Thursday, 16 April 2009

Not just mussels in Brussels

'I don't know why people deride a country of five million people that produces 1,000 different beers.' - Jonathan Meades

Raised eyebrows often greet those who say they're off to Belgium for a holiday. Belgium? Why?

Quite apart from the beer, there's food, architecture and everywhere a sense of the gothic. The journalist and broadcaster Jonathan Meades hit the nail on the head with his contention that
'Magritte was actually a realist, not a surrealist - that he was a recorder of his country's condition, a reporter.' There is something exotic about a country that seems to share so many characteristics with the UK - dark wit, a confused collective identity, a labyrinthine and internationalist capital city - and yet is so evidently foreign.

The beer, of course, is a case in point. Both countries enjoy a weight and wealth of styles, traditions and innovations - yet the keg in Belgium is not synonymous with smoothflow tripe and bottle conditioned beers are everyday commodities. In Belgium it is commonplace to drink a bottle's sediment. Back home the same practice seems to ruin a decent brew. Odd. The sense of glee with which a beer hound heads for Brussels or Bruges is, then, that intriguing blend of the familiar and the thrillingly different. It will be a feeling many reading this will have experienced (yeah, both of you).

The St Gilles district of Brussels is central, but has a suburban ease to it. Following a crazed period of work amid the ivory towers of Canary Wharf, idling along its sloped streets was a relaxed pleasure. Falling upon La Porteuse d'Eau brasserie was a delight. It is a palace standing as proud celebration of art nouveau and offered lunchtime perfection in the shape of onglet with shallots, chicken and mushroom stew vol au vent and chicory gratin.

Its beer selection is clearly well thought out and on my visit there was a subtle push towards a new beer, Hopus from Bra
sserie Lefebvre. It would seem Belgian beer is undergoing the hop revolution that has spread from west coast USA (I've already written about the superb La Chouffe Houblon). Five different hop varieties make it into Hopus, which packs a helluva punch at 8.5%. The bitterness is more like a hefty thwack than a spicy, floral build and I liked it.

Particularly pleasing was the dedication to its service - the bottle has a swing-stopper, which I always regard as an artful plus. With attention to her task, the waitress poured the beer into its rather camp branded glass, conjuring a generous perfumed neck of foam. A branded shot glass was revealed - into which was poured the murky, yeasty sediment. Theatrical, delicious and served alongside a good chewy cut of beef.

This brasserie puts in hard work to look the part and succeeds in providing something a lot of British pubs don't quite manage - a touch of flair, or a gold nugget of a reason to go out rather than neck a Duvel at home. And all this without the slightest hint of pretence, again rare in Blighty, where modish bars always seem to try too hard.

Decent grub and a super beer, to boot - both available in the UK and Belgium of course. But La Porteuse d'Eau does the job with class and a hint of exoticism. Perfect.


impymalting said...

What a fascinating video-- I wish I'd seen it before going to Belgium. My impressions were similar to yours-- the effortless style in the eateries really put the British gastro pub to shame. It was lovely to be in a place where you could drink beer and feel elegant and ironic at the same time!

jesusjohn said...

Glad you like the video (hope you took in parts 2 and 3 as well - interesting stuff). Meades is a bit of a hero of mine.

Elegance certainly came to mind at La Porteuse d'Eau...

Ten Inch Wheeler said...

I love Belgium - and Brussels in particular. I especially like the way it hasn't been sanitised to within an inch of its life like many euro capitals. Lots of interesting, grimy little shops and buildings and bars. Midi Station could do with a scrub though.

jesusjohn said...

Hi Ten Inch...

I assure you London has not been sanitised..and the whole of that could do with a spring tidy.

Agree re. Midi station - but surely it would lose its charm!