Europe

In Search of Flanders' Holy Ale

written by | Posted on August 1st, 2011

In the area known as Patershol, the byways still follow the original 15th century street patterns, while most of the current buildings date to the 17th century, when folks were given grants to replace the original wooden structures with stone to minimize the destructive fires that plagued European cities and towns.

The hotel we briefly stayed in, the Hotel Harmony, owned and operated by the De Smet family, is located in the midst of Patershol and consists of two buildings with a beautiful garden in the center, where breakfast is often served in good weather. It’s a cozy, friendly and trendy place with ultra-modern, colorfully furnished rooms, impeccably well kept and with unique design touches that make it so “Ghent.”

bruges The iconic and beautiful town of Bruges, a World Heritage city, is a medieval marvel with an enormous warren of winding cobblestone streets, with most of its old city walls still standing. Here, we checked into the Hotel De Medici, a 101-room, genuine four-star offering located on a beautiful canal, a few steps shy of a bridge taking you across the canal toward the magnificent city square about a 10-minute walk away.

This is a walking city and even if bus tours were available—and they are to a degree—you have to walk anyway because there’s not enough access for them in much of the city. Besides, you’d miss the wonderful scent of chocolate, waffles and fries wafting through the air.

But the food, ah, the food. Our first dinner was enjoyed at the Den Dyver Dijver 5, a family affair and a restaurant, aptly enough, specializing in food and beer pairings. The restaurant won a silver medal at the Beer and Gastronomy Awards in 2008 and a gold medal in 2009. Mind you, this is not the kind of beer—in fact none of the beer we’ve sampled at the breweries and restaurants on the whole trip—you’re probably used to. They’re all varietals—some of which are similar to American beers (but better) and some so fruity tasting you could have them for breakfast.

Just outside of Bruges is Watou, home to the Brewery Van Eecke, makers of Hommelbeer with a brewing tradition going back to 1629 and operated by the brewing family Leroy from Boezinge. After the tour, our beer tasting was done in a delightfully eclectic pub next to the brewery, decorated with an assortment of kitschy memorabilia, making it a fun, laid-back kind of place. That was followed by a fabulous lunch in the nearby Hommelhof restaurant, filled with families enjoying Sunday lunch together. And yes, this too is a family operation started by Chef Stefan who converted an old, rundown building into a sort of French farmhouse-style eatery with an emphasis on beer-based cuisine made all the more palatable by an excellent assortment of wines, as well as beer pairings—many of which come from the nearby, award-winning brewery.

brussels Brussels is the last stop on the quest for the Holy Ale, dropping by the Nero/Marc Sleen Museum for a tasting of its new Nero beer, and the Comic Strip Museum across the street in the Art Nouveau building of the Waucquez Warehouses, considered to be one of the masterpieces of the most famous Belgian Art Nouveau architect, Victor Horta, who built the house in 1906. The warehouses were restored between 1987 and 1989 and now make the perfect home for the museum, which focuses on Belgium’s most famous comic strip character, Tintin.

The museum traces Tintin’s evolution from an almost featureless line-drawing in the original newspaper strip, to a fully formed, full-color character in later editions, gaining his trademark quaff. The Nero/Marc Sleen Museum focuses on Belgian’s famous cartoonist creator Sir Marc Sleen’s character Nero. The cartoonist himself was a Nazi concentration camp survivor, and an influential political and editorial cartoonist who was cited in the “Guinness Book of World Records” for the longest running editorial cartoon series.

Next up, we headed to Cooking-Time, to learn how to prepare hoppas (Belgian beer bites), and, of course, sample the brews that go along with them. The focus of the program is to put everybody to work doing something, then sit down and enjoy the final collective product, which in this case was a kind of spicy tartar, mussels and Belgian fries, all washed down with—you guessed it—beer.