Saturday, 11 October 2014

Chez Moeder Lambic Saint-Gilles - Brussels

We made the decision to divert on the train back from Mons, a pretty town choc full of history ( Hah! Belgium? Choc? See what I did there? Never mind...) and with a close connection to the two world wars. It had surprised us by its charm and quirkiness, not to mention the architecture and distinctly French feel, which was understandable I suppose given its location close-ish to the French border, and in Wallonia.

Earlier, my companions had headed out from Mons to see one of the many war cemeteries that keep the memory of what happened early in the last century alive in the minds of locals and visitors, while I had decided to wander the town and see what it had to offer. It truly was a gorgeous town so with the sun shining and a pep in my step from being somewhere new, I wandered around the sites for an hour or so looking at gardens, admiring churches and rubbing monkeys on their heads for luck. (Google's not a fetish!)

I had exhausted the sites when I came across an exhibition on Fritz Haber in a gallery on Grand Place. I had never heard of him but the gallery looked cool - in the climatical sense of the word - and for €2 it seemed worth a look.

Fritz Haber I found out, is perhaps one of the first hero/villains of the last century. He was an interesting character who, it could be argued, saved the lives of millions with his work on developing artificial fertiliser and thus aided in the food production for many people who would have otherwise have died of starvation, but he was also responsible for chemical warfare production in the first world war, and this work was also linked to the gasses used in the concentration camps of the second world war. His life is well worth researching and reading about, and this exhibition by David Vandermeulen, a renown comic book artist, was well put together and thought provoking. Books about Haber, facts about his life and contemporaries were combined with Vandermeulen's artwork and pieces of war memorabilia. It's not a happy tale for any of those involved or affected by him...

I left the exhibition in a somber mood and although back at the train station the sight of my companions running for the train back to Brussels with their lumbering zombie-like gaits somewhat lightened my spirits, my mind was unfocussed and disjointed on the journey back. On the train I was conscious that on this trip to Brussels we still hadn't visited what was one of my favourite bars - Chez Moeder Lambic - the original bar that opened before its younger sibling that occupies Place Fontainas just off Anspach. I brought this subject up and we decided that three of us would get off the train at Gare de Midi and trek south in search of it, but it would mean a short visit as we were meeting a friend from Antwerp in a couple of hours back in the city centre for dinner.

The walk from the station brought us through an interesting neighbourhood of Art Nouveau houses butted up against 60s and 70s Brutalistic buildings. Strange people stalked us even though they were ahead of us - something I thought would have been an impossible task. One guy in particular was having an animated conversation with himself and seemed to be itching for us to catch up with him. We crossed to the other side of the road in forced conversation with each other in order to avoid him.

On we went past tiny neighbourood bars blaring frenetic ethnic beats, past abandoned cars and a dog toilet that seemed to be composed entirely of sand and dog turds in equal ratio. Even the local dogs seemed to avoid it apart from a few deformed creatures that looked like the had been crossed with wargs, or perhaps had been inbred to within a generation of being their own grandparents..

Eventually we hit Chaussee de Waterloo and it was like someone had flicked the 'On' switch for party time. The street had an carnival atmosphere and appeared to contain at least one family from every nation on the planet. Sellers of underwear, fabric conditioner and deodorant were competing for space with energy drink vendors and people cooking food on the sort of barbecues that would make the average health and safety officer have an apoplectic fit. I'm not sure whether this was a normal Saturday evening here but as we strutted up the street with Bobby Womack's Across 110th Street's chorus playing in my head, my mood lifted and it reaffirmed something I had thought on previous visits to this part of the city, that Saint-Gilles - how ever you spell it - is the coolest neighbourhood in Brussels.

And so in flying form we reached Chez Moeder Lambic, which is hidden in plain sight on a corner behind the gorgeous but unvisited treasure that is the Saint-Gilles Town Hall - Stadhuis van Sint-Gillis. Moeder Lambic is a pretty unassuming place and you could miss it or dismiss it if you weren't 'In-the-Know' so to speak. It's a nice building with parasols outside emblazoned with the Moeder Lambic logo, shading the numerous drinkers from the evening sun. We went inside and took a seat while the very busy barman hopped from customer to bar and back in a no-nonsense but professional manner.

The bar itself is not like its sister bar in the city centre. It has a rougher more lived in feel, a bit like the plain but more interesting older sister of the snooty big city girl that had moved in to town to be with the beautiful people. Sure, the younger one gets all the attention and action but if you want a long term commitment then stick with the sister who's been around a bit - in a good way of course. (Don't get me wrong I love the bar in Fontainas, but they are a little bit like chalk and cheese.) It's an interesting bar, the floor is a checkerboard of black and white, and its position on a street corner means it has an irregular, disjointed shape. And it's small, very small...

But small can mean cozy or cramped and this is definitely cozy. Timber furniture, brick walls and chalk boards complete the look and it was to these chalk boards that our eyes were drawn. Chez Moeder Lambic has a relatively small but excellent tap selection and an excellent bottle selection including many rarities and hard to get imports. So after a quick glance at the bottle selection on the chalk board above the bar it was to the taps we went first.

I went for the Mont Saleve Black Indians that tasted of rich and creamy cocoa. I alsosampled my companions beer, Brasserie de Bellevaux Black had a rich flavour of fishy coke - not as unpleasant as it sounds - and Ganstaller Brau Golden Frankincense Myrrh, a dry beer with a nice orange marmalade quality.

We were enjoying our beers, conscious of the time mind you, and I was looking once again at the long chalk board over the bar...

And there it was - roughly written and without pomp, fanfare, underlining or multiple astrerixes - Struise Black Albert.

You see I had read about Albert before. I had tried to drink him before. I had tried to buy him before but he was always this just out of reach - or out of stock. Questions entered my head. How could I have missed it when first I looked? Had it magically appeared? Surely it would be different this time and I would get to try it? Hopefully? Maybe? Perhaps?

Our hurried waiter returning fleetingly to our table so I asked for Albert in an almost resignated way, assuming it would be out of stock or he would laugh at me in a way that suggested I was unworthy of such a beer, with my rotund physical attributes, scraggy beard and bad dress sense... But wait, maybe that's 'The Look' that's required?  Like a visual password to open the fridge of happiness so to speak. He said nothing to either confirm of deny this, he just took my order plus my companions' and scurried off.

My Holy Grail of beers arrived with very little aplomb and no fanfare, and it was served with the same flourish as my fellow travelers' selection. Perhaps it wasn't as good as I'd heard? I'd been here before with other beers...

Well, what can I say... Only that yes, it is all it's cracked up to be.

And then some.

It's rich and sweet like alcoholic treacle and it hides it 13% abv very well. Too well perhaps, as it was easier to drink that I thought it could be. My companions were suitably impressed with it too and I think the might have even suffered from a little beer envy. This was possibly one of the best beers I have EVER tasted.


The Orval like Li P'tit Gayoule and the Cuvee Alex le Rouge, a sour licorice porter, that my friends had, which were great by the way, paled into insignificance compared to my Black Albert.

But time was running out and we needed to get back to our hotel to shower and revitalise ourselves for the night ahead. We thanked the bar man, promising to return later. (We didn't get back though...)

We hadn't even had a chance to try the food, which I presume from the chalkboard menu was the fantastic cheese and charcuterie that I remembered from my previous visit.

So it was with a mix of elation and regret we headed back towards the city centre and our hotel. It took us half an hour to walk back and apart from an animated argument I had with a driver who had the nerve to beep his little horn at me while I crossed at a green-manned pedestrian crossing (That ended lamely when I had to curtail my language because I saw he had kids in the back of his car.), we arrived back at our hotel safe and sound with my mood lifted ... and with Bobby Womack still singing in my head.

'Across 110th Street
Pushers won't let the junkie go free...'

(Visited 13th September 2014)

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