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.

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