With the nights drawing in, and the temperature dropping, do your thoughts start to drift towards the convivial possibilities of wintery food and mulled wine?
Add to that Michelin star winning food and some of the world’s best beer?
If all of the above sound good to you then you could do worse than booking yourself a trip to the gourmet capital of Belgium – Bruges.
An hour out of Brussels sits the Unesco World Heritage site of Bruges – a warren of winding roads, lined with ancient step-gabled houses that hark back to Bruges’ history as an important merchant town, whose fortunes were made with the lace trade of the late 17th and early 18th century.
Nowadays it tends to be Christmas markets, beer, chocolate and fine dining that brings people flocking to the city from all over Europe.
And so it was with us, as we stepped blinking from our taxi onto the cobbles of the market square and were faced with the imposing belfry of the town’s (now famous as a result of it’s role in the Colin Farrel film ‘In Bruges’) cathedral. At its centre the square now has an ice rink and surrounding that, pretty huts selling the usual mix of fast food, mulled wine, hot chocolate with amaretto and of course Belgian waffles. The stalls not selling food were, if I’m honest, a mildly disappointing blend of mass produced knitwear, polished gem stones and cheap looking Christmas decorations – not exactly what the scores of blogs raving about Bruges’ Christmas markets had led us to expect.
However, undaunted we felt our fortunes would be better served if we found a nice spot for refreshment where we could familiarise ourselves with the geography, and hopefully start what we hoped would be a long-lasting love affair with the Belgian beer. On Bruges’ lesser market square, the Burg we found a suitable restaurant and before long frites with mayonnaise were served and beers one and two with it. Leffe blonde and Bruges Zot, the famous and much loved local brew. Leffe is admittedly available in the UK but is undeniably a far superior drop here in Bruges, relatively speaking a hop, skip and a jump from it’s brewery. Zot is a lovely light, golden beer served (as all Belgian beers are) in a branded glass with their famous harlequin figure proudly displayed.
As is often the case, one beer turned into four and we relocated to the not-to-be-missed 2-be beer museum on Wollestraat with their famous beer wall – supposedly showing all the beers Belgian produces and quite possibly one of the most photographed scenes in the town as people lean against it pointing at the bottle most responsible for the flushed complexion on their face. With beers approaching 14%abv you choose carefully before taking your glass out onto the patio – fringed beautifully by the canal that encircles the city. A pint of Brugge Wit (wheat beer) and a half of the sweet red cherry beer, Kriek later, we had fallen into conversation with fellow travellers and were fast becoming friends. For a town so small, whose efforts are so devotedly focused on the production of fine food and drink, this is a situation you often find yourself in, far more than in any other town I have been in. The fuzzy head and full stomach tend to cause you to linger longer over your lunch or dinner and fall into a debate with your neighbour about the quality of the chocolate or who got the best deal on Trivago. Our companions at 2-be had deliberately chosen their guest house based on the fearsomely pointed responses of their landlords to unfair reviews previously posted. ‘This we have to see!’ they said and were able to report that this no nonsense approach to hospitality was exactly what they wanted – they had also just learned of the industrial action affecting trains and planes on the Monday they were due to fly home. In most situations this would be a cause for worry and many frantic phonecalls, but here with the glow of the lanterns on the water, the beer and the unimproveable views, the prospect of an extra unplanned day in this city seemed more than welcome.
Early evening soon morphed into evening. Poor 3G and an even poorer grasp on the French/Flemish spoken in Flanders made reading restaurant menus on a smartphone a perfectly pointless exercise. Our taxi driver offered up the possibility of a reservation at the 2 Michelin starred Restaurant de Jonkman which (possibly to our eternal regret) we chose to decline when we saw the prices upwards of 200 Euros per head. And so we wandered off into the side streets that lead from the market square on the lookout for a bistro sufficiently far from the madding crowds. We’d heard that the Flemish stew was not to be missed – slow cooked braising steak of a type much prized in Flanders, steeped in dark brown beer and served with potatoes, salad and great hunks of bread. This we found and our starters (soon dwarfed by further tall glasses of Staffe Hendrik beer) swiftly arrived – potato croquettes with cheese and ham lasted just long enough on the plate to be Instagrammed before being replaced with the aforementioned Flemish Stew and a creamy chicken stew with potato, leek, carrots and black pepper.
Day two began, as day two’s very often do with the hotel breakfast. Being, as it were, ‘in the business’ of eating out of home it is always interesting to see what brands we recognise in evidence in hotels, and thankfully Belgium didn’t disappoint. There at the entrance to our breakfast room were great tombstone-sized slabs of Barry Callebaut chocolate complete with a large knife for hacking off great chunks of the delicious dark stuff.
Suitably stuffed we set forth again into the narrow streets to retrace our steps from last night where we felt we’d seen a good bar. The Habit on Kemelstraat harks back to the fine Trappist tradition of those in holy orders making some of the most potent beers in the world. Whether the rival bar opposite called The Hobbit was so named as a nod to its neighbour is unknown, but on this narrow street these two bars – one themed around a Monastery and one around Tolkien’s most celebrated work – anaesthetise many hundreds of visitors daily with their drinks menus and send forth more smiling faces into the street than bars five times their size.
A second Christmas market was stumbled upon next, but alas, this was much the same as the first in terms of wares. Clearly the Christmas bloggers’ appetites for poorly rendered Pikachu knitted hats are greater than ours, but this was not the hand-crafted artisanal tree decorations that the guide books led us to expect. Back to food then.
Hashtag was a recommendation from dear old TripAdvisor – a mixed bag at the best of times, but this one kept popping up as an exciting new opening guaranteed to please with the ‘Smokey Goat’ – a handmade burger with goat’s cheese as opposed to a hand made burger made from goat that I was expecting. A modern bistro, artfully decorated with eclectic prints, ornaments, and a banner wishing us a ‘Merry F*&king Christmas’, this place promised, simple, honest, healthy food made with love. The hearty, spicy tomato soup to start was a real treat – hot, thick and full of pep. The Smokey Goat that followed was deliciously seasoned and came with a big wedge of the eponymous cheese that gave an aroma that had other diners craning their necks to see what smelled so good. And so again, we exited into the chilly evening air full of good food and beer and the prospect of yet more of the same to come.
Our last day was decided to be a little more exploratory, and perhaps less indulgent. A canal boat tour took us on a circuit of Bruges, pointing out such essential ephemera as the ‘smallest Gothic window in Bruge’ as well as the Groeninge Museum which housed the town’s collection of Flemish primitive painting by the likes of Van Eyck and Van Dyck. The Eyck’s and Dyck’s were to be the subject of our next stop and as a cultural diversion would earn us the reward of yet more beer and croquettes.
After a pleasing hour or so looking at various depictions of Madonna and Child, punctuated by a lone Hieronymus Bosch (great excitement here, nothing quite like a triptych of sinners being decapitated by toothy fish-men to get the appetite up) and we were back out in search of lunch.
Cambrinus offered us a welcome so warm that not only did my glasses steam up but after 15 minutes at the bar they were still misting up every half pint or so. The 400 odd beers offered at this legendary watering hole on Philipstockstraat brings visitors in such numbers that its ancient engraved windows are almost permanently misted up due to the steaming bodies cooling off with a yard of something dark, frothy and frankly dangerous looking.
We had come in search of Delirium Tremens. Not the condition so indicative of a life attached to the bottle, but a beer purporting to the best in the world. Well, according to a beer mat at least. This beer and its jaunty pink elephant logo features across the city in one form or another and, let’s be honest, anything that is suffixed ‘the best in the world’ is worth your attention.
Well we weren’t disappointed. At 8.5% it’s not the headiest of beers you will try in Bruges, but at the tail end of a busy day this one fell over you like a warm blanket. It drank like a lager, tasted like a good beer and gave you glow like half a bottle of vintage claret. Fair praise indeed. Was it the best in the world? Hard to say really, but in a town that offers you world class beers in the high hundreds at every turn, it really is the work of a lifetime to decide.
Better start soon.
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