means "west corner" in Dutch, and as a region, Westhoek includes the areas around Poperinge, Ieper, Watou and Diksmuide. More so than the Middle Ages or Napoleon -- far more so than World War II -- these locales were profoundly impacted by almost four years of constant combat during the Great War.

In the year 2000 on the Monday of our first-ever bicycling adventure using Poperinge as a base, we rode to Ieper (ee-per). That's the Flemish version; it's Ypres in French and 'Wipers" to British soldiers during World War I. Barely a stone was left standing in Ieper at war's end. The whole city was rebuilt from the cellars up, and to this very day, tons of unexploded ordinance surface yearly.

On that first day in 2000, as we headed east from Poperinge, the French hills known as Trois Monts almost always could be seen rising on the horizon to the south, and although they aren’t particularly big, the flatness of Flanders magnifies their significance and one can readily understand their strategic importance in wartime.

The hills are why the Germans attacked in this direction. The Allies answered, and the result was years of devastating trench warfare stalemate. Just to the north, the Allied flank was secured only by a desperate expedient: the dikes near Diksmuide were breached and thousands of acres of farmland flooded to create a wall of water.

Our cycling journey took us past numerous Great War monuments and cemeteries of the British Commonwealth forces, whose final resting places attested to the global scale of the First World War: Irish, Australian, Canadian and Indian soldiers, buried alongside lads from Manchester and Newcastle. The resting places of Belgian, French and German soldiers also were seen.

Monday’s midday sag brought us to the center of the city, and a tale I've never forgotten. When the second world conflagration swept through Belgium, one young Ieper native resolved to escape. He made it somehow to the then-colony of Belgian Congo, and later to South Africa, where he enlisted in the British armed forces and fought against his country's German occupiers until 1945.

Afterward he returned to Ieper and founded a restaurant and pub, sold it, then opened another, called Ter Posterie for its location opposite the post office.

Ter Posterie was another classic Belgian cafe, with many dozens of bottled ales, a few more on draft, savory food and a comfortable outdoor terrace, where we sat and discussed our first half-day’s ride.

I never knew this man’s name, but nonetheless met him on three different occasions while enjoying the beer, food and hospitality at Ter Posterie. By 2000, active control of the business had long since passed to his daughter, although the old man still frequented the establishment.

Whenever he heard English being spoken, he'd amble over and spin his life story for the visitor in a narrative honed over thousands of ale-side retellings. Apparently we met him as he was descending into Alzheimer’s disease. During one visit on a quiet afternoon, perhaps in 2005, he could be heard howling somewhere to the rear, with harried family members rushing back and forth to care both for him and the cafe's guests.

At some point prior to 2009, he died, and later Ter Posterie closed.

In circuitous fashion, we return to the inevitability of change. I'm writing these words in advance of our actual visit to Poperinge and Haarlem (Netherlands), which I suspect will be a tad more elegiac than those stays in previous years.

In Poperinge, the triennial hop fest rolls merrily on. Luc is retired from the tourist office, and it's been almost ten years since Guy and Beatrice ran the Hotel Palace. It remains a viable business, just not the same for me as before.

In Watou, Chef Stefaan Couttenye's wife Sabine died a few years ago. She ran the front of the house at 't Hommelhof, and I worked with her twice when making arrangements for feeding my motorcoach groups.

I'd visited Poperinge prior to my period of obsession with bicycling, and for this reason my friends joined me in biking there for the first time in 2000, but there'd have been no biking without the encouragement and tutelage of the late Kevin Richards, who'll be very much on my mind as the parade unwinds in 2017. Glasses will be raised, repeatedly.

As you're watching the video prefacing these thoughts, remember that 100 years ago, there seemed to be no future for Westhoek. The people there persevered, and they built it back.

For me, returning to Poperinge will be like visiting old friends, albeit missing a few of them. All I can do is promise to remember them, and keep moving forward.

Monday, September 18, 2017

TRAVEL PRELUDES: For a town so small, Watou packs a big gustatory punch.


It was in the year 2000 that our little band of bicycling bar buddies went for the first time to Belgium to ride. We came to Poperinge from Tournai on a Sunday and checked into the Hotel Palace. On Monday morning we rented bikes and started pedaling.

On Tuesday the riding schedule was light, but rich in intangibles, because Poperinge's tourism director Luc Dequidt and his wife joined us as local guides. They took us on a leisurely pace through the country lanes radiating from Poperinge, never very far from the smell of manure and the sight of hop trellises.

It became a pub crawl on human-powered wheels, commencing with a Westvleteren 12-degree Trappist on the terrace of the Café de Vrede opposite the St. Sixtus abbey. After cruising through the woods and fields to the fabled “brewing village” of Watou, there was refreshing Witbier from the hometown Van Eecke brewery.

Then we rode south and east via wooded lanes and more farms, back to Poperinge and a few rounds with the owner Guy at his hotel bar.

Buddy must have taken this one.

Out from Poperinge near Watou at the edge of the Helleketel forest there used to be a small brewery and tasting café known as the Brouwerij de Bie.

One of its flagship beers was named for the forest.

There is no Helle,
or even Kapelle,
in Hellekapelle.

Rather it’s a light, spicy beer,
named after the pub of its first little cheer
with the original brewery near.

The brewery lay next to the Helleketel woods
where flew brooms with witches in hoods.

With all that flying a good portion is a life raft
but one day one spilled her draught.

The pubgoers thought the new brew was a whopper
and that's how Hellekapelle came to be a topper.

The Bie had character galore, but it wasn't open on our riding day with Luc. Since then, the brewery has relocated twice and now operates out of Dentergem, near Kortrijk.

Amazingly, yet another brewery lies just outside tiny Watou: Brouwerij St. Bernard, which for a half-century (through the 1990s) produced beer under contract for the monks of St. Sixtus (makers of the famous Westvleteren mentioned earlier) under the brand name St. Sixtus.

When the monks expanded their brewing capacity, the contract was terminated, and the St. Bernard brewery responded sensibly by beginning to brew its own line of St. Bernardus abbey-style ales, landing understandably near Trappist style norms, and arguably the finest of all secular recreations.

The point to all this is that for a village so small (population 1,900) and a scene so bucolic, Watou is a happening kind of place, with the two aforementioned breweries as well as ’t Hommelhof, a world-renowned restaurant, which I'll come to in a moment.

First, a closer look at the two breweries. As a prelude to this 2012 link, note that 18,000 hectoliters is the equivalent of roughly 15,000 barrels (31 gallons each) as we know them in America. By comparison, in 2016 the Upland Brewing Company in Bloomington, Indiana brewed 16,000 barrels of beer.

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.

As for Brouwerij St. Bernard, I can't even touch Michael "Beer Hunter" Jackson's elegant prose.

This whole border region is hop country, especially around the Belgian town of Poperinge, not far from Ieper (Ypres). The town of Watou even has a statue of a brewer on one of its main squares. He is not identified as a particular brewer - he just serves as a symbol of the local industry. I have seen no such statute anywhere else. On another main square is a famous restaurant specialising in cuisine à la bière, 't Hommelhof (the name means hop garden).

At a time of instability in France, the monks from Mont des Cats moved across the border and established a chapter in Watou. "The Chapter" (in Flemish, Het Kapittel) gave its name to a range of fruity-tasting, complex beers still made by the Van Eecke brewery, just off the town square at Watou.

The chapter of monks also established a dairy farm and developed a local market for their cheese. When the monks returned to France, a local family of cheese-makers took over the business. In the recovery period after World War II, the family, called Claus, turned their dairy (also in Watou) into a brewery.

Confusingly the stimulus for this was a request to produce beer for another Trappist monastery, St Sixtus, in nearby Westvleteren. During that half-century, the monks of Westvleteren produced beer for sale at the abbey, while the Claus family brewed a St Sixtus range for wider distribution. When the monastery of St Sixtus replaced its old brewhouse with a bigger one in the 1990s, this arrangement came to an end.

Like the cheese-making monks who inspired it, the Claus family brewery had always been dedicated to St Bernardus. Its beers, in the abbey style, are now sold under the name St Bernardus, and new partners have joined the company to help market this range.

In closing, food.

I've been extremely fortunate to have enjoyed more than one meal at the 't Hommelhof restaurant in Watou, founded twenty or so years ago by Stefaan Couttenye and his wife, the late Sabine Dejonckheere. On one early springtime visit, hop shoots were on the menu.

When Chef Couttenye opened 't Hommelhof, the notion of beer cuisine in general, and local food sourcing in particular, remained a minority taste even in a place like Belgium.

It is an understatement to say he was far ahead of his time. I've purchased his most recent book, Cooking with Belgian Beers: Great recipes flavoured with the famous 'Westhoek' beers, written with Stefaan's son Simon, who now runs the beer program at the restaurant. A review is forthcoming.

The exact details elude me, but I remember one time in Poperinge when a few of us wanted to air it out at 't Hommelhof. It's only a few miles away, but we didn't have a way there and back for an evening to be spent eating and drinking. We were staying at the Hotel Palace, and Guy magnanimously volunteered to drive us to dinner.

Overly sated, a ride was fortuitously hitched back to Poperinge with a friendly local couple who overheard us talking during the feast.

There's a reason why I keep coming back to this corner of Belgium.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

TRAVEL PRELUDES: The Talbot House in Poperinge, where the ghosts congregate.



Every three years, Poperinge's hop festival concludes on a Sunday afternoon during harvest season with an inspirational, and thankfully only faintly commercialized, parade through the center.

The history of the hop serves as pretext, but what the parade really reinforces is Poperinge's ongoing viability and local identity. Probably every family in town is involved in one way or another, and to me, it's like a heritage weekend.

I've written about the parade on several occasions, most recently here: 2014 Euro Reunion Tour, Day 12.5: The story of hops in parade format.

Any 2017 updates I might have will be found here, in time.

Poperinge is a pleasant place to visit year-round, hop fest or none. It is an excellent base for bicycling, with fine food and drink as well as ample history. I believe it was 2008 when I finally got around to visiting the Talbot House -- or, Every Man's Club.

During the Great War, Poperinge was part of unoccupied Belgium. Away from the turmoil of battle in the Ypres Salient, the town became the nerve centre of the British sector. In the heart of this bustling town, the Army chaplains Neville Talbot and Philip "Tubby" Clayton opened a club. From December 1915 onwards, and for more than three years, the House provided rest and recreation to all soldiers coming in, regardless of their rank. Today, as real as then, the place offers a welcoming and friendly stop in Flanders fields.

I found it very moving, indeed.

Poperinge narrowly escaped the fate of so many other cities and towns during World War I, such as nearby Ieper (Ypres), which was reduced to a lunar landscape by more than three years of combat. I'm not the supernatural sort, but in and around Poperinge the now peaceful landscape is populated with ghosts, and it takes very few Poperings Hommelbiers to feel their presence.

In 2018, it will have been a century since the war's conclusion, or one hundred years to learn one very big lesson, which I doubt we have ... or will.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

TRAVEL PRELUDES: Poperinge and a date with Westvleteren.

I harbor a great deal of affection for the town of Poperinge, to which I was introduced way back in 1998.

I'd organized a motorcoach tour, wherein 16 of us visited beer pilgrimage spots in Netherlands and Belgium. It came to me attention that the tourist office in Poperinge was dipping its toes into beer tourism, and had an inexpensive program to supply a guide to board our bus for a few hours and officiate.

We went to a countryside roadhouse, learned about old-fashioned pub games, toured the Van Eecke brewery in Watou, and finished at the Hopmuseum Poperinge.

There a strange man approached me and asked if I was the tour leader Roger, whereupon I met Luc Dequidt, then the tourist office's director, and these days happily retired.

Many bountiful returns have accrued from this meeting with Luc, beginning with my first triennial hop festival in September, 1999. I've only missed one since, in 2011.

In 2005, the missus realized she liked beer after all. The revelation came in Brugge, when she absconded with my Trappist ale, a Rochefort 10. Hence this dispatch from Poperinge, where she closed the deal. It was dated September 22, 2005 and written following our return home for publication at The Potable Curmudgeon.

2017 updates will be linked here, in due time.

---

In the grand tradition of beer advertising, we've chosen a beautiful woman to display the product being touted.



Trust me - it's really Westvleteren 12, the beer that “disappeared” from circulation when it was selected as the best beer in the world by readers of RateBeer.com.

Not that it was easy to find, even in Belgium ... even where it is brewed.

The Cafe de Vrede, across the lane from the Sint Sixtus Abbey, was closed for its annual autumn break, which seems usually to occur at the very same time that beer lovers gather in nearby Poperinge for the triennial hop festival. We biked past the venue, and as my old friend Barrie would say, paused to kiss the lock on the door before proceeding into town.

Arriving at the marvelous Hotel Palace in Poperinge, we found no Westvleteren at that estimable cafe; actually, it wasn't clear whether Guy had had any from the start, or whether his stock already was depleted by the time we checked on Saturday.

Cafe de la Paix? Fine food and a great beer selection, but no, not there, either.
Then on Sunday, in preparation for the parade, we dined at the Poussecafe, located just up Ieperstraat from the Palace, and the elusive Trappist elixir was right there, printed on the paper menu, in full view.

I asked the server, who proved to be the owner, "Do you really have this beer in stock?"

He shrugged and replied: "It wouldn't be listed if I didn't."

An incredible lunch followed, and the food was good, too, but I still prefer Rochefort 10, with Westvleteren a close second.

Later, comfortably seated along the parade route, I was introduced to a great new way to enjoy Poperings Hommelbier.



Pitch the lemons and limes, and go back to the basics.