I am currently in Pau, a French town within the Pays Basque region sitting at the edge of the Pyrenees. I clearly have some work to do updating this blog, and so here is the first installment. More to come soon... Antwerp/Mid July: In Antwerp I had an incredible host, whose brother took me out for Mussels and Frites on the river Scheldt. After lunch, we attempted to visit the Brewershuis museum, but it was closed for repair. This museum is housed in a building that, while never a brewery itself, used to provide the many breweries on “Brewers Street” with water (the most important ingredient in Beer!). At one time there were over fifty brewers in the city of Antwerp, but due to the crushing effect of two world wars, strict permit regulations, the declining popularity of top fermenting ales, this number slowly dwindled over the years until presently there is only one. Luckily, the DeKoninck brewery is still going strong. Started in 1827, this brewery was originally known as “The Brewery of the Hand” and its label still retains the image of a left hand. The hand is an icon in Antwerp, according to local lore, a giant who used to live on the river would charge people a toll and if they didn’t pay he would cut off their hand and throw it into the river. However, the hero Brabo, having slayed the giant, cut off the giants hand and threw it into the river (hooray), thus the fantastic statue across from the town hall and the severed hand that graces the glass of every delicious De Koninck brew.
If this isn’t appetizing enough, according to the local custom, before you drink a De Koninck it is a tradition to knock back a double shot of cheesy yeast water, drained off the barrels at the end of the fermentation. This shot has the consistency similar to sour milk with a metallic aftertaste that wafts up the back of your nasal cavity heralding the possibility of lunch’s triumphant resurrection. In other words, not something I would have with my beer every day. Despite the taste, I must admit that the yeast shot brought out earthier and more malty flavors in my next sip of beer, and this taste experience was so unique that I would rate it a “worth the effort” with a probable “try it again in a year”. Legend has it that this shot is also good for fertility, though the number of rituals in Antwerp (including walking under a well endowed statue, etc…) to increase fertility lead one to believe that perhaps the level of alcohol consumed in the past has not been all that helpful on this front… In fact, my generous host, a lawyer, explained that at one time it was illegal to pay workers in cash due to their propensity to spend it all at the pub before getting home.
Among the numerous anecdotes told by my host, two stories surrounding bread stood out. The first story is about bread and the law. Apparently at one point the wise city fathers of Antwerp decided that there were too many different kinds of bread in Antwerp, thus the city needed an Official Bread to reduce the confusion. Having decreed that such-and-such was the Official Bread of Antwerp they decided, naturally, to tax it. Of course, as soon as it was taxed, none of the bread bakers made the Official Bread of Antwerp anymore. Instead, each baker added their own twist to the bread, thereby multiplying the perfusion of bread styles exponentially. Though there is still many styles of bread in the city, our host suggested that today there is one bread that may be the most popular, and its name, translated literally, is “Rye, Damn it”. The second story is about bread and men. According to our friend, every Sunday hundreds of men saunter in to the village squares to get a paper and a loaf of bread. Our host jokingly described how dutiful patriarchs in this great migration of men, making extended pit-stops in café’s, are not motivated by such worldly desires as learning the local gossip, but are instead inspired by the noble thought that they are fulfilling their fatherly duties, obtaining news of the world and sustenance for their family!
After a few days in Antwerp, it was on to Brussels...