May 7, 2012

Beering Our Way Through Belgium

Taking the train from Amsterdam, we journeyed through the countryside and past tulip fields to cross the border into Belgium.

Before we got here, I couldn’t picture Belgium in my head. Now if I had to sum it up, I would say Belgium is beer, chocolate, canals and style. You’re not Belgian unless you have an effortlessly-styled scarf around your neck.

At first we struggled with menus and streets signs because nearly everything is written only in Flemish. After a few days we got the hang of it.

Belgium was mistakenly an afterthought for us. It was never high on our must-see places, and so we were thinking of it more as a pass-through from Amsterdam to Dover. As always, whenever our expectations are low, we end up having the best time. We spent 4 relaxed days catching trains from town to town.

Antwerp was a good warm-up to Belgium with a beautiful train station and nice Flemish buildings. Approximately 20,000 Orthodox Jews call Antwerp home, and we could swear that they all lived in our hostel’s neighborhood.

Ghent is a lesser known town which ended up being our favorite. It’s got all the charm of Bruges, but none of the tourists.

Ghent is known for its old-fashioned candies, including purple cones which they call Ghent Noses. They have an overabundance of designer wallpaper stores. There was even a funny corridor in the city center with 4 humongous churches and a watchtower right in a row. Over the top opulence with a castle thrown in? Yes. Down to earth? Absolutely.

Bruges is a medieval town straight out of a romantic movie. There are canals and swans and horse drawn carriages.

There are also a lot of tourists, and we had two encounters with service-people who were extremely rude for absolutely no reason.

Bruges was beautiful, but it was even more enjoyable when we were away from the city center and enjoying the quiet winding side streets or the windmills along the canal.

It seems that the Belgians’ diet consists of 4 main food groups: Fries, Waffles, Chocolates and Beer.

Fries – just like in the Netherlands, fries are very popular in Belgium where you buy them in special shacks on wheels called Friteries. They come with a healthy-sized serving of a sauce of your choice. We tried two different kinds of sauch: “curry ketchup” and “stoverijsause mee mayonaise”, which is a meat sauce combined with mayonnaise. We actually thought the fries were better in Amsterdam, but the sauces were sure good.

Waffles – Belgian Waffles on their own are decadent enough due to the ridiculous amount of butter that goes into them. But the Belgians take them to new extremes with their toppings. Sooooo good. I guess they don’t want you to forgot where you had that incredible waffle experience.

Chocolates – there are chocolate shops on almost every street and it's fun to peruse all of the different shapes, sizes and flavors.

We bought a sampler box of 10: caramel, pistachio, white, champagne, mocha and 5 different kinds of praline.

Beer – trying all of the different kinds of beer that this tiny country produces has been the highlight of our time in Belgium. Every beer comes in a different shaped glass with its name on the side. The beer comes by the centiliter and the bartender’s job is to make sure the beer is accompanied by the correct amount of head.

The best beer back-story we’ve heard so far is anything labeled as a “Trappist”. A long time ago, abbeys were encouraged to contribute to their local community, and so beer brewing is how they did so. The beer-making process would also kill off any infections in the water, making beer a healthier option than the local water supply. Today there are only 6 abbeys where monks still brew their own beers. By law, only these beers can carry the official “Trappist” logo.

Our biggest predicament has been whether to classify the beer as a “food” or “activity” in our budget. For our beer enthusiast friends back home, here is what we’ve tried, and the * were our favorites...

-  *De Koninck: amber, the quintessential beer of Antwerp, served in a glass called a Bolleke
-  Trappist Westmalle Dubbel: brown, 7.7%
La Chouffe
*Klokke Roeland: amber, 11%
Augustijn: blonde, 7.5%
Ammelok Ker: brown, 6%
*Manneken Pis: white, 4.5%
*Vedett: white
Juplier: lager
Brugse Zot
Trappist Westmalle Triple: golden blonde, 9.5%
Rodenbach: red, tangy sweet and sour flavors…our least favorite
Hoegaarden Gran Cru: blonde, 8.7%
Brugs Tarwebier: white
Maes: blonde
Leffe Bruin: brown, 6.5%
Cuvee des Toilis: white, 7%
Leffe: blonde
Grimbergen: blonde, 6.7%
Brugge Tripel: 8.7%
Kasteel Triple: 11%

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