RateBeer Weekly Magazine > Beer Travels
A Letter from Belgium
A NON-REGULAR FESTIVAL, PART ONE
July 15, 2004
For US-citizens, the above might be less than crystal-clear. It will be, however, for all beerlovers from EBCU-countries. One has two kinds of beerfestivals here: the ‘official’ ones (from the national EBCU-organisation or one of its branches), and the others. Especially the CAMRA-ones once set the tone: the CAMRA were the right ones to go to, the others were not.
The situation has become more complicated these days. In England, a Mark Dorber festival at the White Horse, non-regular, challenges most local CAMRA-festivals in quality and choice. The same happens in Belgium. Whereas there are plenty of sad festivals, by some syndicat d’Initiative wanting to attract tourists and other unwary visitors, some ‘commercial’ festivals are as good as some very good Zythos ones.
Some weekends ago, a Belgian coastal commercial festival proved a flop – but in the weekend of 10-11th July the coastal branch at Oostende, had their annual “Bierjutterij”, which is usually excellent as a festival, but it got competition from Wallonia’s star brewer Dany Prignon of Fantôme fame, organising his second festival of Luxembourg breweries (Belgian province, not the Grand Duchy of the same name) at Hotton town.
Let’s not be coy, though I preferred the Luxembourg alternative, all things were pointing towards Oostende. Foremost, this was going to be a family weekend-outing, with a festival thrown in, rather than the other way round. Oostende has a North Sea Aquarium, and a beach, all on a 30 mins. trainride from home. Hotton is a 2½ hour drive, one way, around Brussels, towards the distant Ardennes hills.
Yet I never completely left the Ardennes plan. The more as a persistent whisper kept feeding info about a British cask brewer due to appear in the midst of all the more classical Luxembourg brews. Tigertops from Yorkshire, not to name them. A visit to the Tigertops’ website hinted again at this possibility, short of outright confirming it.
And then the decision came from an unexpected corner – my wife, designated driver par excellence as par default. Wednesday before the weekend, she told me she would drive to the Ardennes and back, provided we would stay over there for a whole weekend, and inserting plenty of animation for the kiddies (7 and 2x 5½…). Once the financial hassle sorted out, she instructed me to find a place to sleep, and ring them double-quick. I fell upon an archetypal family B&B (212 Euros for the 5 of us, two consecutive nights), and still available on such short notice!
There remained one big cloudy problem, however. The weatherforecast. Rain, wind, April temperatures and more torrential rain. In Belgium, the more pessimistic the forecast, the more accurate it usually proves. And under a pale sunshine, we drove off, Friday 6 PM, towards the Southeast, where all the steel-grey clouds were amassing, us little chickens well equipped with rain gear.
I’m going to skip the Brussels’ Ringroad queue (a full hour for 20 km), the terrible personal problems of a five-year old lass, deciding her bladder is giving in right there and then. Or the frequent showers of a distinctly lively character pouring down upon our family vehicle. And I’ll skip the little domesticated tensions due to my wife’s sceptical attitude vis-à-vis my map-reading abilities, which I myself hold in high esteem.
At 8.35 PM., I rang the doorbell at Les Sarts, Rue Belle Horizon. A typical pensioners’ B&B, as said, but due to the fact that we were its’ only guests, I had to hiss less at the kids to keep quiet as dreaded. A little tale before bed, and then yours’ truly found himself free to explore any cerevisial delights the town of Hotton might offer the investigating beergeek.
Hotton is suspiciously absent in the Bible of Belgian Good Beer delights, by Prof. Em. in beerology, Tim Webb. So my expectations were not overstretched. Exploring the town on a run took me half an hour. Hotton is a typical Walloon town: a main road at a right angle on a river behaving itself for a mile, and a few sideroads added. In a Belgian town centre, one’s supposed to stay under 50 kph with you vehicle, which is interpreted by Walloons as 50 mph cruising, minimum for tuned cars (the next night I witnessed a guy doing wheelings on-and-off the main road on a tuned crossbike, at 10.30 PM, nobody caring a damn!).
I finally settled for Le(s) Jacquemart(s), a central café in the style of auntie and uncle Podger, but they proved to have a substantial list of beers, approaching 60, including some quite rare ones, as Chouffe on draught, or the new blueberry beer by Caulier. But having started at the draught Diekirch pilsener (a rateable, from an Interbrew-owned brewery in neighbouring Grand Duchy), I unearthed a foreign beers section including the Grande Réserve from the same brewery (I must have tasted that one at least 20 years ago for the last time) and a hitherto never encountered “Grand Cru Ambrée” again by the same, which proved an amber lager-type at 5.1%. I reclassified it as Vienna, which is approximately OK. You know where to get the details. The Grande Réserve, a 6.9% strong lager, was much better than remembered.
Hence, it was a very satisfied JPP that crawled next to the lovin’ wife, faithfully guarding the kidz, ready to make the best of a Saturday that would be not all too beery… Wrong. From a little leaflet in the room, telling us about the touristy surroundings, my wife and I distilled two destinations. The local subterranean cave complex (always beautiful, and tremendously exciting for the wee one’s, who’d never witnessed anything similar before); and the top-touristic town of Durbuy.
I swear to Gambinus it was the wife who’d suggested the latter. But of course, she got my loyal backing – as in MY guidebook, Durbuy is the location of Dany P’s ‘second venture’, the housebrewery of La Ferme au Chêne, were I painted ample dining possibilities, no to mention some rateables for me ol’ self… The cave proved everything we might have expected, and more and more overcast skies saw us arriving at Ferme au Chêne at early lunchtime, and a foaming glass of Marckloff soon in front of me.
But there and then, my luck got temporarily suspended. First of all, despite ample publicity, including two bottles on display, and the platter I went for to be made with it, their seasonal (?) beer, called Louisiane, was “just out of stock”, not available for tasting, nor for takeaway. This is not exactly the first time I heard that answer, in identical terms at that. I think F.a.C. Louisiane must be the most elusive beer in Belgium. Anyone out there ever had it? (Enquiry next day at Dany’s, drew a blank. Dany confessed not to know, and keeps his involvement at the Durbuy site at the strictest minimum. The responsible from Marckloff at the festival, thought there must have been some bottles left (the one in the display window, maybe?), but wasn’t sure, and hey, they surely didn’t bring it to Hotton… Nice.) I thought my Omelette Louisiane was rather nice, albeit prepared with the wrong beer, but my M.I.O.S. thought less than good about the Tartouille (which turned out to be nothing but bacon-and-eggs on a quiche fond, and terribly salty at that), especially as 9.90 Euros is a hefty price, and the kiddo’s were also less than enthusiastic. I could well believe my youngest son, as his “pain perdu” arrived 8 mins later than the other kids’, and obviously after they ran out of eggs in the kitchen…
Durbuy went from one depth to another. Huddling together as Noah’s family just before sailing, we tried to hop between positively torrential downpours, skidding through Belgium’s smallest town (NO, I won’t go into the linguistic nightmare of trying to explain how Belgium’s distinction “stad-dorp” simply isn’t conveyable into the Anglo-Saxon division “city-town-village”). We finally fled into the car, cursing those responsible for the heavenly floodgates.
Continued next week...
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