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The same chap told us that, on a clear day, you can see Moscow from the top of the iconic Atomium structure, “plus we are good at judo and motocross”. You can’t; they are. He also gave us the inevitable Eddy Merckx spiel – he won the Tour de France five times between 1969 and 1974 and is their one true champion – before returning to safer ground with recommendations on beer and chocolate.
Paul Hegge, from the Voka Chamber of Commerce, continues this bout of second-itis.
“Belgium has the second-highest exports per capita after Singapore,” he says, as we tackle pots of mussels steamed in vin blanc, accompanied by the highly-polished Martens Sezoens Blond (6% alcohol by volume) at the Tavern du Passage.
“Antwerp is the largest chemical production city in the world after Houston,” he adds.
It’s slightly bewildering because Belgium does beer better than any other country on Earth – they know it’s good so they don’t have to stretch the viewpoint – but they continually feel the need to sneak in what a man did on a bike 30 years ago.
To get really in the mood for Brussels and beer and its inevitable effects, the first stop is the city’s mascot – the Manneken-Pis. This two-foot high statue of a little boy, Petit Julien, was created in 1619 (the present structure dates from the early 19th century, the original having been stolen and damaged beyond repair). He cocks a snook at visitors and has come to symbolise Brussels’ defiance for the outside world which tends to regard the city as taking itself too seriously. The nearby Manneken Pis Beer Shop dispels any notion of that.
Claude the guide directs us to a bar which the Time Out Guide to Brussels describes as “this narrow, wood-and-mirror haven of ensozzlement, ever-thick with tobacco smoke and rife with bar tales”. There could hardly be a more fitting illustration of A La Morte Subite.
Alarmingly, Mort Subite translates as “Sudden Death”, a sobriquet it earned from a dice game called 4-2-1. Staff and customers from the National Bank of Belgium passed their time in the early part of last century playing the game in a café called La Cour Royale. If one of them was called back to the office unexpectedly (or if the boss appeared suddenly), they would finish off with one last throw – sudden death. When the owners moved the business to its present location in 1928, they took its nom de plume with them. We prefer another version, however, which replaces the bankers with journalists from La Libre Belgique because bankers get enough kicks from inflicting heart-arresting flutters on customers by informing them their overdraft is overdrawn (“and that’s £30, thanks, for telling you something you already know”).
A La Morte Subite sits in an unremarkable street (number 7 Rue Montagne aux Herbes Potageres), compared to the 17th Century magnificence of the nearby Grand Place, as everything in Brussels inevitably is, but its huge windows open up into a long room of faded Belle Epoche finery and three long rows of tables and chairs, commanding mirrors and patched leather pews little changed since its opening day and reminiscent of the station buffet in Brief Encounter. On a previous visit several years ago, a cat lay curled up on a seat in the corner. It’s still there.
It also serves beer from its own brewery, offering various interpretations of the style known as lambic, a type of unmalted wheat beer unique to Brussels and its surroundings. Lambic is made by spontaneous fermentation – wild yeasts in the atmosphere enter the brewery through windows deliberately left open.
The bar’s ambience is all-embracing; it is unhurried and utterly civilised with little groups conversing, lunching, smoking and drinking in a manner completely foreign to the British method of slugging lots quickly before the boss appears. Table service, normal on the continent, adds an air of divine decadence. The beers, as in most of Belgium, are served in their own dedicated glasses, all shaped subtlely differently to enhance each aroma and flavour characteristic.
If you find yourself in unfamiliar surroundings, faced with a battalion of branded glasses hanging upside down – indicating that the tiny bar you have ambled into actually has a beer for every one of them – sit down, ask for the beer list and pore. Every bar, café and restaurant has a list – well-presented sheets bound in plastic wallets with suggesties, alcoholic strengths and brief descriptions. And if you do choose unwisely (you can never really make a mistake), it’s three euros or so of experience, a talking point for back home and a hefty kick of alcohol. No great loss there.
When in Brussels, do as the Bruxelloises do – sip oude gueuze, kriek or framboise following lunch and a stroll.
Kriek is made by adding cherries – including skins and stones – to a year-old lambic. The proportion is some 30-40 kilos of whole fruit to 230-240 litre of beer. At the end of the maceration period, which can take up to six months, it is filtered and bottled. It improves with ageing but only up to a point, losing its cherry flavour after about four years, but gaining in alcohol.
Framboise – raspberry – is a similar fruit beer style, though, increasingly, juices and essences are used instead of the fresh fruit, which is a disappointed to those of us who demand their five portions a day.
Gueuze can be a wonderful aperitif or a refreshing, anytime drink. It’s a blend of old (up to a year) and new lambics and should be dry, tarty and fruity, with a flavour approaching that of sour apples. It can then be cellared for three or four years. Gueuze is also known as the champagne of beers through this blending and for its spritzy character, let alone its status among connoisseurs.
The trouble with table service and a tempting wallet of beers sipped in magnificent surroundings amongst the chattering Bruxelloises is the subsequent vertical and horizontal alignment. If you’re not careful, you’ll be able to see Moscow. But only on a clear day.
A TOUR OF BRUSSELS
If Belgium wasn’t already famous for beer and chocolate it would be almost famous in a variety of other fields. Perhaps its geographic position rubbing shoulders with big brothers Germany and France has given it an inferiority complex, but its citizens seem to delight in detailing their “nearly” exploits as much as crowing about what we envy them for in the first place. For example, our city guide to Brussels in 2003 announced: “If Kim Clijsters wins at the weekend, she’ll go from the world’s number two tennis player to number one.” She didn’t and she was number six, anyway.
IT'S ABOUT EVERY AGE GROUP
More than ever we need pub owners with the vision and determination to do something that will persuade people to venture out on a wet Tuesday when Holby City might seem the better option. We have plenty of them around the North East and the better ones are doing very well, thank you very much.
Entrepreneurial publican Dave Carr is one such chap.
Alastair Gilmour writes about beer and breweries and pubs and people from a variety of perspectives. Media outlets include The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne; Brewers’ Guardian, and Cheers North East.
Meet and Drink writer Alastair Gilmour regularly conducts beer events throughout the UK and internationally – tours and tastings that have included a platform suspended 30 metres above the River Tyne and a real ale festival in a Moscow nightclub – and was for several years on the judging panel of the Pilsner Urquell International Master Bartender programme. [READ MORE]
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