Saturday, August 31, 2002

Eating Our Way Through Belgium (part 3)

Cantillon beer is an acquired taste. And I'm not sure I've acquired it yet. A beer-loving friend (who I last saw with a bottle of it in front of him) says it is "like chewing on a lemon." This is not a very appealing description, perhaps, but it is quite accurate.

So why, exactly, was I determined to see the brewery? Because Cantillon is about as far removed from the big multinational beer companies as you can get. Whether one likes their products or not (and lots of beer connoisseurs do), no one denies that they have character, and Cantillon has not sacrificed the integrity of its product to appeal to a larger audience. They are, indeed, one of the very last producers of traditional lambic beer.

And what is lambic beer? The romantic answer is to look to a Bruegel painting; the beers the Flemings are drinking, some 400 years ago and probably earlier, are lambics. It is a beer rooted deep in Belgium's past, and features prominently in its art and cultural history.

The more explanatory, though drier, answer is that lambic is a beer which is produced by spontaneous fermentation. There are no yeast starters as with other beers; instead, as the wort cools overnight exposed to the air, the wild microflora in the sky settle in it and start fermentation. Two batches made on two separate nights, even in the same brewery and all other things being equal, could end up tasting significantly different depending on which way the winds blow.

This is why I wanted to visit the brewery.

The brewery does not necessarily look like it wants to be visited, however. On an unassuming street near the Brussels Midi train station, we found the brewery, large garage doors pulled down, and all doors seemingly locked. All but one, in fact, and as we cautiously opened it, we peered into a dark warehouse, and several sets of eyes peered back at us. We asked, hesitantly, if the brewery were open for tours that day, and were delighted to hear that it was (we had neglected to call ahead, standard etiquette for brewery visits, since many of our guide books implied that tours were always available at Cantillon).

The tour, as it happens, is self-guided. Small sheets of paper are taped up around the brewery, the numbers printed on them corresponding to entries in a small pamphlet handed to us by the woman running the front (a descendant of the original Cantillon family; her husband Jean-Pierre Van Roy is the brewer). Motion-detecting lights come on and flicker off as we move through the tour, but this is the only concession to people visiting.

Much of the process is fairly typical of beer production. Grain (wheat and barley) are crushed, mixed with warm water, and heated so that the starch begins to turn into sugar. The mixture is strained and the resulting liquid is called wort. It is reduced through evaporation, and hops are added. It is worth noting that Cantillon can not claim themselves as organic only because the hops they use are not. Thus, as they say, they are only 98.5% organic.

But it is the very tip-top of the brewery that I want to see. This is where the magic happens; the wort is pumped into a large, shallow copper tun for its nightly sojourn. There are vents and windows which allow the air to come in and the wild yeasts of Brussels with it. These will be the only yeasts in the beer. Our pamphlet tells us that 86 different kinds of yeast have been found in lambic, though they list Brettanomyces bruxellensis and Brettanomyces lambicus as the most important. Interestingly, a brewer we talked to in Brugges said that she had recently read that the yeast most responsible for lambic was fairly close genetically to the yeast which is responsible for the distinctive taste of San Francisco sourdough. Perhaps I should try pairing the two.

An amusing historical note illustrates the importance of this step. In the mid-80's, the brewery had to replace the roof over the cooling tun. The quality of the beer dropped sharply after this, but fortunately the brewery had kept some of the old tiles. If you look up at the celing of the room, you can see their clever solution. The old tiles, with their fertile yeast populations, are laid between the new tiles and the wooden struts supporting the roof.

This partnership with nature permeates the operation. There is dust everywhere, and substantial cobwebs hang from the ceiling. As the guide explains, lots of insects are drawn to the beer, which is exposed to the air until the fermentation settles down enough for the beer to be safely barrelled. Spiders are welcome, as they keep the insect population low. One suspects that the brewery's cat also has a role to play in pest control, though one wouldn't know it from our experience of her, laying asleep in the front room.

In theory, the lambic is drinkable after a few weeks of fermentation, but in practice it is most often aged for one to three years (in old barrels, to prevent the flavor of the beer from being muddied by the oak). Van Roy blends beers of different ages to produce gueuze (pronounced more like Gerze then Gooze), a more complex beer. The 3-year-old beer adds deep character, while the younger beers still have enough sugar to allow a second fermentation in the bottle, similar to how Champagne is made.

Alternately, Cantillon might take some of the lambic and macerate it with fruit to produce kriek, or cherry beer, Rose de Gambrinus (raspberry), or their distinctive apricot or grape beers. The yeast feeds on the sugars from the fruit for a more carbonated brew. Needless to say, while many larger producers use syrups to add fruit flavors to their beers, Cantillon uses locally grown organic produce.

The tour ends (after seeing the bottling system, the barrel cleaning system, and other elements of the production, all on site) with the one thing you want most in the world right at that moment--a glass of Cantillon beer. We actually got two glasses, the first being their signature gueuze, the second being their apricot.

Perhaps my tolerance is growing, but the gueuze I found pleasant, though still quite acidic (why is it that I look for good acidity in wine but can't yet deal with it in beer?). The apricot beer was not powerfully apricotty. Rather, it was distinct but not overwhelming. But the beer was far more tart than the gueuze. I managed to finish mine, but my tolerance needs to grow a bit more before I can appreciate it to its fullest.

So what did I leave with, other than a sense of satisfaction at seeing a truly artisanal producer? I looked at the ten or so beers the brewery produces, only some of which are available in the States, and even then only from a very few stores, and let out a big sigh as I thought about my full luggage. I mentally tried to reshuffle things to fit in one or two bottles, but in the end, I ended up with a T-shirt and a cookbook from the brewery which uses beer in all the recipes. Next time, though, I'm packing an empty bag.

Friday, August 30, 2002

Eating Our Way Through Belgium (part 2)

Comme Chez Soi. Ask anyone with reason to know what the best restaurant in Brussels is, and they're likely to say Comme Chez Soi. They'll probably even say that if you ask for the best restaurant in Belgium. One local put it on par with the very best restaurants in France, and the Michelin Guide concurs. There are three three-star restaurants in Belgium, and Comme Chez Soi is one of them.

We had debated about whether or not to eat there. After all, those stars don't come cheaply. Not for the chef. Certainly not for the customer. But as one of our travelling companions pointed out, we're not likely to be back in Brussels in the immediate future, and wouldn't it be a shame to not eat in the nicest restaurant the city and probably the country has to offer? If we didn't, we'd always wonder what dinner might have been like.

Fortunately, we were able to get reservations only two weeks in advance. With most of Europe, and certainly the EU's capital, essentially shut down during August, we were able to circumvent the normal month-long lead time for reservations. Needless to say, we were quite excited, despite the fact that the restaurant requires that men wear a jacket and tie.

Even before you start eating at Comme Chez Soi, the restaurant makes an impression. The decor is done with a distinct nod to Horta, the father of Art Nouveau. With graceful curves, flowing lines, and delicate ornamentation the pictures on the restaurant's Flash-heavy web site simply don't do it justice.

Next the menu. The only thing I didn't like about the restaurant is that the most expensive prix fixe, the best the chef has to offer, requires 4 people at your table to order it. Since it didn't have universal appeal at our table, we couldn't get it. The other two menus only require a minimum of two people, which was easily doable. Indeed, three of us immediately went for the second-best menu.

This menu did have an advantage, however; for a small supplement, you could change your opener to be truffled pate de foie gras d'oie. Of course, eating it made me fume with jealousy that the Europeans can eat this whenever they wish (while duck liver pate is common in the U.S., goose liver pate is illegal for import and production). Well, I only fumed between bites. During the bites I was too busy exulting. Melissa and I each got a glass of Sauternes to go with our foie gras, one of the gourmet world's most classic pairings. You can't fault any meal that starts out like that.

Our next course was a "duet" of pike and herring, two pieces of each fish lightly cooked with a nice light sauce. We opted for a Sancerre to go with this dish, and I think it worked relatively well. This was followed by roasted guinea fowl with a cherry sauce, a modern re-interpretation of a Flemish classic. To go with this, I opted for a Guigal Cote Rotie. Probably something a little less powerful would have been fine, but I love Northern Rhone wines, and not only is Guigal a great producer, his Cote Rotie is said to be among his very best. This wine smelled like walking into a really high-end leather shop, and felt wonderful in the mouth. Oh, right. The food was good too.

Dessert was a selection of three "intense" chocolate desserts. Basically, three different types of preparation, featuring different levels of chocolate and different flavorings. Even I, who normally doesn't like coffee, enjoyed the chocolate and coffee mousse. As is de rigueur in nice restaurants these days, the meal was bracketed on one end by amuses-bouches, small delicacies which excite the palate and get it ready for the meal to come, and on the other by a mignardise, the small confections which come after the dessert, giving the mouth an opportunity to come down slowly.

So dinner was pretty spectacular. I was impressed enough that I bought the restaurant's massive cookbook. Comme Chez Soi clearly earns its three stars, and it was worth the expense. But is it the best meal I've ever eaten? Well, no. It's probably second, but I'm beginning to realize that I have ruined myself for nice restaurants. Dinner at The French Laundry changes your perspective entirely, and I have a feeling that the only time I'm going to enjoy any meal more than the one I had at The French Laundry is some other meal there. Nonetheless, I have no problem looking for runners-up!

Thursday, August 29, 2002

Eating Our Way Through Belgium (part 1)

Mussels, frites, and beer. That's what most people think of when they think of Belgian cuisine. Well, at least it's what I thought. But we only managed to have that classic combination once during a two-week stay in the country; turns out you can eat very well in Belgium if you put your mind to it. Actually, even if you don't put your mind to it. The country is passionate about food.

But if you want to really put your best foot forward in the eating (and let us not forget drinking) department, you really only need two guide books. Michelin's Red Guide for Benelux (Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg), and Stephen D'Arcy's guide to Brussels bars (which also includes restaurants, and also covers Antwerp, Ghent, and Bruges).

Everyone knows about the Michelin guides, but who is Stephen D'Arcy? Among other things, he's a Belgian resident who's a committed member of CAMRA, the England-based Campaign for Real Ale. This is a group of people who work to keep real ale, not the highly commercialized stuff, alive and well. So he's clearly passionate, and his guide reflects that. He lists bars throughout Belgium in his guide, and has comments on all of them. If you're planning on going to Belgium, . At only $8, it more than paid for itself on our trip.

We were of course happy with his bar reccomendations, but we were equally happy with his restaurant tips. Our favorite from his list was De Gouden Ecu in Antwerp, which has also found its way into the Lonely Planet guide for Belgium. We stopped by while walking around town to make reservations for that night. Imagine our surprise when a crazy-looking, somewhat disheveled man answered the door, eyeing us suspiciously.

"Is it possible to make reservations for this evening?"

"Yeah. 8:00pm. Don't be late."

Turns out that our doorman was also the chef. And the wait staff. And the busboy. When we arrived that night we had to ring the doorbell, which gave him time to amble out to greet us from the kitchen. Needless to say, this one is below the radar of the Michelin guide.

But we got some fantastic traditional Flemish cuisine. I had a rabbit cooked in gueuze (a type of beer; see part 2 or part 3), and my girlfriend had waterzooey, a Flemish stew that can either be fish- or chicken-based. One of our dinner companions had a guinea fowl cooked with cherries and kriek (a cherry beer), which she raved about for the rest of the trip. The meal was accompanied by Augustijn, an abbey-style beer (except for the person with the guinea fowl; she naturally had more kriek to accompany her dish).

Before leaving Antwerp we hit what D'Arcy says is the best bar in the city--the Kulminator. Tucked away in a quiet neighborhood, this bar features over 300 beers. And just to give you an idea of how mamy different beers Belgium produces, that really only includes beers from the Flemish part of the country. As we sat with some friends, chatting for an hour or two and enjoying different beers, we raised a glass to Stephen D'Arcy and his spectacular guide.

Champagne and Venison

"Challenge your notions about food and wine!" said the e-mail from bacar, a snazzy wine bar in San Francisco's SOMA district. Their first-ever wine & food pairing for the general public was going to feature Terry Theise, German and Austrian wines and promised to make us question all that we thought we knew. Well, my notions about food and wine are still in their infancy, so there wasn't much to fight against, but this sounded like a stellar event.

Terry Theise is the premier importer of German and Austrian wines and artisanal Champagne. If he imports it, it's a safe bet that it's a good or even great wine. So it wasn't just that bacar was doing a pairing of these wines with some of their yummy food. It wasn't just that I had begun to appreciate white wines with a vengeance, compensating for the years I had spent ignorantly poo-pooing them. Terry would actually be there, and would share his thoughts and observations about them. I was on the phone in minutes.

The evening started with a last-minute surprise. Debbie Zachareas, bacar's wine director, sent out an e-mail suggesting everyone get there early. Terry had donated another dozen wines for us to try before dinner actually started. The wines in this initial tasting were an equal mix of German and Austrian, 5 whites and 1 red of each.

My runaway favorite was Salomon's 1997 Gruner Veltliner Wieden. Gruner Veltliner is Austria's signature grape, and this was a stunning example. Strong pepper notes (GV is often described as having white pepper in the bouquet), great acidity, and a nice long finish. The whole list had some pretty good wines, but that one I'll seek out.

So when the food came, was I challenged? Shocked? Granted an epiphany? All of the above.

Terry has helped teach the world a number of things, but one of the most famous is his insistence that Gruner Veltliner goes well with vegetables. To prove his point, he worked with bacar to come up with our first course--a medley of market vegetables. No, no, not your typical platter of crudites. Breaded and baked asparagus. Pickled broccoli. Roasted peppers. Fried lettuce leaves. These are veggies that I would refrain from putting on one of my dinner menus if I was serving wine. You can't match these strongly-flavored vegetables with anything.

In fact, you can. Spectacularly. Erich Salomon's Gruner Veltliner 'Wieden Reserver' Kremstal, Austria, 1998 and Hiedler's Gruner Veltliner 'Thal-Novemberlese' Kamptal, Austria, 2000 are two very different wines. But they both complemented the dish shockingly well. Next time my vegetarian friends come over, I'm pulling out a Gruner Veltliner. Perhaps we'll have artichokes.

The chilled oven-roasted heirloom tomato soup had mixed results in my mind. I was okay with the Muller-Catoir 2000 'Gimmeldinger Mandelgarten' (Kabinett Riesling), but the soup didn't seem quite capable of standing up to the 1996 Strub 'Niersteiner Orbel' (Riesling Spatlese). Terry thought they both worked really well, but the two women to my left didn't like either of them with the soup.

Then came the second big shock. A nice, perfectly cooked, rare piece of venison. Accompanied by a Vilmart Rose Champagne ('Cuvee Rubis' Premier Cru a Rilly, France, multi-vintage). "Riesling is the most versatile white wine," said Terry. "Champagne comes in second." Astonishing. Who would've thunk.

As we enjoyed the rest of our meal, lobster pot pie with a blanc de blanc (100% Chardonnay) Champagne and Austrian Riesling followed by a cheese course accompanied by an Auslese (semi-sweet) Riesling, Terry talked to us about the people who make these wines. He visits them every year, he knows their kids. These are not mega-vintners. These are small farmers with small lots. Winemaking is a family enterprise. Their philosophy, overall, is the less you do to the juice, the better the wine. They don't want a contrived, carefully sculpted wine--they want the purest expression the grape can give.

And if this is what the grape gives naturally, they're right. You can rarely improve excellence.