Brussels beer x Brussels food face-off #5 // Pain à la grecque

Brussels beer x Brussels food face-off #5 // Pain à la grecque

Welcome to the sixth and (for now) final entry in a series pairing Brussels culinary classics with beers brewed in Brussels. You can find the previous editions – and the background to the series – here

The only rules for this series are: the beer has to have been brewed in one of Brussels’ 19 communes, and the dish has to be a stone cold Brussels classic.

In this round: Pain à la grecque, paired with Brasserie En Stoemelings Curieuse Neus and Nanobrasserie L’Ermitage Soleil

The dish

Pain à la grecque – “Greek Bread” – is neither Greek nor bread. Insert your pedestrian jibe about Brussels surrealism here. To take the less complicated of those two confusions first, it’s not bread but it is a sort-of bready pastry, made with cinnamon and sugar cubes. It’s a little like a halfway house between an unleavened croissant and a speculoos biscuit.

The pastry’s origins account for the second confusion. 16th century Augustinian monks in the centre of medieval Brussels made bread and distributed it to the city’s poor. The monks were located near the Wolvengracht street in the centre of the city, and the bread became known as Wolf-Grecht-brood in the local Dutch dialect. This became Grechts-brood, and was in its turn eventually corrupted and translated into the French Pain à la grecque, which came full circle back into Dutch as Grieksbrood. Such is the way of things in Brussels.

Honestly, the etymology of the pastry is more exciting than the thing itself. The bread is very doughy, and the dominant flavours are cinnamon and bread, and the sugar crystals give it a very sticky, crunchy texture. I’ve bought mine at the newest Brussels branch of the city’s premier fancy biscuit maker, Maison Dandoy. The shop, in the Galerie du Roi shopping arcade (the oldest covered arcade in Europe) was once home to an art bookshop, which was a wonderful place to browse but presumably failed to bring in the requisite rental income for the shop’s owners. A shiny biscuit shop was a better selection, doing gangbusters when I visited.

The beers

L’Ermitage’s Soleil is an American wheat ale, brewed with a rotating hop selection depending on the preferences of the brewers and comes in at 4.5% ABV. Poured into a glass, this edition is cloudy, like unfiltered orange or pineapple juice, but with a stable white head of foam. The aroma is a little soapy, with notes of citrus lemon, grassy herbs, and plentiful hints of pine-resin dankness. Those characteristics follow through in the mouth, with green hops, resinous pine, grapefruit, and stone fruit flavours predominating. It ends with a bitter mineral finish. Those citrus flavours could counterpoint reasonably well with the earthy spiciness of the cinnamon, and that lasting, pithy bitterness could help to cut through some of the cloying sweetness of the dough.

Curieuse Neus has been the flagship beer of Brasserie En Stoemelings since the brewery launched in July 2O15. Back then, this spicy tripel was brewed on a kit composed of three stainless steel mash kettles, and plastic fermenters – all stored in a kerbside brewery in Brussels’ Marollen neighbourhood. Owners Samuel and Denys brewed two-three times a week to produce 75cl bottles of Curieuse Neus. After their move to a new brewery across town, the 7.4% ABV Curieuse Neus remains the brewery’s flagship, and it now comes in more sessionable 33cl bottles. Cloudy, rust-orange, foamy head with small bubbles that dissipates quickly. Cap popped and beer poured, the aroma gives a punch of banana and cloves. These notes are accompanied on the tongue by chewy toffee, nods to dates and prunes, and more banana. This tripel has a long bitter and grassy finish. A spicy, hoppy tripel like this could complement the caramel and bready flavours of the pain, as well as balancing some of that sweetness with hop bitterness. It could also provide spicy notes to match the cinnamon.

The Pairings

The Curieuse Neus balances the sweetness of the pain a al grecque, making it a little less cloying. In turn, the pastry brings out a strong aniseedy, liquorice flavour in the tripel and pulls forward the beer’s hop bitterness. The yeast-driven spiciness of the Curieuse Neus combines with the cinnamon to bring out an almost cardamom-like flavour. When brought together, the tripel makes the pastry just that little bit more little more savoury. 

On the other hand, the pastry’s cinnamon is that bit too strong for the Soleil, which compared to the heft of the Curieuse Neus is just not powerful or strong enough to match the sweetness of the Pain à la grecque. What's more, the bitter hop flavours of the wheat beer clash with the bread, bringing to the fore more of the resinous, pine flavours of the wheat ale. The lemon, citrus flavours are, however, a pretty good complement to the sweet, bready dough.

Final Score

The Curieuse Neus tripel is all-round a better pair for the pain à la grecque – the spices complement each other, and bring out new flavours in the beer – liquorice and cardamom, as well as being able to match the sweetness. The Soleil, while being a great, sessionable beer, just doesn’t have enough body to match the tripel. The predominant citrus flavours in the beer just don’t pair as well as those of the tripel. Consider this a lesson learned for me.

We have a winner

Curieuse Neus, Brasserie En Stoemelings.

That’s it! There is no next round, but if you liked the series (all articles of which you can find here) let me know. And, if you think I blanked any stone-cold classic Brussels foods, I want to know – maybe we can do a second series!