I don't know how the Belgians do it. A country whose national foods include waffles, chips, deep fried cheese, chocolate and beer, and they are only 19th on the world obesity charts. Even the gorgeous Fins are fatter than the Belgians. I can only assume is that they were born with inhuman amounts of self restraint. Or you reach I point where these foods seem mundane (surely not?). Either way it seems rude not to pop over and take some of the strain by consuming their produce every now and then. And so, one of many reasons I found myself in Bruges last weekend. Alas I was not born with such levels of self restraint, so apart from a brief amnesty on Saturday, I dedicated myself to an extensive sampling regime, of which I will share a few gems with you, but mostly recommend you check it out for yourself. Oh - why the amnesty? - well despite spending 3 years at university perfecting the art of drunk cycling, even I had to concede that riding a tandem through streets bustling with hapless tourists is not an occupation to be undertaken whilst inebriated.
Top tips for beer sampling would have to be Cambrinus - which also does really nice food, though gets rather hectic and the service suffers somewhat, or 't Brugs Beertjie, a classic beer cafe, whose tip top service never wavered even when the tables were full and the tiny bar heaving. Both these places have a beer menu to make your eyes water - literally, ploughing through the 400 or so they each boast gives you eye strain. Waiters are happy to make recommendations, but in my experience they tend to recommend more main stream beers, which are great, but I prefer to take a chance with something I've never heard of. And so I discovered a micro called Smiske, from where I sampled many offerings. Including the mustard beer, the pumpkin beer - brewed specially for Halloween, and the nature-ale. They packed so much flavour that I can't honestly say I could pick out either mustard or pumpkin particularly, but they definitely had a spicy complexity that left me wanting more. These Belgians do know how to brew a good strong beer. Another great beer, which you can (according to the waitress) only get in 't Gulden Vlies (a very cute little restaurant with excellent food) was "Trappieter". I found it strangley endearing that a guy called Pieter had brewed a trappist beer and named it after himself. A very interesting beer, with the rawness of a drink that is still finding its feet, and the hops a little green, it was nice to experience something without the polish we are used to these days.
I was saddened to learn that breweries in Bruges are going the way of most major cities, and there is now only one left in the centre itself. Naturally, I had to pay homage to this, and have a nosy round the Halve Maan brewery. Mostly a historical tour now, as two large FVs outside the main building have replaced the numerous tanks inside, which it was no longer efficient to clean out. Still, we were lucky enough to visit on a day when they were brewing (only Wednesday - Friday) so at least it smelt like a proper brewery. They have a small collection of marketing material (think Guinness museum and shrink it alot), but the zany tour guide was worth the cost of the tour on her own. In the bar you can sample the 3 beers they now make (a 4th only available in the US). Zot blond is a light (at 6%) zesty beer, the brun it's darker nuttier big brother (7%) and the tripel - always my favourite - Straffe Hendrik punches in at a moderate (when in Belgium) 9% with a waft of banana on the nose and a really fruity follow through on the palate. All excellent beers, as you would expect from a brewery proudly maintaining tradition through 6 generations of family.
Inevitably the weekend had to come to a close, and my liver breathed a sigh of relief, for a day or two at least. So I'll leave you with the description of my favourite t-shirt slogan. Underneath a large selection of bottles it read "Drink them all and you'll never forget Bruges". I rather think that if I drank them all, I might not remember much of it.