Friends, Food and Wine

All my things are packed and in storage, the house is up for rent, and Thursday the 22nd I said farewell to England and headed to Belgium.  In Bruges I met up with Paul, one of the trio of Belgians who had been staying in the gite at Domaine Anne Gros during the harvest, and Sharon, an Australian woman in the wine trade who also stayed at the gite, whom I met only on the last day.

It being about 16:00, clearly a glass of wine was in order, and we found the tiny but charming Est Wijnbar, climbed the near vertical stairway to the first floor and settled to review the wine list.  Whilst Paul was rounding up three copies of the full list, I glanced at the short list of current recommendations posted on every table, and was very pleased to see Casal Branco’s Rosé on their top pick list.  (See my article about the visit to Casal Branco in the Ribatejo, north of Lisbon, last May.)

In the event, we drank a Pfalz Riesling 1996 which was wonderful – a very lemon curd quality to me – very tangy and fresh and crisp, but with that slightly buttery unctiousness on the palate – the malo lactic clearly worked!

From there we wandered on through the twilit town, Paul giving us a bit of a scenic tour – and Bruges is astonishingly scenic, every inch of it charming and lovely.  We wandered over bridges and canals, through parks, past churches, down cobbled streets past countless chocolate shops and finally to the B&B where they were staying – very charming (my hotel we will ignore – central and clean, but an utterly charmless business hotel, teddy bear on the pillow notwithstanding, ugh!).  Sharon ran upstairs to fetch a bottle she had brought from Burgundy, and Paul borrowed glasses from the landlady (he had a corkscrew on him, wise man).  We backtracked to a park with some stone tables and benches and laid out our spread – a baguette purchased in Bruges, two varieties of goat’s cheese I had bought in Portugal and carried home to England then brought on with me to Bruges, and Sharon’s bottle of Nuits St. Georges, Les Demodes, Domaine Jean Pierre Bony 2007 – she had stayed at the domaine before coming to Anne Gros’ and knew the wine maker well.

This particular vinyard, Les Demodes, is at the top of the hill, last one before the woods, and is the last Nuits St. Georges vinyard up there before you cross the line north into Vosne Romanée, just above Aux Malconsorts.  The wine was excellent, maybe not possessed of the latent power to give it the long and complex life you would expect of a premier cru, but coming out of the villages part of the vinyard (the strip closest to the woods) it had wonderful balance and flavours, and did fine by me – warming me nicely, sitting there on a stone bench in a chilly park after dark in Bruges in October.

Food and wine finished we returned the glasses to the landlady, and Sharon turned in, but Paul and I carried on for dinner.  We backtracked to a wine bar and restaurant we had passed earlier – through the windows I had seen an open fire on a raised hearth that I found irresistable.  I think my body is in shock and denial, going from 30° and blazing sun on the beach or in the mountains of Portugal to cold and damp and dark and about 9° in Belgium in less than ten days.

After thawing out my hands in front of the fire, to the amusement of the other diners, Paul and I settled down to serious considerations.  I entrusted the wine choice to him, as his knowledge of domaines and makers, particularly in Burgundy, is encyclopedic.  We opted to share an entrecôte, his share blue, mine à point, and he ordered a Marsannay 2002, Domaine Phillipe Charlopin-Parizot.  This wine is made from vines in the Montchenvoy climat, which is considered one of the finest lieux-dits of Marsannay.  And it tasted it, stunning, I would never have imagined it came from Marsannay, would have guessed Nuits St. Georges.  The steak was accompanied by jacket potatoes, wrapped in foil and roasted in the open fire.  Noting that Paul had finished his, the host kindly offered seconds which were gratefully received and enjoyed.  I’ve never known a restaurant offer seconds!

Thoroughly enjoyed wine, food and company all afternoon and evening long, and Paul and I were the last to leave this little restaurant.  If you are in Bruges, find it – not only for the food and wine, but for the excuse to wander and enjoy the town, away from the main market place and all:  Heer Halewyn, Walplein 10.

And then I slept off all of that, and started again on Friday… met up with Sharon and Paul in the morning, had a good wander along the Coupure canal, picking out dream properties for Paul to buy in Bruges, and then refreshed ourselves at a café where we could sit beside the canal basking in the sun, with chardonnay (Sharon), beer (Paul), and hot chocolate (me… what can I say, I don’t have a strong head for alcohol to begin with, and after five days of packing and cleaning, and near total food and sleep deprivation, I had to pace myself!).  The waiter was visibly shocked by my order, but managed to find some hot cocoa.

We then met up with Christian and Martine, the couple who also stayed at Anne Gros’ gite in September, and had done some harvesting at Domaine Lucie et August Lignier in Morey St. Denis.  We stopped at a tiny and very old (the oldest?) pub in Bruges for a glass of beer.  I tried it, but it was too bitter for me.  After that, we went on to lunch at Refter, Molenmeers 2.

Sharon and Paul took control of the wine list, Martine and Christian explained the menu to Sharon and me, and I just thoroughly enjoyed every minute and mouthful.  I started with some croquettes made with tiny shrimp in a creamy sauce, and then had a perfect cod filet on a bed of snow peas, with whipped potatoes on the side – both dishes which I was told were very typically belgian.  Paul started with the largest oysters I think I have ever seen.

We tried three different bottles of wine – first Rey Santo Rueda by Javier Sanz 2008 – was very good, cut through and complemented the creamy croquettes for me.

Second wine was from the Loire, Reuilly Clos des Messieurs 2007 Domaine Lafond, which was generally agreed to be the star of the three choices.  So much so I don’t seem to have made any notes about the third wine, actually, and I can’t even recall what region it came from.  It was white…

bruges gangFrom there, we staggered across the street to a lovely hotel and restaurant and out onto their terrace alongside the canal for coffee and sunshine.  Five happy well fed wine lovers:  Christian, Sharon and Paul standing, Martine and Cynthia seated.

Martine and Christian had to return home, to the south of Belgium, to rescue children from school or something, I admit I went back to my hotel to sleep off this meal, and I think Sharon and Paul went on to another pub or wine bar.

At 20:00 Sharon and Paul and I re-convened for another fabulous meal at Den Dyver, Dijver 5.  This restaurant is known especially for making and pairing all its foods with regional Belgian beers – luckily for me, they also will pair each course with a wine, as I really cannot bear beer (I’m sorry Paul!  I tried!).

The most fascinating taste sensation of the evening for me was the aperitif – imagine a kir royale, but instead of cassis they used a liqueur made from hops, called Fleur de Bière.  Being from Kent, which was always the heart of the hops growing, drying and marketing in England, I couldn’t resist trying it. The liqueur did not noticeably change the colour of the champagne – and I was hard put to it to describe the flavour.  Sharon and Paul tried it and both instantly said quinine.  I’ve never had a G&T so I would never have spotted that.  This aperitif was lovely, I recommend you try it if you get the chance.  I was a little afraid the liqueur might have that bitterness that puts me off beer, but it does not.  We were told the liqueur is only available commercially, within the restaurant trade, but the maitre d’ kindly gave us the information to try to source it, as Paul has many contacts in the trade.  With any luck, some day you may be able to try it chez moi.

There followed another fabulous meal.  I did things a little backwards, and started with a game paté which was excellent and also rather beautifully presented – one large finger of paté was atop a puddle of fig conserve and in turn topped with a finger of wholemeal nut bread, and set at an angle to that was another finger of bread topped with the paté.  This was served with a Las Niñas Syrah, a chilean wine from the Colchugua Valley, I’m afraid I didn’t catch the vintage.  Very supple, black and dark red fruit, slightly compotey, and muted spice notes, it almost felt like a merlot.  For me it was too soft to really work with the paté, I would have liked something more tannic and assertive, but it was a pleasant wine, and I did enjoy it.  I looked up the wine on the Vina Las Niñas website, and the domaine is an interesting one, have a look.

The next course was fish, a perfectly cooked very tender bit of brill, some roasted whole new potatoes, and some excellent fennel and snow peas.  Alongside the food was a stripe of a tomato coulis which was made with a belgian beer, and gave it a flavour like the rouille used in bouillabaise – that very savory orangey brown sauce of garlic, saffron, olive oil and cayenne.  Really lovely.  The wine was Verdicchio di Matelica La Monacesca, from Fattoria la Monacesca in the Marche, again I missed the vintage.  Very good with the fish, and Sharon enjoyed it as her aperitif, and I think Paul enjoyed it when we let him have a sip of ours…

We were too full to have a third course, just sat there finishing all the various glasses of wine and beer on our table… and then staggered home to our respective lodgings.

Many thanks to all of you who made my stay in Bruges so wonderful, but especially to Paul, for being such a marvellous guide to all things belgian, wine and food related, and for letting me nick his photos to use in this blog entry!

Closing image – Bruges by night, standing on a bridge over canal.