By Fiona Sims
The damp grey drizzle reducing visibility through the car window on the battlefields around Ypres seems entirely appropriate. What’s probably not so proper is the fact that I’m using this trip as an excuse to try out some Belgium beer and food.
The husband’s obsession with the First World War will need lubrication, I figure – if only to get through the harrowing sights, and the search for his great uncle’s grave.
And he seems content with the deal, even with the prospect of sampling a carbonnade flamande right in the middle of Passchendaele battlefield, which saw some of the worst of the fighting claiming more than a half a million lives for the possession of just 8km of mud, he reminds me grimly, as we pass yet another cemetery.
Still numb after the artefact-packed Memorial Museum Passchendaele with its startling recreation of trenches and dugouts, we drive a couple of minutes to St Jef at The Old Cheese Factory, a stylish new operation which opened in the summer to cater primarily for the endless stream of battlefield tourists.
Proprietor Peter Hollinck steers us towards his bargain 15 euro set lunch of roasted tomato soup, followed by slow-cooked beef in their own brew called Passendalebeer (not to be confused with the mass produced beer of the same name), which we drink with it.
Mood brightened, we walk off lunch on the ramparts of Ypres built ten centuries before, and astonishingly still standing, bracing ourselves for the In Flanders Fields Museum, which places the story of the First World War in a high tech context.
It’s a clever ploy to engage the young, who congregate in tight huddles sporting their personal microchipped poppy bracelets, which enables visitors to discover personal stories of those who died throughout the exhibition, with its immersive video projections and soundscapes.
We are on the hunt for Private William Upex, from Warmington in Northamptonshire, but not really expecting to find any reference to him amongst the thousands of names that mournfully flash by – but there he is, alongside the address of his final resting place in the Tyne Cot Cemetery, back in Passchendaele.
The cemetery is the largest in Europe and attracts more than 300,000 visitors a year, and we have a lump in our throats by the time we reach the visitors’ centre which overlooks the battlefields. As you walk along the path the names of the dead and their ages are read out to you, relayed by hidden speakers.
We make our way past throngs of school children, who listen in rapture to teachers who are busy setting the scene, to the semi-circular wall at the back of the cemetery. Tyne Cot’s Memorial to the Missing holds the names of 34,957 soldiers who have no known grave and who all died after 15 August 1917 - and it’s here we find William.
We toast him that night – and the husband’s grandfather, who did make it back, later siring a daughter, my husbands’ mother, with a beer made by beer sommelier and beer enthusiast Simon Couttenye at ‘t Hommelhof in Watou – a beer restaurant to beat them all.
Beer and Flanders is inextricably linked. The mild maritime climate is perfect for growing hops (called hommel around these parts) and they thrive here – destined for the dizzying array of stunning beers the country produces, and for chef Stefaan Couttenye’s dishes.
Simon’s father Stefaan is a pioneer of Belgian beer cuisine and a visit to the region is not complete without a visit to ‘t Hommelhof. Calf’s head with quail’s eggs, fresh hop shoots and Paulus-infused mayonnaise, anyone? Or how about scallops with tripe, cauliflower, dried ham and hop shoots in Westvleteren Blond?
Just about all the local brews are utililised in Couttenye’s kitchen, with stunning results – beer infusions and syrups, marinades and sauces. There’s a hint of hops or a malty accent in pretty much everything – much to husband’s delight.
My top matches? Rodenbach’s iconic Flemish red-brown beer with a starter of smoked eel and beetroot, and Kriek Boon cherry lambic beer with Couttenye’s crab ‘cannelloni’. Also excellent was the Poperings Hommelbier with Brabant pheasant, used both to match and to braise the dish, with its nuggets of smoky bacon and tender Brussels sprouts.
We would have stayed overnight at the 12-room Het Brouwershuis B&B right next door to the nearby St Bernadus brewery, but it was full (of battlefield and beer tourists), so we made tracks to the smart rooms at the Hotel Recour in Poperinge, which was where the Allied Forces holed up on rest leave from the trenches.
The beer was a little different back then, of course, with a shortage of coal to heat up (and purify) the canal water that they used to make it, informs husband, back in our room, flipping the lid off a bottle of blonde beer called The Wipers Times 14, made by the Kazematten brewery in Ypres, the name a reference to the trench gazette printed by British soldiers.
It’s difficult. We sympathise. Despite being an entirely different shape and size we have an uncanny ability to turn up in the same outfit (usually black) and order the same dishes. We both wear glasses, swathe ourselves in scarves and fancy Daniel Craig.
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© 2015-18 Fiona Beckett & Fiona Sims (the2fionas.com), photography © Gary Latham, website by Scend