Beer and chocolate are Brussels' specialties. Sarah Maxwell goes in search of the best of both.
Standing in the Cantillon family brewery, about to take a gulp of freshly opened, traditional kriek, I'm not quite sure what to expect. Kriek is a unique "winey" beer native to Brussels, made by mixing several beers together with whole fruit, then laying it down to re-ferment. I know the adage, "Beer before wine makes you feel fine..." but what about drinking both together?
Owner Claude Cantillon is watching me expectantly and I can truthfully report I have never tasted anything like it ? a deep, sour concoction that manages to combine the acidity of wine, the sourness of cider and the hopsy undertones of beer. Above all of that comes the dainty taste of cherry. It's like taking a sledgehammer to your taste buds while tickling them with a feather.
It was not the first time I was to be lost for words in Brussels; it may be best known these days as home to the headquarters of the EU, but beyond the austere corridors of power, Belgium's capital makes an art form out of manufacturing two of the very finest things in life: beer and chocolate.
Most visitors start on Grand Place, the huge cobbled square lined with beautiful baroque guild-houses. The bars here offer the familiar brands of Belgian beer ? Stella Artois, Becks and Hoegaarden ? plus, if you're lucky, their own home brew (a phrase with more positive connotations than in most other countries). But you'll also find a bewildering selection of draught and bottled beers, in different shades (usually "blonde" or "brun"), strengths (from 2.5 up to 12%) and sizes. There's something for every palate: for something fruity, knock back a light raspberry kriek; for something refreshing, quaff a wheat beer like Blanche de Bruges; for something sour enough to make your eyes water, try a red beer like Rodenbach Grand Cru; or to be seduced by the dark side, try a Trappist ale like Chimay bleue, a mellow but lethally strong 9% beer.
Each is served in a special glass, with the delicate fruit beers arriving in appropriately slim vessels and the ales in round, and seemingly bottomless glasses. There is even a rulebook on how each type of beer should be served ? making it wise to encourage all future Belgian dinner party guests to pour their own.
But the exotic-sounding brews served here are not necessarily age-old Belgian recipes ? and that's where the Cantillons come in. Tucked away on a side street near Gare Midi, Claude Cantillon's brewery is the last family-run brewery in Brussels ? a fact she tells me several times with evident distress. She is from a long line of brewers and uses the same methods used by her grandfather, who in 1937 first began brewing his own lambic ? a beer originating from Lembeek southwest of Brussels, brewed by "spontaneous" fermentation using wild yeast. It's a slow process; while other beers ferment over weeks or months, lambics take a leisurely three years.
The Cantillons set up their tiny museum brewery in 1978, "to spread the word about traditional beer-making," after watching dozens of small breweries close, unable to compete with the major breweries. Photographs line the walls showing the brewing process, and twice a year the public is invited to watch the brewing and sample the beers. The brewery produces 100,000 litres of lambic each year, then blends two or three lambics at different stages of maturity to produce a popular beer called gueuze; when fruit is added during the maturation process, the result is kriek.
Claude's husband, Jean-Pierre Van Roy, is rushing around, preparing for a massive delivery of cherries, but he pauses long enough to share his views on the huge breweries, which he says have altered traditional beers beyond recognition to suit today's generation of beer drinkers. "They add sugar and artificial preservatives," he says darkly. "It's just about making money." I have to agree; the raspberry kriek I had tasted a day earlier was effervescent and perfumey, nothing like the powerful brew here. The fruity-but-sour krieks at Cantillon are so eye-watering and unlike any other beer in the world that "acquired taste" seems an understatement ? yet they represent a piece of Belgium's cultural heritage that should not be overlooked.
A serious business
Belgians may not be the biggest beer guzzlers ? at 96 litres per capita they stand ninth, eclipsed by fellow beer-loving nations including Australia, the UK, Germany, Ireland and the Czech Republic ? but with 450 varieties of beer and 126 breweries, the beer industry is a source of deep national pride. Most people save a good bottle of wine for Christmas; Belgians invent a brand new type of beer.
Not only do Belgians view the brewing and serving of their beer very seriously, they are fiercely protective of their home-grown product. When US brewer Coors began advertising their Blue Moon Belgian White beer as being "brewed in the true Belgian tradition", the Confederation of Belgian Breweries was swift to protest. Two years of legal wrangling later, Coors finally agreed to change its labelling to reflect that its "Belgian" beer was in fact brewed in Denver.
For guaranteed authenticity, look no further than Trappist beer. The name of this family of super-strong, tar-hued ales can only be applied to beer brewed and owned by Trappist monks. They may deny themselves carnal and material pleasures, but these monks brew a mean ale ? and it can be drunk with a happy conscience because they plough the profits back into community projects. Sadly it may be a dying art; there are six remaining Trappist monasteries in Belgium producing popular brands such as Chimay, Orval and Westmalle, but the number of brewing monks has declined as interest in the noble vocation (monkhood, not beer-brewing) has waned. Other monasteries that no longer brew their own beer have licensed major breweries to use their name ? the resulting beers are called abbey beers ? and, like the mass-produced fruit beers, they may be more widely available but many are only loosely based on traditional recipes.
The chasm between the staunch traditionalists and the large brewers is clearly appreciated by the Belgian Brewers Association, which describes its motto as "tradition with an eye to the future". Their small museum on Grand Place displays modern brewing equipment, such as cylindro-conical maturing and fermentation tanks ? all shiny metal and sterile surfaces ? which bubbles away gently alongside wooden tubs and stirring staffs from 18th century brewing houses. Visitors can boggle their minds with statistics about Belgium's brewing industry (the computer servers were down during my visit ? that's technology for you) and then sip a complimentary beer in the museum café, under the benign gaze of a small statue of Saint Arnould, Belgium's patron saint of brewers.
Perhaps one reason why Belgians aren't top of the league for beer consumption is that they also have about 9kg of chocolate to get through each year, second only to the Swiss.
With 300 chocolate makers and a reputation for some of the finest quality chocolate in the world, Belgium is perhaps justified in proclaiming itself the chocolate capital of Europe. According to The Foreign Trade and Investment Guide to Belgium, its success is all down to "extremely stringent legislation governing manufacturing processes", and Jo Draps, a third-generation chocolatier who runs the Museum of Cocoa and Chocolate, heartily agrees. "Belgium has the best technology for producing the raw materials of chocolate," she says proudly.
It was actually a Dutchman who first found a way, in 1815, to separate the natural fat of the cocoa bean into cocoa butter and a powder, giving birth to the chocolate industry. But man's obsession with the cocoa bean started much earlier than this: the Aztecs used it to concoct spicy broths which they fed to unfortunate sacrificial victims before their death, and when it reached European shores in the 16th century, it was greeted with rapture and ascribed great healing powers ? and, of course, aphrodisiac qualities.
So what's the secret of great chocolate? It's all in the bean, says Madame Draps. "You must be strict in your choice of bean; every type of cocoa bean has its own aroma so it's important to choose the right one". Although the cocoa bean was discovered in Latin America, most of the world's production now uses beans from Africa, and Belgium was in the right place at the right time; its colonisation of the Congo in 1885 opened up access to some of the finest beans around.
Unlike most chocolate, Belgian chocolate contains 100% cocoa butter and no vegetable fat, which is widely used as a cheaper substitute. A European directive recently allowed Belgian chocolate-makers to use 5% vegetable fat in their recipes, but Madame Draps insists this compromises the quality. She won't say whether anyone she knows uses vegetable fat, but would her expert taste buds detect its presence? She looks shocked. "Of course. The taste is very different."
Her museum guides visitors through the history and methods of chocolate making, while "chocolate master" Helene Verbeyst demonstrates how pralines are made. Brussels is the birthplace of the praline, the chocolate shell with a sweet filling invented by Joseph Neuhaus, whose legacy is a chain of upmarket chocolate shops around Belgium. By using different types of cocoa bean and varying amounts of the ingredients ? cocoa powder, cocoa butter, sugar, milk and lecithin (emulsifier) ? Helene has created over 600 types of chocolate, and she guards her recipes closely. Keeping track of such a catalogue must be an exact science, but her tools seem basic and her methods intuitive. Chatting in first English then French, then Dutch, as she stirs a giant tub of molten chocolate, she explains that it's important to keep the temperature at between 30-32 degrees before pouring it into the moulds. Then she lifts her spoon and dribbles chocolate onto the surface of the soupy mass ? from how long it stays on the surface she is able to judge the temperature. No thermometers are needed here.
At Chocolatier Manon, just off Rue Royal, Monsieur Manon is also a fervent believer in getting the ingredients just right. He carries on his grandfather's business of hand-making chocolates, eschewing the machinery used by larger-scale chocolate-makers. He has won five awards, including one for the "sputnik", one of his most famous creations, which took 11 painstaking steps to create (eight more stages than your average praline) and contains orange buttercream, almond paste and crème fraiche, hand-dipped in dark chocolate ? with a blob of 24-carat gold on top. It's an astonishing result. You have to eat it in one mouthful and then wait transfixed as the deliciously light, creamy filling melts in the mouth. New flavours flood my palate one after another; it's like the magic stick of gum in Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory ? a three-course meal in one mouthful.
Attention to detail is the key. "You can have good beans but put too much sugar in and ruin it," Monsieur Manon says, shaking his head, ruing all that flawed chocolate. He reserves special criticism for white chocolate, which he says doesn't really exist. "You put milk into coffee before you drink it, but if you poured milk into a glass you would not call it coffee. It's the same with chocolate. White chocolate contains only the fat from the cocoa bean, not the actual cocoa powder ? so it is not really chocolate."
He is dismissive of the cheap and cheerful chocolate chains clustered around Grand Place. "For them it's all about the packaging.
I make chocolate, not business, and I don't do publicity." But while Monsieur Manon works quietly away, hand-piping crème fraiche into each chocolate cup, someone on the other side of the world could be savouring the sputnik, because 85% of his chocolate is exported. Walk into Fortnum & Mason in London and the sputnik might well be waiting for you.
The irony facing the traditional beer and chocolate makers is that since the demand for their produce has gone large-scale, so has its manufacture, leaving them in a vulnerable position ? and yet it was their proud workmanship that was responsible for Belgium's impeccable reputation in the first place. But it is in their factories and fermentation tubs that Belgium's history lies, and it's a taste not easily forgotten.
Where to find the best...
BarsLe Bier Circus (89 Rue L'Enseignment) and Chez Moeder Lambic (68 Rue de Savoie, near Gare Midi) offer every Belgian beer you could ever want to try. Other good bars to visit are La Mort Subite "sudden death" (7 Rue Montagne-aux-Herbes-Potageres) and Art Nouveau bar and restaurant Le Falstaff (19-25 Rue Henri Maus, near the Bourse) ? try the mussels cooked in gueuze, crème and white wine. If you just can't get enough beer, you can also visit specialist beer restaurants Restobieres (32 Rue des Renards, Vossenstraat) and Spinnekopke (Place aux Jardin aux Fleurs). To buy your own beer, visit Biertempeljust off Grand Place (56 Rue Marche aux Herbes), a small shop offering a staggering choice, bound to include your new-found favourites. Beermaniaalso has about 400 different beers and even lets visitors sample them (174 Chausee de Wavre, www.beermania.be).
To learn about the history of Belgian brewing, visit the museum of theMaison des Brasseurs (10 Grand Place, entry fee E5), and the Brewery Cantillon (56 Rue Gheude Straat, www.cantillon.be, entry E3.50), which opens its traditional brewing process to the public on November 6, 2004 and March 5, 2005 and offers tours round the brewery.
The Musee du Cacaoet du Chocolat (13 Grand Place, entry E5, closed Mondays) is a good first stop to learn about chocolate-making. Don't miss Planete Chocolate (24 Rue Lombard) where you can buy chocolate-filled sculptures by Belgian artists and peculiar flavours such as black pepper-flavoured chocolate ? also visit the café for the best hot chocolate of your life. Chocolate shop Mary(73 Rue Royale, www.mary.be) is festooned with antiques and pictures of the Royal Family and the Prime Minister, who are all reportedly fans of Mary's produce.
Just round the corner (24 Rue du Congres) isLe Chocolatier Manon. Group tours (arranged by appointment, tel 32 02 217 64 09, cost E10) can be made of the Manon factory just outside the centre of Brussels. On Place du Grand Sablon, visit Pierre Marcolini (39) which won an industry award for its chocolate in 1995, or Wittamer (6 and 12), both family-run shops. Other, more well known chocolate shops include Galler (44 Rue au Beurre), Neuhaus, Godiva (47 Grand Sablon) and Leonidas (Grand Place).
For the low-down on Brussels hotels go to page 59 of the October edition of Business Traveller magazine