Monday, 15 September 2014

Lille. A Beer Odyssey and much more. Part Two: Discovery

Lille. A Beer Odyssey and much more.
Part Two: Discovery

As you have hopefully read in part one of my Lille Beer Odyssey, the city had already surprised me with its beauty, the friendliness of its people and the beer available, so as Tuesday dawned we were awake and ready early, eager to head out and discover more of its treasures.

We had been fortunate with the weather too, far more than we were expecting as early forecasts were for constant rain during the whole of our visit. Luckily, aside from some notable heavy downpours early on in our stay, the clouds had stayed away and we were only to get one short shower again for the next two days, allowing us to enjoy the city in splendid sunshine.

On the tour the previous day we had made a mental note of some of the places that we would like to go to and some that we would quite like to see if we had the time. I rather fancied the Dutch Museum (Musee de Hospice Comtesse), particularly as I had heard that there were some exhibitions relating to brewing and some faithfully restored (well faithful to the Sixteenth Century anyway) interiors. The art gallery was a possibility as was, more out of curiosity than anything, the Charles de Gaulle Museum. I hadn't realised that he was born in Lille, and the museum is housed in the very building in which he grew up. The Lilloise are very proud of their son, and statues and references to him can be found all over the city.

Sitting in the hotel lobby I looked to see what time the museums opened and was startled to find that they don't, well not on a Tuesday anyway. Not only that but most of the shops are only open from 2.00 or 2.30 p.m. I suppose this accounts for their late opening in the evening, but nonetheless I found it a little odd that most places are shut on Sunday, with Monday being business as usual but then on Tuesday they all get a half days holiday again.

Undaunted we made our way into town, stopping for a coffee and a cake at one of the small chain of coffee shops that goes by the decidedly un-French name of 'The Notting Hill Coffee House'. Clearly somebody somewhere has thought this was a good idea, and it's no different to seeing an 'Edinburgh Woollen Mill' in most high streets in UK towns, however it did seem a little out of place to me.

After a while we found ourselves wandering a little aimlessly so decided to make our way towards an area of the old town we had previously not explored. The sun was out and it was particularly pleasant to be strolling the Place du Theatre as the clock on the Nouvelle Bourse chimed its midday lullaby from a Madonna to her sleeping child.

Making our way down a side street one of the children needed the toilet, and as luck would have it the Café au Point Central, on the corner of Rue de la Clef and Place des Patiniers, provided a welcome diversion. It's quite a non-descript place, and one you might just hurry by, your eyes fixed firmly on the end of the road, barely registering the few tables and chairs on the pavement and the covered drinking area directly on he corner itself. Heading inside it's quite a cosy little place although the big picture windows make it seem less cramped but it has a certain air of inevitable decay and 'couldn't care less' attitude that I find quite alluring in such places. I suspect its similar to the sense of well-loved cosiness that I find in an unspoilt English pub, but there wasn't the time to dwell on that as I approached the bar to see what was on offer. Six taps of mainly Belgian beers were in front of me, two of them from Chimay, and others which I can't remember, and a peculiar label on the end that I meant to ask the barman about at some point but failed miserably to do so. The reason for this is that my eye was captured not by the Rince Cochon pig but by a label next to it, bright pink and of identical design proclaiming itself to be 'Rince Cochon, Biere forte aux fruit rouge'. Two of these are duly ordered, a fact which I am frankly astounded by as Sarah doesn't have a great affection for fruit beers however we are not disappointed, particularly by the glass which is similar in every respect save one to the glass we had in Pub MacEwans, it is bright pink. This 7.5% beer is a delicious mixture of strong blonde ale and cherries, not too dissimilar to a Kriek, but with a very light finish. We drank it thirstily, and not even a sudden shower forcing us to take shelter inside could dampen our enjoyment of it.

Much refreshed we were again on our way, passing near the Salle de Celestines now dry, which used to be the main waterway into Lille, bringing goods from all manner of places to be unloaded in what was a thriving inland centre for commerce. Our destination was a little further along the Rue de Gand however, and one little visited by tourists as its situation and narrow approach mean it isn't covered on the bus tour. The Porte de Gand, otherwise known as the Ghent Gate was built as a way into the city through the Spanish wall during the city's expansion between 1617 and 1621. It is quite impressive and we spent some time there, taking pictures and exploring the moat and its surroundings.

Soon enough we started to get hungry and made our way back through the Porte de Gand and on to Rue de Gand where we had passed all manner of restaurants previously. One in particular had caught me eye, a red and yellow restaurant that just screamed 'authentic', a hand-written chalk board outside advertising local dishes, particularly carbonade flamande of which I'm particularly fond and, even more interestingly, dried hop bines could be seen through the window. Arguing against the children's protestations that they wanted pizza or other Italian fare we made our way inside 'T Rijsel.

Inside we found a host of wooden tables surrounded by mismatched chairs, all but one occupied by what can only be described as loud, feasting locals. The hubbub of conversation and laughter was quite intimidating at first, made more so by the fact that every inch of space was used to accommodate diners. We squeezed our way through and sat down, looking around to take in the surroundings. In a similar fashion to the floor space, the walls were crammed with all manner of nick-nacks and bric-a-brac covering every shelf or pinned to every inch of wall space. The hop-bines we had seen from outside were found the adorn three of the four walls, with a feature made of the fireplace, no longer in use, but with a collection of kettles and teapots filling the space. The small bar at the far end proudly displayed three fonts, all Ch'Ti, with the Blonde, Ambree and Triple all available, with most of patrons bringing a glass of beer to their lips as they talked and ate. Their smiling, happy faces made us feel a little more relaxed as we were approached by a young girl proffering menus.

She asked me a question which I have to admit that I didn't understand, so I replied with the feeble answer of an Englishman in possession of a meagre handful of stock phrases in such a situation, "Pardon, je ne comprend pas, je suis Anglais". To my delight and surprise she answered me in faultless English and indicated she would return with the English menus. These were quite battered and unloved with one of the hastily scribbled 'Anglais' stickers fixed upside-down to the outside in one instance. The fact that the French find this kind of detail insignificant is a relaxed quality I rather admire although I'm too uptight to live my life in such a carefree manner.

Food ordered, the drinks arrived promptly and I eagerly drank my Ch'Ti Blonde, its clean and refreshing flavour, light, with a hint of lemon and floral notes acting as delightful aperitif, cleaning the palate in preparation for the food to follow.

The Ch'Ti Blonde, a beer once commonly available in UK supermarkets, is brewed by Brasserie Castelain situated in Wingles, 20 miles to the north-west of Lille, a brewery that has a relatively large portfolio of beer in a variety of styles although it is undoubtedly the Ch'Ti range for which it is most famous. The word itself is taken from the Picard language, quite closely related to French and is native to this region, and one to which has been given official recognition by Belgium but not interestingly by France. It literally means a native of the area and there is a local phrase "Quand un Ch'ti mi i'est a l'agonie savez vous bin che qui li rind la vie? I bot un d'mi!" - "When a 'Northerner' is dying do you know what revives him? He drinks a pint!".

My carbonade flamande, I simply couldn't resist it, arrived on china plate that looked as though it had been in daily use for the last century and from the aroma alone I knew it would be everything I had been looking for in this dish. The beef had been stewed in Ch'Ti Ambree with the addition of gingerbread and brown sugar, and it came served with chips, not French fries, but proper twice cooked chips. It tasted fantastic.

Sarah had Le Hochepot Pot au Feu Flamand, made with mutton, veal, pork and beef, while the children both had Le Poulet au Maroilles, chicken served with a local cows milk cheese sauce, all of which were pronounced amazing. The desserts similarly so.

Situated at 25 Rue de Gand, I would thoroughly recommend a visit to Estaminet 'T Rijsel for delicious traditional cuisine cooked with love and care. Being the last to arrive we were also the last to leave and spent a good twenty minutes or so chatting with the friendly staff, the owner and even the cook who came up from the kitchen after a warm and busy service, ready to go home, but pleased to join in the conversation. Smiles all round, we bade our farewells and made our way out into the afternoon sunshine.

A slow walk around the old town was very much the order of the day after such a repast, and we meandered contentedly, taking pictures and window shopping as we went. Another visit to L'Abbaye des Saveurs was made and more beer purchased, and alongside the local beers I couldn't resist a bottle of De Struise Black Damnation XII - Nuptiale A2, their Black Albert, secondly fermented on peaches before being aged in Anguilla rum barrels. I broke my self-imposed 'French Only' rule on this occasion, mainly because I'd had this beer on my mind since I'd spotted it the day before. I plan to open it this Christmas, if I can wait that long.

Back at the hotel we got ourselves ready for what was to be our last evening in Lille. The sun warmed our faces as we made our way back into town and as we were too early for our destination, La Capsule, to be open we sat in La Place de la Bettignies and lazily watch the Lilloise go about their early evening business, reflecting on the time we had had so far.

On arriving at La Capsule, we found it empty except for a solitary barman and we made our way to the table at the far end with a quick glance at those enticing fridges as I walked by.

Wanting a lighter beer alcohol-wise to start with, I ordered a Pilsner de la Capsule (5%) brewed by Brasserie Thiriez, a refreshing peppery pilsner with a pleasingly dry finish, and just the right sort of beer to whet your appetite for more.

Brasserie Thiriez is a brewery in the town of Esqulebecq in the extreme north-east corner of France, quite close to the Belgian border, started brewing in 1996. It is housed in an old white-washed farmhouse, a building that was once home to another brewery, Brasserie Poidevin, which served the local community before closing in 1945. It's owner, Daniel Thiriez, gave up a career in Human Resources with a major supermarket chain in order to set up the brewery he is influenced by, and has a huge fondness for the beers of Belgium.

The bar had started to fill up by the time I went to order the next beer, the clientele ranging from students to an elderly couple, all ordering beer from the locally orientated menu. Sticking with Brasserie Thiriez, I ordered a bottle of the 5.5% Etoile du Nord, an interesting hybrid being a hoppy blonde ale, brewed using Bramling Cross with the participation of John Davidson, an Englishman formerly of the Swale Brewery in Kent, and finished with Belgian yeast from Brasserie DuPont. It poured a cloudy, muddy orange-brown which was largely the result of me clumsily dumping the yeast into the glass as I'm afraid I am prone to do. Its light caramel aroma leading to a big fresh-tasting mango, grapefruit, lime and blackcurrant caramel hit on a peppery digestive biscuit base. With its dry fruity finish this beer is a beautiful amalgam of styles and cultures with a modern fresh hop twist and one to look out for if you ever come across Brasserie Thiriez beers on this side of the Channel.

The children were starting to get a little tired and restless, so I made my way to the bar for one last drink at La Capsule. Unsure of what to have I asked the barman for a recommendation. He began asking me about beer styles and what kind of beer I liked and we soon fell into an easy conversation about beer in general, British beer and the beer scene in London in particular. Anthony, for that was his name, had just returned to his native Lille after studying brewing at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. He maligned that French brewers were traditional and slow to adapt to current trends, while I argued that it was important to keep the traditional styles and beers intact and not be too keen to rush to emulate the American brewers which he admired. He planned to set up his own brewery and was working at La Capsule to earn some money towards that goal, while working at local breweries where he could, in order to gain more experience. I wish him well.

I had indicated that I wanted a special beer, so after some deliberation and tasting, including a very palatable cask stout, he poured me a glass of the 28 Tripel, a 9% monster of a beer brewed by Caulier Developpement from Ghislenghien, Belgium. It pours deep orange with a shocking white head and the aroma of grenadine, orange, lemon and white pepper. With its slightly astringent, peppery orange-lemon boiled sweet flavour bordering on barley sugar, the alcohol becomes more apparent as you drink it, bringing a pleasant warming sensation to your cheeks by the end of the glass. It was indeed a fitting last drink to have there.

Saying goodbye, but not before buying a t-shirt (I'm a sucker for that sort of thing), we were hit by a sudden tiredness as we walked back into the main part of town. It had been a busy few days so we decided to end the evening with a light dinner back at the hotel. It was croque monsieurs all round, with Sarah and I having a bottle of the sweet pale lager Fischer Biere D'Alsace (6.5%) by Brasserie Fischer which was a pleasant enough foil to the fatty savoury saltiness of the cheese and ham toasted sandwich.

Side Note: Brasserie Fischer are a brewery I've been wary of since a trip to France back in the late 90s. I spent a pleasant afternoon in the sunshine with Sarah at a bar near St Jean de Monts in the Vendee drinking Adelscott, a beer brewed with whisky malt. We enjoyed it in that situation so bought a load of bottles home with us, only to find that I couldn't actually stand the stuff anymore. It was just too sickly and sweet, so down the drain it all went. The fact that they also first produced the travesty of a beer that is Desperados only serves to heighten my distrust.

I confess I haven't much to add regarding our last morning in Lille. Our train was due to depart at 2.30 p.m. local time, which gave us an opportunity for last minute gift buying after having our breakfast and checking out of our room. The problem with doing this of course is that you always come across a few things that you'd like to take home with you but realise that you have no space in your luggage for.

We had heard about a market that took place three times a week at Place du Concert while we were on the bus tour two days previously but this turned out to be little more than a few stalls serving bread, cheese, vegetable, seafood and linen, one of which was being questioned quite animatedly by the local Gendarmes. Beating a retreat we ducked into a nearby shop in search of a bottle of water for the children. This turned out to be an organic and health food shop and alongside the lentils, pulses and rice was a whole shelving unit devoted exclusively to organic and gluten-free beers and ciders, all of which were French in origin. I was both surprised and impressed by the range available but sadly I had no room for beer, and these weren't the type of gifts we were looking for so we ventured on.

There had been one place that we had passed on a number of occasions that I was keen to go to, and that was the Bellerose Café (8 Rue Royale). We had passed it a number of times, and it had seemed to be permanently closed. As we approached I could see to my delight that it appeared to be open, however my delight quickly turned to disappointment as the staff seemed more intent on smoking on chairs that blocked the entrance than serving customers and we passed quickly by.

Eventually, gifts purchased, and after one last walk around the town, stopping for a coffee at Café Leffe (3 Place Rihour) (worth checking out for the fantastic mural along one wall) we decided that we were just killing time and that lunch was in order. There wasn't really a decision to be made, we all knew where we wanted to go, so we made our way down Rue Faidherbe to our destination on Place de Gare.

So it was that we had our last meal in the city where we had had our first, Brasserie Les 3 Brasseurs. In fact not only did we eat at the same place we practically had the same meal as our first visit, burgers all round except for my daughter who resolutely wanted the same pizza as when she arrived. As for the beer, I opted for the only one on the menu that I had yet to try La Belle Province (7.0%) a US-style red ale, sweet caramel on a tart syrup base, it's very name summing up our feelings to this particular corner of France.

It was with a heavy heart, but with the sure knowledge of a holiday well spent that we collected our bags and made our way through EuroLille itself and out the other side to Gare Lille-Europe to catch our train home. We had embraced a city that we had no preconceptions of and in turn the city had embraced us. We had eaten well, drank well, and most importantly we had met some fantastic people who had given up their time to discuss their passion, whether it be for beer, food or the city itself. Those four days away had felt like a week, and with it being so close, so accessible, so friendly and with much more to explore, we knew that we would return soon. Our hastily planned holiday had taken us to a city that was so much more than a stop on the way to Belgium, but rather a gateway to a culture and a people with a smile on their lips and a beer in their hand that had captured our hearts.


Travel Information: We travelled to and from Lille by Eurostar from Ebbsfleet International, a journey of an hour and a quarter, and we stayed at the Novotel Lille Centre Gares (49 Rue de Tournai - map) a short walk from both stations and the city itself. In fact it was handy for everything we wanted and was clean, comfortable, functional and friendly. I'd certainly stay there again.
Further Reading:
English language:
The Beers Of France by John Woods and Keith Rigley (The Artisan Press, 1998)
This really is the only book available in English about French breweries and their beers. Detailed and informative it is still a useful thing to have if you are interested even though it is now 16 years old.
French language:
Histoire de comptoir 2014-2015 (Stories of the counter) by Bertrand Deueyer is a guide to 165 of the best beer cafes around Wallonia and Brussels if you're feeling adventurous. It also has a small section on France and Lille in particular, handy if you're planning on using Lille as a base to explore or touring the area.
Le guide des Brasseurs et Bieres de France by Robert Dutin (MA Editions, 11 June 2014) is an 800 page guide featuring all 590 breweries in France and over 2000 brands of beer. It also has a very detailed section on beer and food matching, something I wouldn't have expected to see in a book from a nation so entrenched in its wine tradition. Times are changing. This is available on Amazon (search under 'Le guide des bieres') for £22 and highly recommended.
Biere Magazine I featured in part one of this travelogue, but worth mentioning here again and also well worth picking up if you want to know what is going on in French beer at the moment.

Foot Note: You may well have noticed that I have increased the size of the pictures in Part Two as I wasn't overly happy with the definition of the smaller size. In order to maintain consistency I have similarly returned to Part One and increased the picture size there to match. I hope that they aren't so intrusive as to spoil the flow of the writing and the enjoyment of the reader.