Posted on Sunday 30 September 2018 by Ulster Business
John Mulgrew returns to Brussels and takes in neighbouring Antwerp to discover Belgium’s brewing and food scene, while baking in the summer heat and taking in some late-night jazz along the way
It’s all chocolate and beer over there, isn’t it? - a friend quips when I tell him I’d paid a visit to Brussels and its surrounding northern cities.
There are stereotypes which follow the country around like a bad smell, but some of the positive elements are certainly true.
And while I don’t expect every reader should dive in head first to the country’s superb beer scene, including what some beer geeks revere above all other styles – the tart, funky spontaneously fermented sour brews such as lambics and older blended gueuze – it’s worth trying some of the stalwarts of the historic brewing scene, at the very least.
This trip started in Antwerp – about an hour on the regular train service from Brussels. For reference, this is one of probably more than a dozen trips I’ve paid to the country in the last decade.
Antwerp is an accessible port city, known for its diamond quarter. Its main train station is also something to behold. Listed as one of the world’s most beautiful stations, it fuses century-old architecture with grand ceilings, along with its multi-storey renovation in 2007.
The main town squares in Belgium’s northern cities each have a familiar style, with Antwerp’s Grote Markt akin to the capital’s larger Grand-Place. These spots are worth a dander around on a hot day, but expect to pay tourist prices at the raft of outside eateries which scatter the perimeter.
Temperatures in Belgium tend to fall in line with the south of England – a warmer climate than Northern Ireland, with the mercury hitting the late 20s during the summer.
On this latest trip, it was a high of 37C and a low of a little over 20-odd at night. Scorching, but with a crisp Belgian strong pale ale in hand, that’s all made right (with suitable water intake as required, also).
In Antwerp, and Brussels, you’ll find a raft of beers from the six Belgian Trappist monasteries – highlights include Rochefort 10, Westmalle Tripel and the highly sought-after Westvleteren 12 – and those from the more-modern producers, such as Brussels Beer Project and De Struise, fairly readily across the capital, and the surrounding areas.
Frites Atelier is a popular spot for high-end Belgian frites, topped with items such as truffle mayonnaise, Indonesian peanut sauce and a stunning traditional Flemish stew. It’s normally bunged, but the system ensures you aren’t waiting long – and it’s definitely worth the visit.
One of Belgium’s beer-known beer spots can also be found a short distance from the city centre. The Kulminator is a somewhat eccentric spot, run by a husband and wife team. It has a traditional brown cafe feel, cluttered, but has the most extensive range of aged Belgian beers I’ve come across.
To continue the beer theme, we headed to the small town of Lot – before heading on to Brussels for the rest of the stay.
It’s home to Drie Fonteinen – one of Belgium’s most-revered sour beer producers and blenders. A couple of hours well spent with one-off brews and vintage offerings, paired with a platter of beer pate, cheese, bread and pottekeis – a fresh cheese spread, somewhere between a smooth cottage cheese and sour cream.
Now, in Brussels there are more than a few great spots for both a wide-range of top-end Belgian brews, and a warm atmosphere.
The central La Mort Subite is a grand cafe located close to Grand-Place, with a solid range of beer, while Delirium Cafe – known for having the largest selection of beer in the world – is worth a visit. If you’re going as a beer geek, peruse the vast 2,000+ bottle range and find something you can’t get back home, but be aware than it’s become a tourist mecca – with backpacking students filling it in the busy periods to get a filter-clad snap for their timeline.
Moeder Lambic has two spots – one central and one further south. Both are superb, modern Belgian beer bars, with a strong tap selection and the best meat and cheese board in the city.
Brussels has a couple of breweries in its city centre, but Cantillon is the place to visit for those who are either fully immersed in beer, or want to expand their palate.
You can also eat well in Brussels, with lots of spots serving good meat, cheese and pate, with bistro fare such as Flemish carbonnade and rabbit cooked in gueuze beer. There’s also an undercurrent of ‘all-you-can-eat’ rib appreciation, with Amadeo – and similar spots in other cities such as Ghent. We also opted for the beer-friendly and cosy Nuetnigenough. Starters and mains include black pudding with gueuze beer sauce, veal meatballs and rabbit fricassee with gueuze.
For seafood, the bustling outdoor Noordzee is a great place to stop off for very fresh mussels, prawns and crab.
It’s difficult to know whether the city’s reasonable hotel prices, and flight costs – if booked far enough in advance – are in part due to the terror attacks in 2016. But Brussels is a city moving on from that particularly dark period in its modern history.
We stayed at the five-star Metropole – a grand Art Deco hotel with spacious rooms. On this occasion we paid little over £80 a night.
Aside from places to eat and drink, the city centre is a very walkable place – it’s the sort of place that merits exploration. The city also boasts a thriving jazz centre, and it’s worth checking online to see what’s happening during your stay.