Sunday, March 17, 2013

Belgium: Trappiste Beer vs. Abbey Beer

     Ski season is officially over for us - not that you could tell from the amount of snow that has fallen in the past week.  Tuesday's snow sent us home by noon and kept us home until mid-day on Wednesday. It is the middle of March and frankly, we are tired of snow and the lack of sun.  From November 1 through the end of February, there were only 108 total hours of recorded sunshine!  I think that we are all suffering from SAD - seasonal affective disorder.  Perhaps, we should all go out and buy sun lamps.

     With the dreary weather, we needed a pick-me-up.  By mid-week, we had decided that Belgium would be our destination.  Dear Daughter's comment was, "What, we are not going to France?"  Ha, Ha.  Ha.  She is so witty.  Little did she know but we were going to Wallonia - which is the French speaking part of Belgium.  Gotcha!

     When I think of Belgium, I think of three culinary delights:  decadent Belgian chocolates, crispy, tasty frites (fries) and delicious beer.  In the States, we would splurge occasionally and purchase a couple of bottles of Tripel Karmeliet, Kwak, or Duval.  Belgium is know for its Abbey/Trappiste Beers and we wondered what it would be like to visit a few of them.  Would we see Monks brewing or tasting?  Are the beers really that good?  And what is it about the fancy glasses that hold the beer?  It seems that each brewery has it own type of glass.

     Much to Dear Daughter's chagrin, we were on the road by 8:00 am on Saturday morning.  Sunshine graced us for an hour and we quickly crossed over the border into Luxembourg and then into Belgium.  By 11:00 am, we were in the middle of the Belgian countryside with nothing really around us except for fields and a few sparse buildings.  Our first destination was Chimay to visit The Notre Dame de Scourmont Abbey. At first, I thought that the entire trip was going to be a bust.  There didn't appear to be anything to see.  We could not even see the abbey.  What we did see was a building bearing the name, Espace Chimay.  We wanted a tour.  We wanted to see Monks.  We wanted to taste some beer.  What was all of this?  There was only one car in the parking lot.  Dear Husband asked me gently, "Who told you about this place?"

     I entered the building, walked down a long hallway, passed a restaurant and what seemed to be a small gift store selling beer, cheese and various Chimay trinkets.  At the end of the hallway was a young woman at a cash register.  I asked her for directions to the Abbey and if we were able to take a tour.  She directed me to a small forest across the street and indicated that after a short walk, we would reach the Abbey.  Once inside, we could visit the chapel, gardens and cemetery.  ("What, that is all...I want to see Monks brewing beer!")  She further explained that we could return to Espace Chimay and take a short museum tour with a tasting and if we wanted, have lunch in the restaurant.

     Back at the car, I informed the family.  We bundled up and headed across the street to the forest and within ten minutes, we were standing in front of the Abbey.  After instructing the other members of my family that snowball fights were no longer allowed and we needed to show our respect, we entered through the large wooden doors into a large meeting area.  A Monk met us as we entered and upon determining that we spoke English, informed us of where we needed to go.  He smiled at us gently and opened the door to a large courtyard.  Dear Daughter and I were a bit giddy - we had seen a real live Monk!  Dear Husband was very skeptical about whether beer making still took place there.  But shortly after visiting the pristine chapel, we smelled hops!

     Returning to the restaurant, we did the typical tourist thing and ordered a sampling of four beers accompanied by four cheeses made by Chimay.  We learned that they did still make the beer at the Abbey.  In fact, Chimay is one of only 8 Trappist beers in the world.  Then what is an Abbey beer?  Trappist beers are still brewed in the Abbey.  Abbey beers, while utilizing the same, ancient recipes are brewed by commercial means outside the walls of the Abbey.  The beers were all quite good and we also enjoyed the sampling of cheeses.  After a delightful lunch, we headed for the museum and learned a few more facts about Chimay.  We were all quite happy when we headed off to our second destination.

     Our second destination was the small town of Dinant, Begium.  Situated along an expansive river, the view from the Autobahn was impressive.  Towering high above the town was a large citadel and the town sprawled over both sides of the river.  The main bridge was decorated with statutes of saxophones...yes, saxophones.  I think that the inventor of this musical instrument was born in the city.  We did not have much time to look around the city as our main destination was the Leffe Abbey to tour and taste my favorite Belgian beer.  Unfortunately, we learned that the Abbey, located outside of town, no longer gave tours.  We could; however, visit Maison Leffe.  This building, once a convent, sits high above the town and now sports a restaurant, spa and hotel.  Located in the old chapel is a very well -done museum dedicated to everything Leffe.  The highly interactive museum kept Dear Daughter interested and while small, it took a good hour to go through all of the exhibits.  At the conclusion, we entered a dark library and were given a full size Leffe beer of our choice to sample along with a very nice glass.  By now, we had learned why all those glass shapes were so important and we really enjoyed tasting two different Leffe beers that were new to us.  After a bit of shopping at a local grocery store to stock up on more Belgian beer to take home, we headed to our hotel, which was a short drive from the town.

     Have I ever mentioned that while I am the primary driver on our outings...I am not a great driver.  Yes, I am admitting it.  So far in the 18 months that we have been here, I have had one accident (not my fault) and I believe that I have had my picture taken four times for speeding (although I have only actually received one actual ticket, to date).  But my worst offense is that I take left turns too sharply and as a result, my left rear tire frequently comes into contact with the curb.  I honestly do  not understand the sudden affliction that I have as I never had this difficulty in the States.  Naturally, Dear Husband is in the car for most of these offenses and that causes him to begin ranting like Ralphi's Dad in the "Christmas Story".  Remember when he is down the basement battling with the furnace?

    So what better end to a wonderful day than to have me take the turn too sharply and it finally happened...I busted the tire.  We pull over and the ranting begins.  I become invisible and Dear Husband once again becomes Ralph's Dad/Pit Crew Chief and begins the task of changing the tire.  Dear Daughter seamlessly assumes the role of Ralph/Pit Crew Member and I silently hope that she has a better experience than Ralph did.  She does and superbly helps her father, comes over to me and gives me a quick hug.  Then I look at the spare big letters, it informs us that we cannot drive over 50 mph.  How on earth are we going to get home?  I pull into a parking lot and begin to call our version of Triple A.  After some time, I am connected to a representative in Belgium who gives the contact information of a tow-company in Dinant that also sells tires.  But it is now almost 6pm on a Saturday night and there is no answer when I call.  I go to leave the parking lot and nearly run into another car.  Good grief!

     We decide to head to the hotel and spend the night.  We explain our predicament to the owners.  I have to speak what little French I know while drawing pictures of the car and what has happened.  Shortly, everyone understands and after a quick call, we are told that on Sunday morning, the husband will take us to his friend, who will put a new tire on the car.   Up in the room, we all begin to unwind  and later that evening, we manage to have a very nice dinner together with much laughter.  I do think that I heard at least once during the evening that I would never again be allowed to have a new car.

     Sure enough after breakfast this morning, we are escorted to a nearby garage and within twenty minutes, we were on our way back home.  I am trying not to think about how much that cost nor how much the replacement tire will cost.  I will try to pay attention to my left turns.

     At home, we were greeted not by snow but by rain.  Oh well.  The oven is now working and I have two batches of tomatoes slow roasting and plan to make a slow roasted tomato soup with decadent grilled cheese sandwiches for dinner.  We are currently sampling a divine Leffe beer in our of our new glasses and are already talking about our next adventure into Belgium...or perhaps maybe Norway...or Sicily.  We have decided that if the furlough goes through, we just won't worry about saving so much and use the extra time to travel!