France may have 365 cheeses and Italy an almost uncountable variety of pastas, but it is perhaps more astounding to learn that Belgium, a little country not much larger than Maryland, makes more than 400 different beers. For the uninitiated, the choice is staggering.
There are beers bottled with corks, vintage dated and aged over five years. There are rich flower- and spice-scented brews still made by monks in ancient abbeys, beers reaching as much as 16 proof, beers fermented with cherries or raspberries, and beers with heads so creamy you could eat them with a spoon.
There are robust beers the color of molasses and light, crisp brews shaded from pale straw to bright yellow. The Belgians have beers to drink in the morning, beers for seafood, beers for meats, beers for late-evening quaffing and beers for celebrations.
Belgium is beer country and has been since the days of Roman invasions when wine-drinking legions from the south were dismayed to find the locals happily downing brewed drinks. But Belgium is barley-and-hops country. Hops are so much a part of the soil, climate and tradition that their first tiny shoots are harvested in early spring, and for two short weeks everyone feasts on the houblon (saute'ed hop shoots), usually served up with local seafood or quail.
For me, most pale lagers and pils-style beers have never appealed. In fact, before moving to Belgium about three years ago, I didn't drink beer. Now, the variety of delicious local brews is hard to resist. It all started in a delightfully raucous little beer pub, La Be'casse, near Brussels' Grand Place.
La Be'casse is reached down a narrow alley just off Rue de Tabora. Here students gather to drink the locally made La Be'casse beer, which is pumped directly from oak barrels while the patrons are singing, thumping tabletops and debating the politics of the moment. Le Be'casse was a revelation -- golden brown, tangy, lots of body with a subtle aftertaste of apple. For the classic pils or lager lover, it takes some getting used to, but for me, it was perfect. Since then I've found La Be'casse (in fact, any dark beer) makes a delicious Flemish Carbonnades of Pork with Prunes (recipe follows). It also makes a fine pork-and-tart-apple stew, adds to pumpkin soup and makes a good sauce for wild rabbit.
From La Be'casse it's a five-minute walk to another cafe, the Brussels landmark, Mort Subite at 7 Rue Montagne aux Herbes. Time stopped marching on at Mort Subite around 1890. The gaslight fixtures have been electrified, the oak tables and walls of mirror are still polished daily but otherwise this is a time capsule of a Belgian turn-of-the-century brasserie.
The attraction there isn't the setting, it's the Mort Subite brand of gueuze, a spontaneously fermented beer made in Brussels. Mort Subite translates as "sudden death." Brewers claim only the air in and around Brussels has the necessary microbes for creating gueuze and its relative, lambic. How "sudden death" came into the picture is anyone's guess, but a young gueuze, with its sharp acidity, does take some getting used to. Gueuze goes through a second fermentation in the bottle and after three to five years of aging, it rounds out, developing a good deal of finesse. At Mort Subite you'll find gueuze, the potent lambic and another unusual discovery, kriek lambic.
A beer made with cherries conjures images of soda pop. In Belgium a fine, barrel-aged kriek is the stuff of connoisseurs. First sampled at a September street fair, drunk with platters of mussels on the half shell, kriek was my second revelation of what beer could be. Two-year-old spontaneously fermented lambic beer is combined with locally grown tart cherries and left to macerate five to six months. After straining, it's bottled, sealed with champagne-style corks and aged further. The result is a dry, delicately bittersweet, ruby-toned brew with a haunting flavor of cherries. At its best, kriek is delicious.
According to Michel Brichet, director of the Confederation of Belgian Brewers, all Belgian beers fall into one of three categories: low-temperature fermented beers in the pils style, light in color, tart and crisp; spontaneously fermented beers (gueuze, lambic and kriek) using no yeast; and high-temperature or top-fermented darker beers usually referred to as "specials."
Many of these specials are done in the trappiste style, dating back to the Dark Ages when abbeys and Trappist monks kept the brewery industry alive. These are usually rich, dark beers with spicy, sometimes flowery character and wonderfully creamy heads. Each is different and there's endless debate among regions over the superiority of, say, a Westmalle Triple versus a Chimay Trappiste. Five abbeys scattered over the countryside still brew their own distinctive beers. Abbey visits make for delightful day trips where you could while away an afternoon sipping a trappiste beer at its source while munching on locally made charcuterie and whole-grain bread. For information on locations and hours, check with the Belgian Tourist Board at 61 Rue de Marche aux Herbes, Brussels.
If leisurely rambles through the countryside aren't possible, do try to fit the art-filled city of Gent into your itinerary. Gent's treasures are legion, with van Eyck's "Adoration of the Mystic Lamb" heading the list. No less pleasure can be had at De Hopduvel, a little pub at 10 Rokerelsstraat, where 120 top-fermented beers are available for sampling. Typical of Belgian ingenuity, there's even a house beer created by the owners in honor of the birth of their daughter.
Along with drinking beer, Belgians love to cook with the stuff. Everywhere you go, from haute cuisine eateries to simple bistros, you'll find examples of local beers creating local gastronomy. Perhaps the most famous beer-based dish is the Carbonnades Flamandes, a braising of beef, onions, a full-bodied beer and a few tricks that add up to the perfect one-dish meal.
Roam the Flemish countryside and you'll find many variations of the carbonnades theme. A favorite of ours was discovered through a friend near Brugge. Pork replaced the beef and a few prunes were added to the pot. But the secret of a great carbonnades is the beer. Belgian beers are now exported in good variety. Seek out dark beers such as gueuze, trappistes or specials. Some brands to look for are Orval, Chimay, Mort Subite, Affligem, Leff, Grimbergen or Rodenback. If unavailable, substitute a dark English ale or even a porter. Since tartness will vary from beer to beer, adjust the quantity of sugar accordingly. There should be sweet-tart character to the dish. FLEMISH CARBONNADES OF PORK WITH PRUNES (6 to 8 servings)
Could be done a day ahead. Whichever beer is used in the dish is the ideal beer to serve with it. 3 ounces salt pork, diced 3 cups boiling water 3 pounds pork shoulder (boston butt), trimmed of excess fat and cut into pieces about 1/4 inch thick and 2 to 3 inches square 5 large onions, thinly sliced (about 3 pounds) 2 teaspoons flour 3 1/2 to 4 cups dark Belgian beer or English stout or porter 3 to 4 tablespoons cider vinegar 1 to 2 tablespoons brown sugar 2 sprigs parsley 1 large bay leaf 2 sprigs fresh thyme or 1/4 teaspoon dry 1 pinch ground clove 5 tablespoons sharp german or dijon mustard 2 large slices stale french bread (about 5-by-3-by- 1/2 inches) 1 cup pitted prunes, quartered Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Drop the salt pork in the boiling water and simmer 5 minutes. Drain and pat dry. Place in a large, heavy, non-aluminum skillet and saute' over medium heat until golden. Remove with slotted spoon and add pork. Brown on all sides (this may have to be done in 2 to 3 batches). Place meat in a heavy 5- to 6-quart casserole and add onions to skillet. Cook over medium low heat, stirring frequently, until golden. Stir in flour and cook another minute. Add beer and bring to a boil, scraping up brown bits from bottom of pan.
Turn contents of skillet in to casserole, adding vinegar, sugar (start with smallest amount -- more could be added later), parsley, bay, thyme and clove. Cover casserole and simmer about 30 minutes. Spread mustard on bread and add to the pot, stirring in and breaking up with a wooden spoon. Partially cover casserole and simmer another 45 minutes. Stir in prunes and cook until pork is very tender. Check toward the end of cooking for sweet-tart balance and richness of liquid. If weak in body, simmer uncovered about 20 minutes or until full-flavored. Season to taste.
Serve preceded by a green curly endive salad. Boiled potatoes could accompany the carbonnades and fresh pears make a good light finish.