Tag Archives: Travel

Het Waterhuis aan de Bierkant

22 May

Ghent, in Belgium for the ignorant, has many plus points for someone like me. First of all, it is very close by. Well, that’s relative I suppose. It’s not that close but it is only 3 train rides away (Lots of my favourite London locations are 3 train rides away.) and one of those is the Eurostar, which is mildly pleasurable with the exception of its poisonous buffet carriage. Secondly, it’s architecturally beautiful and historical. I haven’t ranted on too much about architecture but no doubt will do in future, from a layman’s perspective. It’s also a student location, which lends it a little more life to the old place. It’s a bit more real than it’s more celebrated cousin Bruges. Thirdly, and rather obviously, it has some great Belgian beer!

If you have ever seen the film In Bruges with Colin Farrell, who is actually quite good in it, you’ll recognise Bruges as being both really interesting but really boring and conservative in equal measures. This is also true of Ghent. However, there is enough sexy beer in sexy beer glasses to keep my attention for a day or too. It’s always nice to have a decent beer list in any restaurant or cafe you rock up to. Something that here, through snobbery, foolhardiness and a tendency not to celebrate things we do well, is only just appearing in restaurants. There are some good pubs/bars there too, many institutions that you have to (try to) visit.

Het Waterhuis aan Bierkant

Situated on the canal just along from the market, Het Waterhuis aan Bierkant is a fairly busy place in town. In the daytime when we were there, it was just too busy, being a bank holiday and all. Roll forward a few hours and the crowds had fallen away revealing quite a chilled out little bar. The weather was a little balmy before moving aside for a short rainstorm, which looked almost romantic on the surface of the canal from the pub window.

The service was interesting in the bar. You had to order from behind the counter and then the barman would sort out your drinks before giving them to the waiter who brought them to your table where you paid. I’m sure there is logic there somewhere, maybe they like you to have a seat before serving you.

The beer list was pretty immense and you can check it out on the website. However, what are the chances of me having all those beers in an evening. I had to choose something that I hadn’t had before, I always have to, which is a bit of a chore at times.

chill

There was also a good mix of ages in the place, something I would aim for if I ever opened a pub. The locals were very friendly and were happy to help out with information and a little bit of banter. I’m a sucker for a bit of memorabilia really, or brewerania as some call it, and there were some good little bits and bobs around the place including this:

Xmas box!

I was reliably informed by one of the locals that this was a savings box. Regulars would have a slot where they would put some money aside over the year and it would only be opened around Christmas time, presumably for an almighty blowout in the pub itself. If you ask me, it sounds like a bit of a ruse by the publican to ensure the punters don’t go home with their own change in case they should spend it on the kids or something equally disturbing.

Reinaert Gran Cru

The above beer was fairly interesting. A 9.5% dark beer which was sweet and spicy smelling but with an underlying sourness. It was a thoughtful beer or rather a thought-provoking beer. It provoked me into thinking what I should go for next. After all the talk of choosing beers I hadn’t had before, I went for an old favourite in Saison Dupont. A marvellous choice it was too. I always think of straw bales and barns when I have this beer and it never lets me down. If I were to write tasting notes for this one they would be along the lines of .. bloody lovely  mmm straw bales! It’s quite easy to get my mitts on over here too so I did feel a little guilty choosing it from such an extensive menu. But I wanted it.

Brewerania that you can’t see very well. Still it looks chunky enough.

Overall, I liked the bar, liked the beer and enjoyed the company!!

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A Tale of Two Stations

14 May

I like St Pancras station.

I do not like Brussels Midi station.

St Pancras station has a lovely roof.

Brussels Midi has concrete and washing up bowls catching the rainwater as it leaks through to the basement.

This is not a poem!!

Brussels Midi does serve this beer in one of life’s more preposterous receptacles though. Every cloud!

Preposterous

Het Velootje Pilgrimage Quashed

6 May

Pilgrimages are all well and good if you’re  religiously insane but what about the rest of us?

A recent beer pilgrimage of mine was a funky little trip to Ghent to visit the legendary Het Velootje bar or pub or whatever they call their drinking establishments over yonder. I’d looked forward to this for some time because, like the religiously insane, I too enjoy long trips of hope and expectation. Only in my beer pilgrimage, I was to actually get to meet a slightly disturbed man with long hair, a beard and dirty fingernails! Better still, I would be able to have a beer with him or at least have a beer served by him. See, we’re all a bit mental!!

Sadly, while the arduous journey through some of the hardest terrain known to humanity (Belgium on the Eurostar) taught me to love myself and to respect other people (allowing other people off the train first), it did not prepare me for the crushing disappointment that was to await me when I found the place.

Het Velootje is situated in the Patershol district of Ghent, a very pretty historical area and the building must be quite old. It is in all the guidebooks as a weird bar with a weird owner and the latter is certainly true.  It’s a bar crammed with bicycles and junk with a roaring fire (by all accounts). I arrived there early in the day just so that I knew where to come later in the day and found a small but lively little street. The place was closed but I was happy that I would be back there later on in the day.

Het Velootje

Great bin location. What looked like a bunch of Romanian cleaners
had just shut themselves inside before I took the photo.

I went back. I dragged the Profesorette. We rocked up and were pleased to find a bevy of lunatics outside. I was beside myself with joy until I found out from the horse’s mouth that, because of problems with the electrics, the fire department had decided to close them down for the time being. What? Seriously? Well, I can’t tell if they were having me on to this moment. “It ish alsho political, oh yes and the neighboursh” is what I was told.

She holding the veggie box, He holding my hopes and dreams in his tool box

Well, I was happy to have met the madman and his friend, who seemed lovely, like a Belgian Pam Ayres. There was another particularly mad fellow who was trying manfully to translate what the creator was trying to explain. Unfortunately, he had to disappear on his bike either for a trip to the dentist or to get his grey roots dyed so I never had the chance for a photograph.

The bar

When all was said and done, I wasn’t really disappointed. I came away content because I’d had quite the most bizarre conversation outside the place of pilgrimage with the legend himself. I didn’t get in for a beer but it just sets me up for the next time. Assuming it is still there that is*. And after all, it’s not every pilgrim who gets to meet the man with the beard!!!

*Apparently, people should write on his website about how much they want to visit, and how disappointed they were that their visit was in vain because the comments are being compiled into some sort of book that will be delivered in front of the powers that be, or something like that, I didn’t understand every cryptic remark that was shot my way!

A Tale of Two Cities – U Fleku and Birreria Peroni

6 Apr

Two beautiful cities. Two historical cities. Two tourist destinations. On the surface, the two cities seemed well-matched and I had high hopes of enjoying them both equally. Actually, they are very, very different in culture, style and what is becoming increasingly important to me, atmosphere. Atmosphere is a personal thing when I visit places, be they a village 20 miles from my house or a city on the other side of the world. Sometimes preconceived ideas of what to expect ruin an atmosphere unfairly and it takes you a little time to shift your mindset around this.

Stained Glass

I visited both cities within a short space of time and only for long weekends. In Prague, the weather was spectacular and the buildings were very beautiful and the tourists bled from every church, museum and statue there was. In Rome, the weather was spectacular, the sheer volume of history was overwhelming and the tourists cascaded down every dome, column and  balustrade in sight. I enjoyed the Rome experience and was slightly underwhelmed by the Prague experience. Why? How could I be so underwhelmed by such a beautiful place? On paper, it ticked all the boxes for me architecture, history and one of few countries with a bona fide beer culture.

It all came down to atmosphere I suppose. Italy is ‘literally’ bursting with historically important towns and cities but each one that I have visited still has a lively, life-goes-on-despite-what-we-have feeling. People go about their business and the tourists go about theirs. Rome had this feeling but Prague did not, for me at least. In Prague, I felt like a lot of the life had been squeezed out of the centre of the city turning it into a place with a splash of the Disneylands about it. There may be economic and historical factors for this, taking into account the Czech Republic’s communist history and the fact that people have been touring Italy since the Renaissance for example but that was my impression.

Prague

Now, I mentioned the Czech Republic’s beer culture and the Czechs are very proud of their beer, rightly so, and they do drink an awful lot of it. The Italians are less well-known for their beer but have recently begun to make some very nice brews themselves. In Prague, one beer seems to dominate, the famous Pilsner Urquell, which is a classic, but there are others around. On my visit, I was also able to try a number of other types which were all of a quality, if not always to my taste. Rome tended to have three beers per menu, two typical lagers and a bock or a ‘Rosso’, just enough to get by on.

U Fleku

It was in two particular establishments, one in each of the cities, that I could sum up my overall reaction to the two cities. One was the legendary U Fleku, a brewpub/restuarant which dates back to the 15th Century. They have been brewing there for 500 consecutive years and it has a medieval look, with Gothic and Romantic styling. There is one house dark lager called Flekovský ležák 13°.  It is a place of pilgrimage for beer lovers and was high on my list of places to visit, as it happened my hotel was a minute’s walk away so it was one of the first places I went to.  In Rome, there is a similar beerhall, less well-known, and while still a destination for tourists, not a mecca for beer lovers. This was the Antica Birreria Peroni, a beerhall which ‘only’ dates from 1909 and whose Art Deco style dates back to the 1920s. Inside it really looks the part and sitting there you could imagine wax moustachioed Italians with centre partings and white bibs sucking up spaghetti off their plates all those years back.

On entry to U Fleku, a rather grumpy man pointed glumly to a room where we could go in and find a seat. It was a nice room with a lovely beamed ceiling. I loved the fact that there was only one drink on offer and you were expected to drink it. The waiters just brought the dark, frothy brews into the hall and without looking banged them down on the tables. Perhaps this less challenging part of their job contributed to the disinterestedness and lack of charm they were showing to their customers. Next, a waiter came along and barked out that we needed to try this horrible, green, medicine shot because it was traditional, omitting to mention that they were about £100 each. OK, I guessed that they weren’t free and thought why not, but the manner in which it was done was a little forceful. The food was simple Czech fare but definitely not the same quality as the beer. The beer was very nice. I wasn’t raving that it was the best thing I’d ever tasted (which I do do) but it was very nice. I now wonder whether the atmosphere affected my enjoyment of it. Before and since, I had and have enjoyed oompah bands but the musicians in U Fleku were just a bit, well annoying, and in your face, certainly not the endearing ones I had expected. The bill, when it came, was relatively high and looking around the room it was easy to imagine that this place was no longer within financial reach of your average Prague pub-goer.

Pic from their Website

Onwards and upwards, Birreria Peroni, provided quite a different experience. On entry, we were greeted with that most precious of commodities, a smile. It was again lunchtime but this time looking around the room you were not just met with groups or tourists, although these were present, many local workers were also enjoying their lunches there. The hall was equally stylish but less steeped in history than U Fleku and, happily, there was no oompah band and nobody was trying to force Buck Rogers drinks down my neck. There was even a bit of banter with the staff despite the fact it was plainly busier than its Czech counterpart had been. Simple Italian food was available and was very tasty. The prices weren’t too bad. The beer was from Peroni and they had 3 types on sale, Nastro Azzuro, Rosso and Gran Riserva, no real attraction to the beer lover but it was fantastic to drink and eat in a nice atmosphere in a classy, historic beerhall and when I did drink those beers, I wasn’t thinking about how average they were, I was just enjoying every last drop of them, cold an’ all!

I would happily go back to Prague again and re-evaluate my impressions but as revered a beer as U Fleku has around the world, I’d give it a miss if I did.

Not mine either

*I always consider myself among the tourists, wherever I am and whatever form of travelling I'm doing. I don't buy into the idea of having a backpack makes you less of one, despite me being more likely to travel that way.

Olde English Fish Recipes

1 Apr

There’s no doubt travel makes you think about things. Not always at the time of travelling mind you, it is often many months or even years later that you look back on things and understand or appreciate them. Food is a fundamental thing in all cultures around the world and understanding what food is, was and could be in your own country was something that certainly came to me after travelling. While I grew up in a house with a very good cook, I was blissfully unaware of the fact until I flew the nest. Getting older and getting to know new cultures makes you ask questions and I took those questions back home with me. They’ve led me to many interesting discoveries and the other week I was reminded of a couple of historic fish recipes that I came across whilst looking through the history books which turned out well.

Whiting in Ale

This is a recipe from 1600s England. Whiting is a fish from the Cod family and there are several varieties apparently, but I only used the variety named …’Whiting’!

  • 3 chopped onions
  • 250ml brown ale
  • 250ml lighter ale ( I’m not sure this distinction was in the original recipe)
  • 30ml raisins
  • 1tsp mustard
  • 500g Whiting
  • breadcrumbs

Simmer the onions in the brown ale for 9-12 minutes before adding the lighter ale, the raisins and the mustard. Simmer for about 10 minutes. Put the fish in a dish, pour the onion sauce over it, cover and bake. Thicken sauce slightly with breadcrumbs before serving. Simple and tasty. (Adapt the quantities to the quantity of fish you have.)

Mackerel with Fennel and Mint

Mackerel is my favourite fish and is, luckily for me, available here most of the year. This is a regency recipe, which means  the second half of the 18th Century.

  • 4 Mackerel boned/butterflied
  • 1/2 fennel bulb finely chopped
  • 55g unsalted butter
  • breadcrumbs
  • 1/2 tsp nutmeg
  • loads of fresh mint chopped
  • 4 anchovies chopped
  • 1 lemon
  • salt & black pepper

The fennel is fried in just under 20g of the butter and the breadcrumbs are added when the fennel is softened. Next the nutmeg, mint and seasoning are added and the whole thing is stirred. Slit the fish diagonally and fill the slits with the mixture and the  inside too. Grill under a hot grill.

Mash together the rest of the butter and the anchovies and put over the fish. Serve with more mint and lemon wedges.

Both dishes are remarkably simple and I’m surprised they didn’t catch on!

Pics to follow.

Valparaiso Cerveza ‘Artesanal’ – Chilean Beer Journey

11 Mar

In Europe, people often cite that as you progress in a Northerly direction, the beer gets better, the food gets worse. Well I would refute the second statement, having enjoyed great food in many a northern country (including England) but tend to agree with the second. I haven’t had any good beer in Greece for example, nor Turkey, nor Bulgaria, nor Hungary nor, come to think of it, in Spain. Italy is one notable exception.  In South America, this situation appears to be the reverse. As you go through the hot, more tropical areas of Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, there is plenty of yellow watery stuff available in bottles but little else. Travel down to Chile and Argentina and you’ll find there is a lot more choice. I would also say that there is some good food to be had in these countries too.

Some time ago when I was merrily working my way around these countries, I was to become chuffed beyond all manner of joyousness to find that Chile was a country where there was a beer choice. This was mainly because it was so unexpected. I’d been told that ‘South America was a beer desert so don’t get your expectations up sonny’. Apparently, we have the Europeans to thank for this , most notably the Germans and I was to appreciate this contribution all the more once I’d travelled a few thousand more miles north.

Chilean Patagonia is a cold, tough place. It’s also an absolutely stunning place, as is most of Chile. Punto Arenas is one of the last towns near the very south of the country, and it’s a pleasant enough place with pleasant people. The main foods I found were enormous steaks, very nice, and sea urchins, abalone and mussels. You’d have to be particularly stupid to ruin that kind of food. The restaurants were quite down to earth establishments, which suited me as I don’t go in for ‘poncey’ restaurants.

Punto Arenas was my first introduction to Chilean beer. In a little restaurant 2 minutes from our hostel, I saw two things I’d never expected to find – a stout and a golden ale. The brewery, which I don’t think was from the area, was called Kross.  The stout is apparently based on the brewmasters drinking experiences in Ireland, but for me it was a little thin in the mouth. Nevertheless, it was welcome. The Golden Ale was a far more pleasurable experience, pale in colour and quite sweet, the notes on their website say that it is their take on an English Pale Ale. It lacked a bit of zesty hoppiness but was very drinkable. I was happy to return to this as a beer to drink without thinking too hard about it. Not sure I’d choose it now I’m not in that part of the world but I wouldn’t turn one down.

Puerto Natales, is the base town for any trip to the absolutely amazingly stunning Torres del Paine National Park. It’s a small town sitting on a lake, surrounded by beautiful mountains and, when we were there, deep autumn colours.  There is a supermarket in this town, which is where I was introduced to the beers of the Kuntsmann brewery. This brewery produces a number of beers, a lager, a honey beer and a wheat beer, all of which I wasn’t fussed about, and an altogether  more decent bock and a pale ale called Torobayo.  They were all of a certain standard, with the pale ale being my preference, although again tame on the hops. They were a welcome break from the swill you get in a lot of countries and very refreshing but the real thing to drink in this town was from its own brewery Baguales. There is a cafe/restaurant in town, mainly selling pizzas and the like that also dispenses their beers, and very nice they are too. There are two beers they serve, Rubia and Negra. The Rubia is an amber ale with citrus hop character and also with significant mouthfeel. I enjoyed this a lot, as did those I was with, although it was a tad on the cold side. I was alone in enjoying the Negra mind, but I often am with dark beers. It had a slightly coffeeish flavour and was like a very drinkable dark lager with touch of the stouts about it. The cafe had a very friendly atmosphere, with a lot of good-natured table sharing going on, I’d recommend it. I may be romanticising about it but then again, you’re probably not going to end up anywhere else in Puerto Natales.

Way further North in Chile is a great little town called Valparaiso, set on a hill overlooking the sea and, just so as I’m not romanticising too much, a grubby old port. There is a good fish market here and lots of little alleyways covered in interesting graffiti twisting their way up the hills. The hills are quite steep and a lot of furnicular railways have been built to help the less able up and down. There is a very interesting prison museum here and some fine colonial architecture in the more prosperous older areas. There is also a pretty good cafe called Cafe Vinilo.

Cafe Vinilo is set in an opening among the mazes of small streets on, I believe, the hill called Cerro Alegre. It is smart and quite cool without being pretentious. The food is all well done and there is a buzz in there, friendly banter, service and music a just about the right volume (on my visit).  I asked the waitress what type of beer they had there and she replied that they serve ‘cerveza artesanal’ ! Cerveza artesanal, artesan beer, what was she chatting about? Beer is beer, it just varies between  crap and amazing, doesn’t it? For artesan, read the word craft I suppose. Craft beer seems to be a term imported to the UK from the US recently and the marketeers love it.  In fact beer geeks seem to have taken to it too. I wonder if the Belgiums call their beer craft beer. Nevertheless, however much it irks me, at the end of the day I’ll get over it and drink it, because I’m like that.

The waitress bought me a bottle of Cerro Alegre Brown Ale. It poured flat and was almost ice cold. I didn’t want to be rude, thinking of the poor artisan who made it having to put food into the mouths of 10 hungry children, so drank it. Too cold to make any kind of judgement on it. When she came round again, I asked her  for one that hadn’t been refrigerated quite so much and this time came away with a far more positive opinion. It was a decent bottle conditioned ale, a little bit fruity, a little bit sweet. Overall, worth a try. I believe they do a Blonde Ale and a Stout too. I think I tried the Blonde Ale but cannot remember what it was like as I was probably a few sheets to the wind. Not having ranted about it to anyone probably suggests that it was no more than average but I’m prepared to be set straight on that one. However, if travelling north from here, make the most of these beers because you’re probably not going to find anything to stand up to them until you go home!

I loved Chile, it’s so stunning and the people are very nice. It’s possibly the least Latin Latin country I’ve ever been to and that in itself is charming and having a few new brews to try certainly helped increase my enjoyment of it.