Saturday, 30 August 2014

Lille. A Beer Odyssey and much more. Part One: Exploration.

Lille. A Beer Odyssey and much more.
Part One: Exploration

How and why we went to Lille is a story in itself, and not one I will go into here, but suffice to say that less than a week before we spent four days in the capital of the Nord-Pas de Calais region of French Flanders we had no notion that we were to get any type of summer break at all.

I suspect that many of you, as I have done, gazed uninterestedly out of the window as your Eurostar train pulled into Lille station, a seemingly unnecessary stop on your way to Brussels and maybe beyond, with your head full of all the good things that Belgium, where beer is almost a religion, will have in store for you. Or perhaps you have noted on your return journey the seemingly otherworldly metal flower sculpture, contorted and a touch garish. Beyond it Euralille, a metal and glass monument to the nineties combined European business and shopping experience looks wildly uninviting. You may not even look up, thinking instead of your arrival home and journey's end. It was however it was into this vista that I, in the company of my family ventured on a rainy Sunday morning into the city beyond with little knowledge of what lay beyond save that of the situation of our hotel, a mere fifteen minutes walk from the station.

The name Lille, or 'L'Isle' - the island (Rijsel in Dutch or Ryssel in French Flemish) derives from the fact that the original settlement was built on an area of dry ground in the middle of a marsh and has fallen under the jurisdiction of the Spanish, the Dutch during the Spanish War of Succession, was briefly occupied by the Austrians in the aftermath of the French Revolution and inevitably, due to its close proximity to Belgium, by the Germans in both World Wars. Its residents have an affinity to both their country, France, and the region of Flanders and this mix can be seen in both Lille's architecture and its inhabitants. It is a city that made its wealth from cotton and the textile industry under Napoleon, one that is friendly to visitors, a city that is much more than a stop on the way to Belgium and, as I found to my surprise and delight, one where beer not wine is very much the preferred drink.

As we were too early to check into our room, we left our bags at the hotel and ventured out to find somewhere to eat, having a couple of hours to kill before everything would be ready for us. Heading off towards the centre of town, we were a mere three minutes from our starting point when we came to Le 3 Brasseurs opposite the Gare de Lille Flandres, the station terminus for SNCF Intercity and regional trains and not to be confused with Gare de Lille Europe, although it is nearby.

Le 3 Brasseurs (22 Place de la Gare) is one of a franchise of brewpubs, of which this was the first, opening in September 1986, and which have now spread to several areas of France as well as French Polynesia, New Caledonia, Reunion, Canada and Brazil. All the beers are top fermented and details of each, as well as the different sizes and glasses available are found in the newspaper/menu 'La Gazette' placed almost casually at every place setting of every table, excluding those outside. It is in French, although if your language skills aren't quite up to the challenge then an English version (la version anglaise) is available on request. The brewpub itslef is easily spotted on approaching by the large numbers of wooden barrels on the exterior above the awning, and on venturing inside you will find plenty of wood panelling and a variety of seating arrangements. Passing the bar on your right hand-side the brewing equipment is just beyond, and should you get to the main dining area at the very back of the brasserie (French for brewery, although most brasseries do not brew beer) you will cross two reinforced glass windows set into the floor revealing the fermenting vessels in the cellar below. The walls are adorned with various tin signs advertising old French breweries and beers, of which these are probably the only remnant, and it is worth having a good look around if you have the time.

We visited La 3 Brasseurs on several subsequent occasions, but as we wanted lunch we settled on a mix of burgers and pizzas between us, all of which were tasty and reasonably priced, but as you may expect it was the beers that caught the eye of my wife and I. We both went for 'la degustation', a tasting board of four of the main beers available. The first of these was the Blanche (4.7%), a rather tasty Witbier with a deliciously sharp bitterness that married rather well with its soft gentle spiciness, and a good start to our beer exploration in the city. The Blonde (5.2%) was next, with sharp grapefruit and lemon zest dominating, followed by L'Ambree (6.2%), wonderfully malt heavy with lots of toffee caramel and a beautiful burnt sugar flavour throughout. Last on the board was the Brune (4.8%) a US-style Brown Ale, brown sugar sweet with a gentle fruity hop undercurrent, and this went particularly well with the crème caramel I had for dessert.

Lunch over we headed back to our hotel to check in properly, finding that the sun had come out for the afternoon, and after a quick freshen-up we were out exploring the city once more.

The centre of Lille is very well-contained, rather like Bruges in some respects, with everything radiating from the central square, the Grand Place, although much of the old town takes a little exploring before its geography is firmly fixed in your mind and you can navigate with confidence. It was into this area that we wandered through first. Unfortunately it being Sunday not much was open, something you may want to consider if planning a trip there, and we walked past many closed shops and bars although it was useful for getting our bearings. After dodging a sudden deluge of wind and rain that sprang up seemingly out of nowhere by hiding in an entrance to a courtyard down a side-street, the remnants of ex-Hurricane Bertha we later discovered, we stumbled across La Capsule, closed but noted for a return visit, and the imposing Cathedral. As our feet were a little soggy by this point, we worked our way back to the hotel calling in at the Carrefour supermarket nearest to where we were staying to pick up some sandwiches. It was late in the afternoon by this point and we were all a little peckish, but to my surprise and delight they also have quite a decent range of local beer, and cans of La Goudale, Ch'ti and Rince Cochon were duly purchased.

After a quick repast back at base, changed and freshened up we set out to explore once more, this time heading off in a different direction, walking through and around the main shopping area. We passed tables of diners enjoying a variety of dishes from a variety of countries, noting of course that the drink of choice on most tables was beer, and trying to sneak a look at what beers they were drinking. I confess that I had one eye on the time having noted the opening time of La Capsule earlier on and shortly after 6.00pm we ventured back into the old town.

As we approached La Capsule (25 Rue des Trois Mollettes) I was relieved to see that the lights were on and an advertising board outside showed that it was open. It is not unusual to find that opening times of small shops and bars can be flexible in this part of France, another similarity to its Belgian neighbours, and on occasion they can be closed for weeks on end whilst the proprietors take themselves away on their annual holiday. I needn't have worried as I was later informed that this is bar that is open all year round, although only evenings and opening times do vary.

 Situated on a corner it is a relatively small place, an intimate venue with the dark wooden bar along one wall, high wooden stools of similar hue pushed against it and a few tables, each with four chairs around them, tightly packed together adjacent to it. The bar itself with its 12 keg fonts will be your focus as soon as you enter, and it drew me towards it as though I were in some kind of trance, however upon entering further I noticed two large fridges filled with bottles, some vertical but many intriguingly horizontal, laid on wooden slats, as well as two hand pumps at the farther end of the bar.

We settled ourselves down at the farthest table, mainly so that the children were out of the way (although our close continental neighbours seem to welcome them openly in most places) but also so we could observe the patrons. Much as you would in any bar or pub in the UK you are served at the bar so negotiating the wooden stools I asked for something local and was recommended the Angelus Blonde (7.0%) by Lepers from La Chapelle d'Armentieres, a few miles to the South West of Lille. This poured a yellow orange with a pure white head and a sharp but sweet citrus aroma. Thin but spicy with fennel and coriander seed and a honeyed edge, we devoured these quickly and I was soon on my way back to the bar but I wanted to take a closer look at those fridges before ordering again. The first, I was delighted to observe had line after line of bottles of vintage Cantillon beers, including much prized beer geek favourites Lou Pepe and the Lou Pepe Kriek at either 30 and 40 Euros each, neatly laid down for you viewing, and spending, pleasure. The other fridge, a more modest affair relatively speaking contained bottles from De Struisse, Orval, Rochefort, Nogne O, Brewdog, as well many more from various other much-liked and loved Belgium breweries. There was however no French brewery represented, and as I was determined only to drink French beer where possible I reluctantly turned my back on these delights and focussed myself on the next beer.

Deciding to stay with Lepers, I plumped for the Angelus Ambree (6.5%), a beautiful dark amber beer, again with a white head, and a burnt sugar aroma leading to a bitter toffee taste, a hint of coriander and a crisp but lingering caramel finish. This also went down rather nicely as we played word games with the children and discussed our wishes plans for the following day and soon enough I was off to the bar once more.

This time however, as I am often prone to do, I became engaged in conversation with some of the regulars, and friends of the owner, whose fluent English exposed my mournful French. We talked about beer in general, and they were anxious to find out why we had gone there whilst I in turn wanted to know more about the local beer and the hand pumps on the bar. I was delighted to discover that one of these was actually a cask of one of my new companions home brew, a stout in the 'English-style' they said, and it had been on a few days. I immediately asked to try some, but as the barman pulled on the hand pump the cask blew, throwing out the dregs at the bottom much to my disappointment and there wasn't another available. I opted instead for the recommended Moinette Blonde (8.5%) by Brasserie DuPont as I had sadly exhausted the French selection that evening, with its lemon and coriander seed flavour and warming alcohol working its magic and reminding me it had been a long day.

Saying our farewells, and promising to return before we went back home we left having been made very welcome, the children particularly pleased with the 'high-fives' they got from those I had been chatting with. The cool night air seemed to invigorate us, or maybe it was the communal Agentine Tango dancing in the central courtyard of the Vieille Bourse on Grand Place that we witnessed, however after a meandering stroll we called in again at Le 3 Brasseurs. This time, a little peckish, we had some wonderful pastry-like bread sticks with dips paired with La Fleur Des Flandres (7.0%) a black pepper dominating blonde ale over a pastry-accented malt base, unusual but delicious, although I later found out that it is named after a local pastry delicacy. This proved to be our final stop of the evening and we were soon back at the hotel, satisfied after a wonderful first day and full of anticipation about the rest of our time there.

Monday morning and we were up and out reasonably early, and you'll have to believe me when I say that 9.30 a.m. is early when you have children, especially when they are tempted by the breakfast buffet. Our first port of call was L'Office de Tourisme which is housed in a rather impressive fifteenth century building built for the Dukes of Valois-Burgundy, the Palais Rihour at 42 Place Rihour and just a short walk for the Grand Place. Not only did we pick up the most accessible free map of the city here (the one we acquired from the hotel lobby the previous day was far too small and covered in advertisements) but we found that we were in time for the 10.00 a.m. bus tour, the first of the day, and 12 euros each (or 40 for a family ticket) too good to miss. With only the four of us and half a dozen elderly French tourists we had a relaxed and informative tour on a bus driven by a genial driver, with the places we had visited the day before being put into both historical and geographical context as well as highlighting places for us to visit during our stay or on a future visit. If you want to take this tour then I'd recommend getting there early as by our return an hour later a substantial gathering were waiting for the 11.00 a.m. departure.

Walking back through the Grand Place after buying some postcards the children wanted to get their own pens to write with despite me having a perfectly serviceable one on my person so we called in at the library-stationers-newsagents situated there. Pens purchased I noticed that they had the latest issue of Biere Magazine which I bought for my perusal.

By this time we were all thirsty, the standard of the coffee at the hotel was drinkable but unremarkable, and the children peckish so we made our way along Rue Esquermoise to House Meert, a confectionery corporation founded in Lille in 1761, which is not only home to two shops housing the most elaborate and extravagant chocolates, cakes and pastries, but also a small but beautifully ornate tea room designed and little changed since 1909. If you are familiar with Betty's, the renowned Yorkshire tea rooms then you will know what to expect. Drinking some very fine coffee indeed, if a little pricey, and munching on lemon macarons, I flicked through Biere Magazine in more detail hoping to find out more about French beer and its producers. When it comes to reading and understanding the written word my rudimentary grasp of the French language serves me somewhat better that it does in conversation, where I often find myself searching for the correct verb and noun (is it masculine or feminine) leaving the perplexed recipient of my mumblings looking at me in a sympathetic manner.

Biere Magazine is published every three months, quarterly if you prefer, and is available for 5.50 euros at larger newsagents, by subscription or online. The current issue, Juillet-Aout-Septembre, which has a young lady pouring a beer on the cover has a large banner headline featuring Brooklyn Brewery as well as 350 years of Kronenbourg and the Heineken Beerology Contest, as well as various Beer Trips and Visits. Inside the format is very easy to follow with everything laid out and presented neatly, with interesting interviews, pictures and reviews in a format similar to any who subscribe to the US publications Draft or All About Beer, or the Belgian Beer and Food Magazine will be familiar with. The majority of the articles concern Belgian beers and breweries, apart from the article on Brooklyn, but there is also sizable French content much to my delight. When it comes to reviews, flavours are easy to interpret with phrases such as "florale et fruite : peche jaune, orange plutot sucree" and "dominante chocolat/café avec du fume" being relatively easy to translate, with the latter taken from a review of Brewdog's Tactical Nuclear Penguin (which is above a review for Brewmeister's Armageddon) from the Cave A Bieres in Paris. It's an interesting magazine if you're at all interested in what is happening beer-wise with our closest continental neighbours, and if you're not frightened of using a dictionary or translation software for some parts then it may well be worth a look.

After visiting the (now open) shops and taking in some of the local sites pointed out to us on the earlier tour we bought sandwiches and drinks from a local store akin to a Pret-a-Manger (which also sold local beer and cider by the bottle and can) and ate on the benches lining Rue Faidherbe between Gare Lille Flandres and the Place de la Theatre in the glorious sunshine. Having finished and disposing of our rubbish we began walking back towards our hotel whereupon rain clouds appeared, seemingly from nowhere and hastened our previously leisurely pace as the storm broke.

An hour or so later, the two X-Boxes in the hotel lobby providing diversion for our children while we chatted and read, we headed out in the opposite direction to that which our travels had previously taken us, towards Place Simon Vollant and the impressive Porte de Paris built between 1685 and 1692 in honour the capture of Lille in 1667 by Louis XIV. The nearby Parc Urbaine was an opportunity for the children to let off a bit of steam, and by this time it was late afternoon and there 'just happened' to be a nearby bar that I was keen to visit.

Pub MacEwan's (8 Place Sebastopol) is a short walk away, via Rue Jean Bart (passing the Former Faculty of Medicine and Pharmacy and the Former Faculty of Science where Louis Pasteur did some of his work on microbial fermentation and the discovery of yeast) and Solferino, and is easy enough to find if you head clockwise around the square. With its green and red awning it is outwardly unremarkable, however venturing inside and past the main bar area leads you down a passage to a beery grotto with bottles and other breweriana tastefully collected along the brick-covered walls, with a bottle of Duvel lit artistically on a plinth. There is an extensive tap and bottle menu, with the latter on the wall in the 'grotto', and we opted for a Rince Cochon (8.5%) in its distinctive glass with a seated pig supporting the stem. A bright golden coloured Strong Pale Ale with a thin off-white head and a peppery, yeasty aroma, it is light and refreshing considering its strength with a good prickle of carbonation. The flavour has a delicious white pepper bitterness with honey dancing playfully in the background and a finish that combines this sweetness with an apricot tang. Originally a French beer produced by Artisans of Beer, following their bankruptcy it has subsequently been brewed by Brewery Huyghe (of Delirium Tremens fame) and Haacht, its present home since 2010, and although now technically Belgian it retains its French affiliation. This was the only beer we had here, to my later regret and we didn't have the chance to go back later on, but at the time we were keen to explore the area further, although a word must be said about the toilets which are communal, classically French with a low brick wall separating the urinals and, I am reliably informed, a dodgy lock of the cubicle which may call for some judicious singing or humming should you choose to take up temporary residence.

Strolling around Lille in the warm evening air is a very pleasurable experience. The majority of the shops close at around 7.00 or 8.00 p.m. during the week, giving us plenty of time to wander in and out, past the cafes and restaurants with their smattering of early evening diners (8.00 p.m. is the traditional time for dinner in France and when the restaurants really start to get busy) and we made our way through the gathering crowds and back into the Old Town, all the time enjoying the hustle and bustle, stopping to examine places of interest to us and making a few modest purchases along the way.

Our evening promenade took us close to La Capsule, although that wasn't to be our destination that evening, however we made our way down a side street a croissants-throw away, to 13 Rue de Vieux Murs, home to L'Abbaye des Saveurs, not only the finest beer shop in Lille but arguably one of the finest in the whole of France. One of the very few articles on beer in Lille I had read prior to travelling there was this one by beer writer Des de Moor on his excellent Beer Culture blog so I had a good idea what to expect. The shelves are lined with all manner of bottled delights, most of which, to my elation were 'des produits Francais' and Sarah (my wife) and I assembled an interesting selection on the counter top over a number of minutes, conscious of how much we could physically carry on this visit.

In addition to the French beer on offer there is, as you may well expect, a sizeable amount of Belgian beer to take your fancy with lots and lots to tempt you to open your purse or wallet. As with La Capsule, with which it is linked, there are many bottles of vintage Cantillon, laid down carefully on wooden frames behind a padlocked cage, smiling invitingly at you despite their expensive yet affordable price tags. By this time the children were starting to get restless and hungry so I quickly paid and we left carrying our prizes carefully.

Perhaps it was a bit of a cop-out, but the children wanted burgers and pizzas (it was a holiday) and partly as I was keen to try the bottled beers but as it was half-way between L'Abbaye des Saveurs and our hotel we ended up at La 3 Brasseurs once more.

Dinner for me was l'assiette gourmande, a platter of mini regional specialties including a Carbonade Flamande, salted bone marrow, a hot and cheesy dish not unlike welsh rarebit and actually called 'welsh' and a potjevleesh, a Flemish terrine comprising lots of different meats. This was washed down by sharing a large bottle of La Lilloise (6.1%) with its spicy peppery mango aroma, heavily carbonated, with the taste being incredibly fruity then incredibly dry in quick succession and very good indeed, followed by another large bottle, this time of La Triple (7.9%). This had a fresh and zesty pine aroma, translating into a grapefruit and white pepper bitterness in the taste. It's finish was light and fruity, and on reflection these bottles, with there swing-top caps, were two of the most delicious and satisfying beers we had during our stay.

Afterwards, back in the hotel bar we had a nightcap of a draft Affligem Blond (6.8%) each (obviously not the children) while we discussed what we had done and our plans for the days ahead, whilst the local football team, LOSC Lille (Lille Olympique Sporting Club) drew disappointingly in the match being shown in one corner of the room.

Tired but happy we retired to our chamber, pleased that we had found a place with much more to offer than we had previously thought.

Part Two: Discovery ... coming soon