Whilst some people enjoy a glass of wine with the cheese board, others, like Anna Hyman, really don’t like the combination. However, on a visit to Antwerp and the Pas de Calais she found that a glass of beer with a platter of cheese was exactly right.
I love cheese but I really dislike drinking red wine with it, the acidity of the wine with the cheese turns my stomach. A glass of white is a little more acceptable, but not great.
However on a recent visit to Flanders and Pas-de-Calais I tried cheese with beer, a popular combination in these regions. The ‘sweetness’ of the beer balanced the acidity of the cheese and the bubbles cut through the cheese’s richness, thereby refreshing my taste buds in a way that no wine ever had. I was hooked!
Crossing to Dunkirk and Flanders
My journey of discovery had started in Flanders, Antwerp to be precise, following a DFDS ferry crossing from Dover to Dunkirk. It had been a relaxing two hour crossing from Dover in the first class lounge giving us plenty of time for a light lunch – the special of the day fish and chips.
And as my friend and I agreed the deliciously light, crisp batter on the fish was some of the best we had ever eaten.
We sent our complements to the chef.
The De Koninck Experience
You need to allow about a couple of hours to drive to Antwerp, a city always a pleasure to visit, and even more so on this occasion as we were taking in the De Koninck brewery on Mechelsesteenweg.
It’s the city’s last remaining brewery.
Thanks to the historic sign of the Hand out on the pavement, together with an exceeding large bottle of beer, we had no trouble in finding it, and parking was easy.
The Hand by the way, a symbol of Antwerp, has been incorporated into the company logo.
Learning about brewing
De Koninck calls the tour an ‘experience’, and so it was to be. To do it justice you need to allow a good two hours.
The company has been brewing beer since 1833 and its story is cleverly played out with several opportunities for audience participation.
Starting with a dialogue about the beers and the need for different shape glasses visitors move on to learn more about the brewing method; the stories of the personalities who created the brewery; a glimpse of cheese ripening units, and even experience a very bumpy ride in a delivery van. It’s entertaining and informative.
A beer tasting
The walk-through tour ends in the tasting room, and a delicious experience it was too. The brewery produces four beers, its famous Bolleke de Koninck, Triple d’Anvers, Wild Jo and Lost in Spice.
Also on site is a restaurant; chocolates created by a master chocolatier; a butcher; and cheeses from world renowned supplier Van Tricht whose large cheese ripening units we had glimpsed on the tour.
…and a cheese tasting
The ripening rooms, maintained at the right temperature and humidity level, ensure that the cheeses supplied from a variety of quality artisan cheese producers are kept and sold in perfect condition to the many restaurants supplied by Van Tricht.
Along with the beer tasting cheese tastings are available too. We tried a goats cheese, salty and with a hint of vanilla, paired with the amber coloured De Koninck; the slightly sweet Triple d’Anvers with its hint of orange and spices was served with an aged Comte cheese from the Jura; and the golden Wild Jo’s - slightly sweet but with a hint of acidity - perfectly balanced a soft creamy Blankaart cheese. Delicious.
The Trappist Abbey of Westmalle
Our next port of call on our beer and cheese tasting tour was to a monastery about a 45 minute drive from Antwerp - the Trappist Abbey of Westmalle - one of the few Trappist beer breweries in the world.
The original priory dates back to 1794, but it was to take another40 years of upheavals for the monks before it was granted the status of a Trappist abbey and they could fully resume their vows of a life of prayer, work and service to the community in Flanders.
Beer brewing, cheese making and a farm
The monks for years have been given permission to drink beer with their meals, and as they were exponents of self-sufficiency they started brewing their own and selling any excess. This way of life was followed by cheese production from the milk from their cows, and which today also includes produce from the farm and bakery.
Behind the walls enclosing the abbey is a living breathing monastery where a handful of monks and lay workers brew beer, make bread and cheese, and attend to the farm animals. It is a peaceful place and as the monks request privacy for themselves and their home we put away our cameras until we were in the more public areas in the brewery and farm -home to some 450 cows, plus sheep and chickens.
The brewery is not open to the public but a restaurant is. The monks are determined that whilst they sell their surplice produce, it should never become a purely commercial enterprise. They only produce some 30 tons of firm cheese a year and even the brewing and sales are restricted. There is a shop open on Fridays between 7.30am and 11.30am.
Westmalle Dubbel and Tripel beers
The mature flavoured cheese they produce by the way is seriously moreish, but so are the Westmalle Dubbel and Tripel beers. I loved them both and couldn’t make up my mind between the Tripel with its hint of banana and slight bitterness or the Dubbel with its gloriously dark , malty fruity flavour. The beers look wonderful served in the stylish and specially designed and produced goblet glasses.
The fermentation of the beers continues in the bottle and it is advised that when home a bottle should be left for at least a week before drinking to allow the yeast to sink to the bottom of the bottle. Pour the beer carefully into the glass along the side leaving about a centimetre of beer and the yeast sediment in the bottle. Drink this remaining part separately – it’s full of vitamin B and really good for you.
We had a lunch time cheese tasting experience at de Moerenaar an artisan cheese producer in the flat reclaimed polder/marsh land less than a mile away from the French border. It is they believe the only cheese dairy below sea level. For approximately €4 you can tour the dairy and taste four different types of cheese, or for €6 take the tour, plus a tasting of six cheeses and also indulge in a chocolate mousse.
From small beginnings 15 years ago, today they use some 3000ltrs of milk a day to make their selection of very different cheeses including a goats cheese, ranging from soft and creamy to semi-hard; some cheeses are plain whilst others are flavoured with herbs, nuts or beer.
Next to the shop and dairy a small museum opens summer 2017 explaining about the polder and the local way of life.
Pas de Calais and La Ferme du Vert
La Ferme du Vert at Wierre-Effroy is a rather special place. First, there is the delightful 3* boutique hotel with 16 very individual well-appointed en-suite rooms and a superb restaurant. Our evening meal cooked by Celine was truly delicious.
The hotel is set in rolling countryside an easy drive from Calais or Boulogne. And second, the dairy affiliated to the hotel produces some terrific cheese.
In the 1980s Joseph and Anny Bernard made their home here and the family began experimenting with making goats cheese.
Goats cheese is no longer made, and today the whole enterprise is run by their sons Thomas (who runs the restaurant), and Antoine and Joachim the dairy.
Cheese making is a skilled operation
Twice daily milk is collected from local farms and goes to produce the pasteurised and un-pasteurised cheeses, including Mimolette and Camembert. It is a skilled operation.
The milk is heated to the correct temperature before rennet is added to coagulate it into curds and whey.
The whey goes to feed pigs, but the curds are pressed into pots which need regular turning for drainage purposes, before being soaked in brine, or annatto which gives cheese its distinctive orange colour.
The cheeses are then moved into a series of temperature controlled units to ripen for four weeks before packaging and sales.
How Mimolette came about
Incidentally Mimolette, the local round cheese, came about because of a war with the Netherlands. Louis XIV was unable to obtain his much enjoyed Edam cheese. One of his ministers, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, was instructed to produce a French equivalent.
He did, but instead of the iconic red Edam covering, to differentiate it from the Netherland’s cheese it was dusted with annatto, which not only gives Mimolette its distinctive orange colour but also adds to its flavour.
Whilst the dairy is not open to visitors a new unit is being built close by which will open later this year. Plans for it include a shop as well as a working production area where visitors can view the process of cheese making.
After a leisurely Ferme breakfast we opted to take the coastal road back to Calais for the DFDS crossing to Dover.
In Flanders Fields
Our route took us through Wimereux where we stopped at the cemetery. Behind the public cemetery with its ornate funerary statuary, is a small Commonwealth War Graves Commission section.
Because of the light sandy soil the gravestones are laid flat, but it didn’t take us long to find the grave we were looking for. For it is in this grave yard that the Canadian army physician Lt Col John McCrae is buried. He died of pneumonia on 28 January 1918.
His poetry lives on, and one in particular inspired, it is said, by the death of a friend. It must surely be one of the most famous and poignant of all the war memorial poems - In Flanders Fields.
Lunch and shopping in Calais
In Calais before boarding the ferry we called in for lunch at the ever-popular restaurant Le Channel – a splendid lunch.
After lunch we popped in next door to Le Channel’s excellent shop - La Maison du Fromage et des Vins (the staff there are wonderfully helpful giving sound advice in very good English) to stock up with a selection of goodies, and yes, some cheese - just in case of cheese deprivation for when we were back in the UK.
Visit Flanders: www.visitflanders.com
Pas-de-Calais Tourism: www.pas-de-calais.com
DFDS Ferries: Prices for up to three days away with DFDS from Dover to Calais or Dunkirk start from £65 return for a car and nine people. All ships in the modern fleet feature a premium lounge, which can be booked for an additional £12 per person each way. The lounge provides a quiet space with free newspapers, fresh fruit, pastries and petits-fours, soft drinks and a glass of Prosecco upon arrival. Prices vary in line with demand and are subject to change. www.dfds.co.uk.
We stayed at:
La Ferme du Vert and ate in its excellent restaurant, Wierre-Effroy, France:
Tryp Hotel, Antwerp: www.trypantwerp.com/en
We ate at:
Rooden Hoed, Antwerp: www.deroodenhoed.be (Good food, beer/wine list and service.)
Le Channel Calais: www.restaurant-lechannel.com
De Koninck Brewery: www.dekoninck.be
Van Tricht cheeses: www.kaasmeestervantricht.be
Westmalle Brewery: www.trappistwestmalle.be/en
De Moerenaar: www.demoerenaar.be
La Maison du Fromage et des Vins: www.restaurant-lechannel.com/en/our-shop/