'BEWARE THE BURGUNDIAN RABBIT':
WEST FLANDERS REPORT JANUARY 2002
Babble Belt old timers will recall that in January 2001 I managed to bump into both Michael Jackson and the toilet in 't Brugs Beertje, and ended up at Brugge General Hospital in the process. I should point out here that the two events were not connected, but nevertheless, this year I was determined to have a trouble free trip. Would I succeed? Read on to find out!
This time we Eurostarred over for six nights in Brugge and two in Watou. We picked up a hire car in Brugge for the Watou leg, and left it back at Midi station in Brussels. We arrived in Brugge on Saturday afternoon, and after two days warming up, the main event of the week arrived on the Monday night: the Babblefest at the Beertje!
The Babblefest and the Vuuve incident
Several of the others have already given excellent reports, but hey, there's always room for more reports on a babblefest! Theresa and I got there early - like 4.15pm - and I warmed up with a St Louis Gueuze Fond Tradition, which was as good as its reputation. With memories of the pre 24 Uur babblefest clear in my mind, or at least with memories of the morning after clear in my mind, I gently nursed this one to ensure that I didn't end up in Mark's wheelbarrow, until Keith and Mary Ann about an hour later.
I celebrated their arrival with a Rose de Gambrinus, and after one drink we responsibly headed out for dinner. We chose 't Fonteintje, a little place across Simon Stevin Plein, not two minutes from the Beertje. Tasty steaks and mussels were the order of the day, and we had a great, hearty meal.
When we returned, Mat and Mark had arrived, followed not long after by Johan, Steven Vermoere and then Filip and Katrien. The babblefest had begun in earnest! We were delighted that Daisy joined in the fun, and we were even more delighted that she so generously allowed us to bring some beers of our own in to sample. Mat's Cnudde Oudenaards Bruin barrel, Steven's Westmalle Extra and Orval Vert, and Mark's 1992 Gauloise Brune were all served up in sample glasses by Daisy at regular intervals through the night. All of these were wonderful, with the notable exception of the Cnudde Bruin, but it was still great to get to sample such a rare beer.
Other beers I had included Kapel van Viven, Avec les Bons Voeux (shared with Mark), Moinette Blonde from the tap, Smisje Kerst and Vuuve.
Now, late last year I had not been too complimentary about Vuuve, and had nominated it as my Worst BB of the year in Mark's poll last December. Nervously, I teed up another, with the brewer at my side, so it was a pleasure and a relief that I could not have enjoyed this one any more! Daisy said that for her it is the best wit ever produced, and who am I to disagree? It was great to taste it again in front of the brewer and discover what a treasure it is, and I was delighted to be able to set the record straight. This is definitely NOT the worst BB of 2001 or any other year. It's a Regenboog classic, right up there with Johan's other beers.
Like all such occasions, it went far too quickly, and before we knew it Tom was locking the door and it was time to go. Last beer of the night for me was another Smisje Kerst, one of the highlights of the week. This is a rich but superbly balanced, strong but not overpoweringly alcoholic, beer, which is packed with flavour. I had a few of these during the week and also brought one home. After saying our farewells, T and I wandered back to the hotel through the deserted streets of Brugge, and amazingly found a Frituur open in the Markt, which we eagerly headed for without hesitation!
So the babblefest was a great night, and it was good that of the 10 people there almost half were Belgians. Oh, and when we gave Daisy a BBB card (thanks Glenn!) she instantly recognised the logo, having seen it on Steve Hannigan's shirt a few weeks ago! BBB logo recognition at its finest!
Amazingly the next day I was fine, so it was off to the Beertje for more beers the next night, again meeting Johan, who immediately ordered another Vuuve for me! Again, it was fantastic, and it was a pleasure to meet Johan again.
The rest of the time in Brugge consisted of our usual favourite January activities - wandering around, having coffee, enjoying the sights, eating wonderful meals, and going to the Beertje at 4pm every day!
However, some of the other noteworthy places that we visited included the following:
Het Bier Paleis; Katelijnestraat 25 - 27; Brugge
This is simultaneously a bizarre and a very good place! We have been going to Brugge for five Januarys in a row now, and for the first 3 of these this shop was a deli which sold beer. It had these great big meat counters with a good range of BB jam packed all round the meat, in the front display, and in every other nook and cranny around the shop. However, last year the deli had gone, and an odd souvenir shop had arrived.
On closer inspection this year, and having been tipped off by Dany P, it has become not only a souvenir shop, but a very good beer and glassware shop. At first glance you will think this place just sells football scarves, replicas of Mannekin Pis, and other assorted touristy things. Then you find a few shelves at the back which have a decent but unspectacular range of BBs. However, you must go right to the far corner and round it into the separate section which is almost next door, where you find a superb range of BBs and glassware. Now, there is some unexceptional stuff, but if you search through everything you will find some real gems.
I picked up an old Duvel flute (4 euros); a beautifully simple Westmalle 'Trappisten bier' glass (3.75 euros), and a Walrave glass for the Pick up Pils (just 1 euro!). All 3 have gold rims, and are beautifully presented. There is also a superb selection of BBs, including loads of Fantome, which is unheard of in Brugge.
I had a chat with the owner, Daniel Jonckheere, who I hope pops into the BBB, as he is a really decent bloke. Coincidentally his house beer from Br de Proef is called Babbelaar, one of which he gave me as a gift. He also promised a free Babblelaar to any other babbler who goes to the shop, a promise which he kept when Filip subsequently visited the other day.
So, one to watch for anyone going to Brugge. A good selection of beers and glasses, all at very reasonable prices.
This is a new, or at least newly discovered, bar with a decent list of around 70 beers, right on 't Zand square. We went twice, and while we were not bowled over by the ambience, it is worth a visit. I also think the beer list will improve and the place has loads of potential. Again, check this one out if you are in town. A bit bright for me, and lacking in atmosphere, but I will check it out again.
Ovene Bierhuis, Bramberstraat, Brugge
Another new bar in town, down by the Fish Market. I really liked the ambience of this one, but the beer list, in my opinion, is nothing to write home about. However, it's a nice place for a coffee, and I understand that the food is also very good.
All over Brugge right now there are loads of building works, all of which apparently will be finished by 20 February, when the city becomes European Capital of Culture. Also, even more places than normal were closed for annual holidays in the week we were there. While this meant a few disappointments, it also gave us the opportunity to try some new places out, and a few old favourites that were open.
We therefore ate in Brasserie Georges, again superb for fish dishes, Het Fonteintje, as mentioned above, which was so good we went twice, Pietje Pek, which is an expensive place to sample a rather fun fondue, and draft Westmalle, Café Del Arte, which has gone right downhill and which I would avoid at all costs in future, and Mariecke von Brugge, which is reliable and consistent.
Lunch places included the excellent Boterhuis twice, on St Jakobstraat right opposite our Hotel, the Navarra, an Irish bar called Celtic Ireland, which does some good lunches, the wonderful Vlissinghe, a 500 year old bar which is well worth seeking out, and two places that were new to us, Brugse Bistro on Noorzandstraat and a little place near 't Zand square whose name unfortunately I did not record. However, as usual we had nearly 100% success in seeking out great food, and enjoyed virtually every meal we had. Brugge is one superb culinary experience, and this was again without the Dyver, which has been closed for winter holidays nearly every time we have been in town.
On the Sunday, we took a trip out of town to the much hyped bar in Izegem called:
Was is over hyped? Not at all! It's a totally wonderful place. We had a mini babble there as Filip and Catrien were there to meet us, and we shared a few drinks in this amazing emporium in the middle of absolutely nowhere!
It really is every bit as good as I had hoped it would be. It has an ambience to die for, its cosy with a great real fire burning away, there are BB bottles all over the walls, brilliant breweriana covering the entire place, oh, and there are about 400 beers, probably more as I didn't count them. I had a Snoek, a De Dolle beer I have beer hunted for a very long time, and two beers from 't Gaverhopke which I shared with Filip, the blonde and the 8 bruin. You could easily spend a week just reading the beer list and working out what to drink, so three hours was not really long enough. However, anyone anywhere near this bar should visit, and the good news is that its very easy to get to on public transport.
Its just half an hour from Brugge on train, and when you arrive from Brugge, you get off the train and you are already on the side of the track you need. Its less than 10 minutes walk from the station. Anyone who wants directions, just ask.
So, after another wonderful January week in Brugge, it was off to Watou for a relaxing weekend at the best B & B we have ever stayed at, and having got through six days with no hospital in sight, it was looking good for an incident free holiday.
That was, until we went to the Hommelhof!
The Rabbit Incident
Now, anyone who has not been to the Hommelhof should ensure that they go on their next visit to Belgium. It is quite simply a wonderful place to eat the most brilliantly prepared Flemish cuisine. For the second year running, I chose rabbit. It is not the fault of the Hommelhof, but unfortunately my luck ran out and I was viciously attacked by the rabbit during the meal!
How did this happen? Well, half way through my mega pot of delicious rabbit stew, I chomped enthusiastically on a big bit of rabbit, which unfortunately contained a large bone. Whack! Right through my back tooth, which broke right in two in an instant! I was in agony, and literally almost fainted with shock. Fortunately some calming words from T assisted, and I realised that it was only a tooth and the world had not actually ended. But it was a close shave, and I had visions of emergency dental treatment that night!
Fortunately, I was able to stagger through the weekend without any treatment, and of course alcohol helped to dull the pain, so I was in good shape to keep drinking!
At the third try, we found the superb Hellekapelle bar in Watou, way out in the sticks, open, and enjoyed going there both evenings. I am not sure that the beer is as good as before, but what an atmospheric setting - exposed brickwork, a loft bar, and lots of witches everywhere - all this about a mile up a country track in the middle of farmland - unbelievable!
On the Saturday we ventured round the Salient, and saw loads of WW1 cemetries, which are quite overwhelming to view. We also went to the excellent museum in the centre of Ieper, called In Flanders Fields, which is also not to be missed. This and a trip round the cemeteries gives grim reminders of that terrible war, although in such peaceful surroundings it is very difficult to imagine what really happened there.
In Watou we stayed at the great:
Brouwershuis B & B, Watou; 23a Trappistenweg, Watou
I raved about this one last year, but guess what? It was even better this time round!! So what's so good about this place? Well, where do I start?
On arrival, you get shown to your luxurious room. Both the ones we have had were very large and supremely comfortable. You also get shown to the front room which you are welcome to use as if its your own. This room and the entire house, are superbly decorated. There is lovely tranquil classical music, heavy on harpsichord and choral singing, playing the entire time. Its very peaceful. When you've settled in your room, Madame invites you over to the house for a drink. You get a choice of any St Bernardus beer. Then she brings you snacks. And more snacks, and yet more snacks. These keep coming and coming - little bowls of nuts, bread and pate, small bacon rolls, etc - and the beer is available 24 hours a day, all free. She will show you the fridge, and you can help yourself when you return later. At night, she puts pieces of chocolate in the fridge to enjoy with your big St Bernardus!
There is an immense feeling of peace and stillness there. You can go outside and hear nothing. Sleep comes easily as there is just no noise around. In the morning, you get a personally cooked egg, cooked to order, as part of a huge and endless breakfast, which is served in the conservatory. This goes way round the whole of the back of the house, and overlooks a lovely pond.
Furniture includes heavy wooden chests, beautiful pictures, candles everywhere, soft lighting, and there is an amazing range of coffee table books. There are comfy sofas, armchairs, coffee tables, rugs, ornaments and a giant fireplace with a cosy real fire. The attention to detail is marvellous, you get made to feel like a house guest and not a paying guest. The owner is so welcoming and friendly you would not believe it. And all this for a total of 70 Euros for a double room. The bargain of the century. I cannot recommend this place highly enough.
On the way from Watou to Brussels, we made time to call in at:
The Gans (the Goose), Huise
This one had been recommended to me by Bill Coleman, but it is also in Tim Webb's guide. And what a place!! Right up there with the best Belgian bars I've been to, this one is a real country pub out in the middle of nowhere. Not quite the most remote bar of the trip, but still way out in the country. Its just north of Huise, a small village near Oudenaard. If you are seeking this one out, you have the choice of finding Huise from the Gent/Oudenaard road (the N8) or the Kortrijk/Gent motorway. We came from the latter - a big mistake! I would strongly advise anyone to get to it from the Gent/Oudenaard road. From that road its very easy. From the motorway, it's a nightmare to find, and you end up going cross country on a terrible cobbled track for about 2 miles. Much better to take the other way if possible. From Huise take the Nazareth road and its about a mile and a half on the right hand side.
When you get there you will find a small two room country pub with a big fire. The owners are friendly and welcoming. There are geese everywhere (not real, but every other type). The beer list is amazing. We had one hour flat, and I was driving, so I drank one beer - a Gueuze Chapeau - and bought one to take home, a Kriek De Troch. Both are spectacularly aged, from the early 90's at least, and yet these two are from the regular list, not the aged beer list!! There is a particularly good selection of gueuzes, but pretty much every type of BB is well represented. The list is on these cards which are geese shaped - the whole theme may sound tacky but its not, it's a great country pub. It's also a famous pancake house, and they do a range of other foods too. At least 300 beers with lots of treats, this one comes very highly recommended.
So we made it back to London late on Sunday night, what a great trip! And we just about avoided the hospital. Pity the same could not be said about the dentist after our return.
And the moral of the story is, Beware the Burgundian Rabbit! At least that's what my dentist has been telling me during my root canal treatment……..