Archive for the ‘France’ Category

A series of blog posts.

Last month I found myself on Mont de Cats. In other parts of the world, it would not qualify as a mountain; the summit of the hill is 164 meters above sea level. It has nothing to do with cats, either, even if the Flemish name is Katsberg. It is named after a Germanic tribe, the Chatti – who used to live around here back in Roman times.

“Around here” means Flanders, but on the French side of the border. The hilly landscape is a continuation of the Hevuelland on the Belgian side.

I digress, but this is the first of a series of digressions.

I aim to write about abbey and monastery beers. This is complicated territory. Some are genuine brewed behind the walls of a monastery, overseen by monks. Some are brewed for an abbey, but are produced elsewhere. Some of them pretend to have connections to an abbey which does not really exist. One bottleneck in front of me as I am typing this says Anno 1134. Well, something might have happened in 1134, but I doubt it had anything to do with beer and brewing.

So – back to Mont de Cats. This is a very popular area for a day out for people in the region, hiking or cycling. The Trappist abbey of Mont the Cats is on the top of the hill, and they make cheese, which they sell directly to the public. But they have a beer as well.

It is, however, not brewed on the premises. The beer is actually made in another Trappist brewery, Chimay. So, it does not formally qualify for having the Trappist logo on the bottle, but it is well worth trying. There is a café across the road from the abbey where you can try it, but it is also widely available elsewhere.

The beer is a copper colored with caramel sweetness balanced by spicy notes and discreet hops.

Another brewery lends its name from the same hill – plus two others – 3 Monts. This is a family brewery located in Saint-Sylvestre-Cappel. They have a range of five beers, some of which are available on both sides of the border.

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I didn’t expect much.

That’s always an advantage.

Many summers on the shores of the Mediterranean have taught me that there is plenty of pale lager, and the rest should be counted as a bonus. Barcelona was an exception.

So I arrived in Antibes without any significant hope of beery experiences. I had one excursion planned, but I’ll come back to that in a separate post.

A little background first. Antibes is on the French Riviera, between Cannes and Nice. A postcard pretty town, conveniently close to Nice airport. IT has one of the biggest yacht harbours in the area, giving a distinct upper class feel to some of the shops and establishments.  At the same time, cheap flights from the Nordic countries mean a steady supply of more laid back visitors.

The beaches are not too crowded, and they tend to be open to the general public without outrageous fees for sun chairs and parasols. There is a great market with local food every morning, there are plenty of mid-price restaurants with good food. Even the snacks sold from kiosks at the beach are freshly cooked. You can choose between five types of cheese in your sandwich, and the french fries are made from potatoes peeled, cut and fried at the spot.

The beer market seems to be firmly controlled by Kronenbourg, nowadays owned by Carlsberg. That means their standard pale lager on tap in most places, in supermarkets supplemented by superstong lagers and oddities like a Tuborg with vodka flavour. (Don’t ask me!)

But all is not bad. I don’t know the organisational setup, but there seems to be a distribution deal where Kronenbourg allows a few Belgians into their fridges.  And this does not mean just any Belgians. In numerous supermarkets, including the kiosk near our hotel, you find Duvel and blue Chimay ready available.

I can live with that for a week.

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The Economist shows us a vision of the France we could have had:

FRANÇOIS HOLLANDE’S announcement that he intends to raise taxes on beer in France by some 160% could well be yet another repercussion of the French revolution.  Had trappist monks not fled northern France to escape its anticlerical zeal, taking their beermaking expertise with them, the French might have developed a tradition of brewing more akin to winemaking, thus making it equally hard to attack.

Last orders for French brews?

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Just time for a visit to la cave à bulles to fill my suitcase before going to the airport. I had e-mailed Simon beforehand, so he knew I was coming. I remembered his request from last year, so I had even brought along an Imperial Brown Ale from Nøgne Ø for him.

It is very pleasant to be in the company of real beer enthusiasts, and Simon knows excactly what he is doing. Personal advice for all customers in the shop, and, as all the beers are carefully selected, you are likely to get excactly what you need.

A fine range of French beers, a few imports such as Mikkeller and BrewDog and some Belgians.

No need to look closely at the imports, I just asked about new beers and the table soon held a dozen French craft beers which were then carefully packed in bubble wrap at no extra cost.

Simon tried to call me a taxi, as my luggage was getting quite heavy by now. I had bought a bag full of food as well…

No taxis to be had, but the shop is just two blaocs away from the rail station with direct conenctions to the main airport. I dragged my loot through the streets, down the escalator and into the train. I was perspirating freely by now. It did not help that the air conditioning was turned off in the train compartment and that is was packed.

But I made it to the airport, the luggage survived all the way home  and I have some hand picked treasures to enjoy when I please. Still, there are occations when I wonder why I bother.

One could, possibly, argue for travelling lignt and drinking beer close to the source. Some other time, maybe.

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I have stopped by Hall’s Beer tavern before, very centrally located in rue Saint Denis if you are in the Centre Pompiodou or Les Halles area. (Add accents at your pleasure). It is also very convenient for the most interesting Parisian beer shop, La cave a bulles, so I thought I would have lunch there.

Alsatian fare again, fermented cabbage with pig’s knuckle. Tasty autumn food, even if the weather was still pleasant enough for me to sit at a sidewalk table.

The beer list is extensive, though 90 per cent is the same swill you can get everywhere. Nice then that there are a few French and Belgian bottles that are more hard to find. The service was a bit frosty, but fairsly fast.

La Choulotte Ambré is a gently carbonated amber beer. Very fruity, plums and peaches, some sour cherries. Feels related to a German Altbier. Well balanced, quite complex. A little hint of barnyard, a small edge of vinegar.

I almost forgot the food!

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A can of Davelghem Blonde from a Paris supermarket. Biere d’abbaye, they claim on the can. Nice dark blond, I’d call it amber, fluffy head. I’m trying hard to find some positive notes here, right?

Dishwater aroma, boiled vegetables. Malty beer base, flat, no dryness, no sourness, no monkiness. Drain pour.

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Paris: O’Neil brewpub

Th O'Neil smokers

Paris. I was here last year in the beginning of October, and it has the same lovely weather. The problem is that this time I’m not here as a tourist, I am stuck in a subterranean meeting room for most of the day.

Still a few evening hours left after the official proceedings, though, so I find my way to O’Neil, the one brewpub in town that does not belong to the Frog chain I tried last year but did not enjoy much. And don’t worry. O’Neil might sound as fake Oirish as they come, but there is no need to worry about that. Just don’t go for the no, nay, never singalong if that’s your thing.

I digress.

It’s not only the beer that appeals; they also have the Alsatian specialty Flammekueche.

I get out of my taxi and find the place heaving, the pavement is spilling over with smokers, but I am lucky to be allocated a vacant seat at a bistro-style table. I order a blond beer and a Flammekueche (should be an umlaut in there, I suppose, but in Paris they use the French, not the German spelling.) This Alsace speciality looks similar to a pizza, but is more of a thin and crispy pie, often without cheese – the original has, I believe, no cheese but just some onions and some unsmoked bacon as a garnish.

This is splendid pub food – it arrives within a few minutes, so does my blond beer, a Czech style pilsener. It has a fine hoppy aroma, probably Saaz, and it tastes of bread, grain and dusty hops. Not a great pilsener, perhaps, but a very decent one. The pie is excellent, warm, crisp and fresh.

The English of the staff is not more than adequate, but it is more than compensated by the sheer charm.

The interior of O’Neil is fairly typical brewpub – brick, glass, black painted iron and gleaming copper. The lagering tanks are prominently displayed by the entrance, the brewing itself can be spotted though a semi opaque window next to my seat.

The clientele is mixed, lots of bright young things sharing pitchers of beer, more adult people enjoying the food as much as the brew. I am informed that Thursday night is the big party night for students, as they go home for the weekend on Friday afternoon. They tend to sleep through their lectures on Friday. O’Neil is quite close to the Sorbonne, which seems to be excellent for business.

I sample their other beers as well, a wit, an amber and a brown ale. The amber is the best. Au malt grillé, says the menu. Sure, there are lots of roasted malts here. Chewy, bready cereals. Fine use of hops, too, giving a pumpernickel type of sour dryness. Caramel and a little yeast on the tongue.

What I enjoy here is what you find in some of the best brewpubs. Even when the beers don’t aspire to any elevated status, you get an unpasteurized freshness that lifts the beers and leaves a grin on your face. It is like the Czech beers – best consumed when fresh. This freshness cannot be transferred to a bottle.

A pint and a pie

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French takeaway

The Premier class that Air France offers on their European routes is not recommended. Miniature meals, seating as narrow as at the back of the plane. They even ran out of red wine, and the white was awful.

There is one thing, however. Double luggage allowance. So I bought more than beer. I bought two of the duck confit cans…

French takeaway

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Holidays in France?

If you go for the beer, you should look for the regions with the highest beer consumption per capita. This was unashamedly nicked from the blog Strange Maps.

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Beer cruises in the Western hemisphere is nothing new, there are a number of options in various climate zones. Stephen Beaumont offers an alternative, a European beer cruise.

It’s on the Rhine, from Amsterdam to Basel. The preliminary programme ranges from a visit to Amsterdam’s  Brouwerij ‘t Ij to tastings at Belgian, German, French, Luxembourg and Swiss breweries, a pub crawl through Cologne, and even floating tutored beer tastings.

It starts in Amsterdam on October 11.

It’s beyond the capacity of my wallet, but I applaud any efforts to expand quality beer tourism.

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