Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Trollekelder - Ghent

You know the mustard is hot when it causes your eyes to stream and your nose hairs to drop off one by one and fall in to your beer. Expletives arrive unbidden on your tongue and are driven out by their inability to tolerate the heat. A gulp of beer helps but time is the only healer, and you wait patiently for your breath to return.

But let's go back a few hours or so...

Trollekelder (For some reason I want to call it Trolle-n-kelder and I don't know why?) sits in the shadow of Saint Jacob's church. And when I say shadow I mean in the descriptive shadow before some pedant tells me it is south of the church.

The neon sign on the building seems at odds with the medieval looking trolls that stand guard in the window, grinning and gurning manically at the passersby. The theme continues inside with more trolls, bottles and beer paraphernalia decorating the timber and brick clad interior, which instantly makes you feel at home and content. The split levels, that include the cellar - kelder - where the trolls presumably live(!), give the place a suitably disjointed feel and at the time of our visit there is some extension work going on in the upper level.

We sat at a table on a raised area just inside the door with a view of the street and the church. Service is quick - mind you it is quiet - and we are presented with the most attractive beer menu I've ever seen. It's more of a magazine or a work of art than a menu and is full of beers I'd promised myself I'd try to source on this trip including some from Troubadour and Struise - but no Black Albert unfortunately.

We went for Troubadour Westkust which had a sharp, dry stoutlike flavour backed up with bitter hops and a dash of cocoa, Verhaeghe Barbe Noire a sweetish, strong stout and the Kasteel Hoppy, which had some bitterness and was OK but didn't suit my palate as much as the other two.

We were joined by a young couple we had spied through the window who had been drinking copious amounts of Westvleteren at a table outside on the street. She was Canadian and he was from London. They were over on a wine excursion to France and had detoured to Belgium to stock up on some beer and visit some breweries. They were pretty merry and in good form so we chatted about the beer scene in London, French wine and Belgian brewers. My only issues was that our new Canadian friend had a slightly unnerving habit of touching your arm every time she spoke and was somewhat obsessed with our Irish accents...

We were in our stride by now and while chatting I had a superb Struise XXXX (Not what I ordered, which was the barrel aged Tripel, but I had it anyway!) that tasted of rich honey with plums and prunes followed by an equally excellent Struise Tsjeeses Reserva PBA, a big 10% beer that tasted of spicy sultana and Christmas pudding.

We all left at the same time, the couple we met stocking up on more Westvleteren - carried out of the bar in an undignified manner in white plastic carrier bags - and we headed back to the hotel to freshen up.

A few hours later after getting food and touring the city at night we ended up back in Trollekelder again for a nightcap. I ordered another Troubadour, Obscura this time, which tasted like milky treacle but in a good way and we decided we were still a little peckish. The bar man suggested the staple fare of every Belgian bar, a platter of cheese and salami, which arrived with a small bowl of brown mustard and a shaker of celery salt. The salt with the cheese was a revelation in itself and as for the mustard, well that's back to where I started isn't it?

Trollekelder is a great bar with great service, beer and atmosphere. It was our favourite of those we visited in the city centre and only narrowly beaten as the best we visited in all of Ghent by De Planck. Having said that we didn't get to all the bars but we did get to most of those rated on websites or listed on beer tours of the city.

It's definitely high on our list for next time we visit.

We might take it easy on the mustard though...

(Visited 11th September 2014)

(Apologies for the lack of pictures.)

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Kaffee de Planck - Ghent

Poor Ghent.

As well as needing three spellings to keep everyone happy - or two at least - it suffers from from being seen as the ugly sister of picturesque Bruges, being thought of as less cosmopolitan than Brussels and as not being the shopping capital that Antwerp is perceived to be.

It was my first time in the city so I didn't really know what to expect.

We arrived in the city via Gent-Sint-Pieters station, and it seemed that so did the rest of the known world. The easy thing to do would have been to follow the crowds to the tram and then head in to the city centre but I had another plan, and coerced my two cronies to follow me with a promise that after a short walk we could get a beer on a barge! Luckily enough this was intriguing enough for them to follow me on a shortish slog through Citadelpark and over to Ter Platen on a truncated canal called the Muinkshelde, in the southeast of the city.

I had done a little research on Ghent and had come across an interesting looking bar on a barge about 20 mins walk out from the city centre and also 20 mins from the station. The pictures on the website looked pretty interesting so I thought it would be worth the diversion on the way to our hotel just east of the city centre.

Citadelpark is not quite as interesting as it sounds, mostly because it seems to be missing an actual citadel. Having said that it does have loads of statues, a scary grotto, a faded bandstand, some interesting trees and lots of tinkling cyclists. It does have a large anonymous building in its centre but I have no idea what it was. If this was the citadel then it was less Tolkien-esque than I had expected. (I can only assume that the Citadel was demolished and only the name remains.) At the northeast end of the park we passed the museum of classical art and after wandering over a dual carriageway we ended up on a bridge from where we could see our goal, moored discreetly by the side of the canal.

The barge itself seems pretty ordinary from the outside and even the deck, split by a bar and service area, didn't seem too exciting. But it was nicely laid out with simple tables and chairs. Timber seating on one end and pastel painted metal on the other. A couple of chalk sandwich boards on the footpath outside the entrance told of food and beer, so we walked the plank on to the deck. We were greeted by a friendly barman and told we could sit up top or go downstairs to the bar. Inviting steps led the way so down we went into the innards of the barge itself. A left turn at the end of the stairs lead us in to one of the most attractive looking bars I've ever been in.

We were standing below water level and could see out in to the canal through the open portholes. Ducks and the occasional pretty canoeist floated by on the murky water. The walls and ceiling were crowded with enamel beer signs, old movie poster, radios, musical instruments and the odd piece of carrion. A gorgeous cat lounged on a chair and eyed us warily as we sat down at the next table. The music was 80s and 90s but with a fair sprinkling of every genre and the odd tune form other ages too. ( It was played through a sophisticated looking system that gave perfect acoustics. You could hear every note and word but still speak to your friends, a rarity in any bar.) We grinned manically and instantly felt at home and relaxed. This was our kind of bar, and we hadn't looked at the beer or food list yet.

We spied the menu, enveloped in timber naturally given the place's name, and began to study it. Over 100 beers greeted us, many familiar but most not, in the end I settled for a Saison Voisin which turned out to be lovely refreshing offering with a funky, lemon bitterness. My comrades had the house beer called Plankse, which the both enjoyed as we decided what to eat. We went for rolls (broodje?) stuffed with salad, cheese, ham and a weird-wonderful anonymous paste, which were both fresh and tasty. While deciding what to drink next, my mind flittered back to some beer specials that we glimpsed on the chalkboard outside the entrance.

The barman told us that these specials were Brasserie Le Fort, which turned out to be a fantastic strong smelling beer that tasted of fizzy treacle with added musty raisins, and Zundert from a new Dutch Trappist brewery. This was also gorgeous and tasted like a Tripelised Orval with a lovely funky sweetness.

The (19 year old we found out!) cat was still eyeing us suspiciously as we at last decided that we would have to leave and go to find our hotel. We paid our bill and left vowing to come back again...

And we did, much later that night when we had a Hanssens Oudbeitje, Hanssens Oude Geueze and 3 Fonteinin Oude Geuze. All excellent sour beers that I can not do justice to the description of, although I will say that the Oudbeitje, tasting of farmyard and cider vinegar with a hint of strawberries, was an unique but far from unpleasant taste!

We returned again the following day on the way back to the train when I had a De Ranke Guldenberg and toasted our good fortune in finding this place.

De Planck's prices appeared much better than elsewhere in Ghent, probably because of its location, and the service was efficient and friendly. I can safely say it goes into my top 5 bars in Europe. It goes to show that a great bar is not just about the beer or the bar or the location or the staff or the music, or the company you are with for that matter, it's a combination of all of these things.

Kaffee de Planck hits all the right notes.

As for Ghent? Well it was also a big hit with us too.

Less saccharine than Bruges with even finer architecture and a more lived in feel, it is certainly my favourite city or town in Belgium so far. I could happily spend many a weekend there, and we only barely scratched the surface of things to see and do. We visited churches, the belfry and more than one or two bars. We walked the city at night marveling at the lit up buildings and bridges, we went on the boat trip and even spied some turtles in the canals!

Poor Ghent? I don't think so!

We'll be back.

(Visited on the 11th and 12th September 2014)