Wednesday, July 21, 2010

America to Antwerp by way of London, Oxford and Brugge

On the top floor of the Brouwerij De Haaf Moon, five stories above the pungent fermenting barrels below, I am struck by an errant pearl of wisdom thrown by an unlikely pitcher.

“This is the half moon!” bellows our tour guide, Antoine, as he makes an enormous “round-the-world” swirling gesture, part of an interpretive dance inspired by the motion of a beer being poured into its appropriate glass. He looks contemplative as if meditating on a zen-koan, “and then you take a deep sniff to bring in the aroma that is being pushed up by frothing beer, and… Whop!” He makes a motion of his hand towards his moustache which nearly sends him off his feet “Culture!” At that moment I realized that I had come to the right place. In fact, this was my fifth or sixth revelation in as many days, but having already sampled both the double and the triple, I was fortunate enough to be fooled into enjoying the warm feelings of first discovery all over again.


Flying out of NYC it was 105 degrees Fahrenheit, and thankfully when we landed in London it was only 30 something in celcius. My gracious host suggested I leave my front and back-packs at his office and check out the city, so I did just that. A haircut and every monument/bridge in London later, I found myself in a pub. Stepping confidently up to the bar, I told the young bartender all about my Watson fellowship and asked her if she felt that the preservation of cask-fermented “real” ales in Britian was a welcome return to a traditional fermentation technique that had been slipping away as modern tastes had shifted in the past twenty years towards cooler, more carbonated, lager type beers. I looked into her face expecting the radiant glow of recognition and acceptance. Instead I found confusion and concern “So…you want a beer or something?”. Heading back to my table with a proper ale I decided that my pitch needed some more work.

Two days later, however, I found myself surrounded by scholars, chefs and 200 other professionals and enthusiasts gathered at Oxford to celebrate the holy transformative powers of fermentation. To put it in a way that would not sedate a London bartender, the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery rocked my world.


The theme at this year’s symposium was Smoked, Cured and Fermented. Headlined by talks from Sidney Mintz, Harold McGee, Sandor Katz, Fuscia Dunlop, and Ivan Day, it was a star studded event (according to the international fermentation fan club, which is admittedly smaller than my rural public highschool). Over the course of several incredible fermented feasts (Irish, Norwegian, and Cantonese) I was able to meet with my fermentation idols and talk about my upcoming adventure. On one occasion I sat down across the table from a woman who had fascinating stories. At the end of the meal I asked her if she was a food writer, at which point the person to my left kindly informed me that this was Claudia Roden, recent winner of the James Beard prize in food writing. A similar experience to asking Bob Dylan if he likes folk music.

My presentation with professor Naomi Guttman went well. We gave a short talk about our paper “Sausage in Oil”, a collection of interviews with Italian-American families who still make dry-cured fermented sausages in Utica NY. Fermented meats were a popular subject (fish, sausage, Iberian Hams) but the list of fermented foods also included yoghurts, bean curds, porridges, breads and more.

Best of all, the conference was diverse in expertise and experience. I met young chefs, enthusiastic microbiologists, fellow passionate DIY fermenters and historians/anthropologists who re-affirmed my seeming obsession with all of the dimensions of externalized digestion (fermentation). Surrounded by all of these generous, fascinating, and brilliant comrades, I had found my people and they had brought cheese. What more can you ask for? From Oxford it was on to the English countryside where I stayed with friends just outside of Manchester.

Near Manchester

In this pastoral setting I was introduced to the sausage roll and I will never be the same. I also visited the highest altitude pub in England “The Cat and the Fiddle” (of hey diddle diddle fame) and toured Haddon Hall, a proper English manor. Like all English manors of sufficient size and nobility, Haddon Hall had once had its own brew house, though it had been destroyed some years ago. Exhausted from touring, we retired to a pub/inn in Bakewell where I conducted more research on “real” English cask ale. The India Pale ale is a specialty of the brewers in Bakewell. This heavily hopped beer style was invented by the English when they had to ship barrels of beer all the way to India without it spoiling. The extra alpha-acids provided by the hops preserved the beer as it was shipped over seas for months at a time (a narrative coincidence in that I myself hope to be preserved during my trip to India this spring).

Cask aged ales, or “real ales”, as some call them, are traditional English beers which have to meet several qualifications. They must be never frozen, always casked, stored in the basement of the pub at around fifty degrees, and served without extra carbonation by being pumped up to the bar by large taps. As an American, the beer tastes flat and slightly warm, but I have learned that at this temperature there is more aroma vaporizing at the surface of the beer, and less carbonation to confuse the tongue, making for an overall taste experience that is one of a kind. Sadly, I had to leave my gracious English hosts after only a few days and set out for Belguim, the mecca of wild fermentation brewing, the sticky palace of pralines (chocolate is fermented before it is dried), and the home of my new favorite ferment: the Belgian waffle (actually not sure if it is, can't get a straight answer).


In the birthplace of the French fry, and the land where my breakfast centers around nutella smothered toast topped with Dutch chocolate sprinkles, I am not only learning, I am growing as well. First stop: Brugge. Just outside the walled-in city, I stayed with an artist who had the eye of Salvador Dali and the face of Sam Elliot (he has had his poetry published alongside Keruouac in the Trans-Atlantic Review, but he also appears in the acknowledgements on the inserts to more than a few famous rock and blues albums). Having been dropped off in this beautiful little city I was determined to see the brewery, the museum of chocolate (and the one of French fries too), and as many waffle shops as I could stand. This brings me back to the aforementioned fifth floor of the Half Maan Brewery. One waffle deep, my cheerful guide Antoine is finishing every joke with a righteous fist-pump and a triumphant “Ha! Joke!”. We ascend to the rooftop where we see that the brewery is situated between the monastery and the old hospital. In the middle-ages monks were the ones brewing beer and taking care of the sick. Not coincidently, at that time brewing was one of the best ways to provide safe drinking water because it was not only boiled, but also the alcohol made an inhospitable environment for much of the pathogenic bacteria. Perhaps coincidently, the new aging and bottling plant for the only brewery left in Brugge just so happens to be across the river in the same building as the new hospital.

To put it lightly, the chocolate museum was a huge disappointment. I expected decadence; life size cathedrals of cocao, fudgy waffles the size of dinosaurs, the entire cast of Seinfeld set in gleaming cocobutter. But no, what I got was fifty flights of stairs, and uncomfortably warm carpeted studio apartment with too much text and a trilingual cartoon cocao bean that I was ready to rip off the wall. To be fair, my expectations were really at fault. The museum was an informative place with excellent artifacts from ancient meso-america and a life sized chocolate statue of president Obama. I think the most profound part for me was the map of world cocao production which indicated the amount of cocao grown for each country. Cote d’Ivoire topped the list, with Ghana a close second, something I had thought I knew, and was now confident that I have to explore when I get there. Overly stimulated and underly-hydrated, I sought refuge under the umbrella of a cafĂ© on the main square and found comfort in another tropical ferment which has permeated the culture in Belgium, coffee (more on this later). Having enough of the main town, I returned to my artist friend’s home and set out for Antwerp the next day.