Cheese and beer pairing – an interview with a Belgian affineur
When I first reviewed Café Belge for FooDiva back in early March, I broadly enjoyed the food, but expressed some mild skepticism about whether a restaurant offering such high-end versions of Belgian dishes would succeed in a restaurant market that typically associated Belgian food with mussels and chips. I was also worried about how empty it was; I wrote that the restaurant “deserves to succeed on the basis of what it’s trying to do – and I hope it does succeed – but it badly needs to bring in more customers to bring some human warmth to the interior design.”
Eight months on, and I’m delighted to be able to write that these days Café Belge is busy and buzzing even early on a Tuesday night. It’s clearly found its niche, and is also branching out into some really interesting food and drink events that are well-worth keeping an eye open for.
Café Belge last week hosted prominent Belgian cheese affineur Frederic Van Tricht from the Van Tricht cheese shop in Antwerp – named by the Wall Street Journal as the best specialty cheese shop in all of Europe – in 2010 I should add. That’s quite a feather in the Belgian culinary cap (the reaction of France’s cheese shops remains unknown); so it’s a minor shame for us English speakers that the shop’s website is entirely in Flemish!
But there’s more to the Van Tricht interest in cheese than ageing and selling some of the best farm-produced cheeses in Europe (some of which are personally developed and commissioned by the family). The Van Trichts also have a strong interest in matching beer and cheese, which I had the opportunity to try, whilst also interviewing Frederic.
- Traditionally, we tend to think of matching cheese with wine. Why match beer with cheese? My family has been working with cheese since 1970. Years ago, it was my grandfather Petrus’ birthday, and my father chose to surprise him with a bottle of Chateau Petrus (what else!) and a cheese platter. After having a piece of Roquefort cheese my father noticed that he couldn’t taste the full flavour of the wine anymore, which was of course a pity for such a high quality, expensive bottle. He therefore started to experiment with pairings, which led him to trying beers as well as wines. From a personal point of view, my father and I both love food, and we are spoiled with so many delicious beers in Belgium that it was really very natural to experiment with cheese and beer, and for us it is really the perfect marriage. The reason the pairings work so well with beer and cheese is because cheese is a fat product, so the CO² and the bitterness in beer break through the fat on your tongue when you eat cheese, meaning you are able to better experience and enjoy both tastes together.
- What are some of the cheese and beer combinations you’re offering at Café Belge, and what makes them special? Some of the pairings are: Hoegaarden with Blankaart, a Belgian farm cheese from organic raw milk. De Koninck with Vanillien, a goat’s cheese with vanilla. Duvel with Comté Fort St Antoine, aged for 16 months. Leffe Brown with Epoisses. Bellevue Kriek with Bio Bleu Belge. All of them are different. The most important thing is to balance the flavours; for example, it is no use to put a mild white beer next to a strong blue cheese, as you won’t taste the flavor of the beer. Duvel and Comte is a perfect example of an entry-level cheese and beer pairing; easygoing and popular with most people. The cheese is nicely fruity and salty, whilst the beer is sour due to the high amount of CO², and bitter, providing the four basic tastes in one pairing.
- Belgium has one of the world’s great beer cultures (I’m personally fond of lambic-based beers and trappist beers like Chimay and Orval). What three beers would you recommend to someone who might be approaching the extraordinary range of Belgian beer for the first time? I think that it is very different for each person. I am also a huge fan of lambic-based beers, but even as a big beer fan for many years it took me some time to learn how to truly appreciate it. It is very important to build it up slowly, and I would suggest starting with a Leffe Blond or a Duvel, which are both easy-drinking and then move on to the triples and dark beers.
- At Café Belge you’re understandably focusing on matching Belgian beer with cheese. But – if it’s not too heretical a question to ask a Belgian – can the principle be extended? Would you recommend any cheese pairings for non-Belgian beers? For example, what cheese matches might you recommend for a Czech pilsener, a German bock, or a British/ Irish stout? Pilsner or lagers are not easy to pair as the taste intensity isn’t that high. Personally I love Czech pilsners for drinking as an aperitif. I am sure that you can make lovely pairings with beers from all over the world but it is not something I have tried as yet, as my true love is Belgian beer.
- Seasonality is often an important consideration for cheese production and consumption; is seasonality also important when matching beer and cheese? Do some matches work better at different times of the year? No – it makes no difference.
- You’re going to be stranded on a desert island for a year, but can choose a year’s supply of one beer and one cheese to take with you… which do you choose, and why? I would go for a Duvel and Comte, as they are both very pure products that you can easily drink and eat every day.
- Finally, a vitally important and terribly pressing question about Belgian food that has nothing to do with either cheese or beer…Just why are Belgian frites the best in the world? Because we have the best potatoes in the world! And we have generations of expertise in perfecting how to cook them. Belgians take their portion of ‘yellow gold’ very seriously, and if they aren’t cooked to perfection people don’t return, so the outlets selling bad ones don’t last long.
I took a lot of notes over the course of the tasting evening, but for some strange and inexplicable reason the quality of my handwriting started to deteriorate over time. I’m sure this has nothing to do with tasting eight fairly high-strength beers in one sitting. The first, milder, pairings were interesting, and certainly made a case for tasting cheese and beer together, but didn’t necessarily change my culinary world. But the final pairings of the stronger beers and cheeses….my handwriting’s spidery scrawl might have been deteriorating, but these full-bodied combinations were absolutely stunning. The pairing of full-bodied Leffe Brune beer with raw milk washed-rind Epoisses cheese was (so say my notes) an ‘amazing combination’. But it was the pairing of Bell-Vue kriek (cherry) beer with the Van Tricht-developed Bio Blue Belge that completely transformed my understanding of the possibilities of beer and cheese matching; I would never have thought of matching a strong, salty blue cheese with a cherry beer – even a complex Belgian one – but the combination of flavours was (again, according to my notes) ‘gob-smacking’. I was stunned, and that doesn’t happen much anymore when it comes to food and drink. We were also treated to Frederic’s all-time favourite pairing, though one that is going to be very hard to casually source in Dubai, alas. This was a match of Liefmans Goudenband (a rich, red-brown aged Belgian beer) with a Spanish cheese called Queso de Oveja. The cheese alone was astonishingly rich and intense, and the combination of the two was even more astonishing.
The Van Trichts hope to expand their partnership with Café Belge with a series of beer and cheese tasting events, and the family may even look to put some of their cheeses on the Café Belge menu more regularly. It’s well worth keeping an eye open just in case they do. In the meantime, the Van Tricht co-written book Beer and Cheese: 50 Delicious Combinations is available via Amazon.
Do you have a favourite cheese and beer pairing? Any other restaurants or bars in the UAE that host beer and cheese tasting evenings?
The Man in the White Hat.
So who’s FooDiva’s guest reviewer, The Man in the White Hat? He has an abiding interest in both history and food; his holidays tend to combine an intriguing local cuisine with a UNESCO World Heritage site, and he’s eaten his way across some 50 countries in Europe, Asia, Africa, North and South America, and Australasia. He currently lives in Dubai, where he edits a couple of academic publications.