Welcome to the second entry in a series pairing Brussels culinary classics with beers brewed in Brussels. You can find the previous editions here.
It’s taken until 2018, but there’s now a variety of beer being produced in the city, including but expanding from the spontaneous fermentation beers of Brasserie Cantillon and the hoppy ales of Brasserie de la Senne to IPA, porters, tripels, witbiers, and more.
To stress test this variety, instead of choosing one beer with one dish, we’re going to go about this a little differently – two beers will be selected on the basis that whatever the style of the beers chosen, they should pair well with a particular dish.
Each dish chosen for the series originates or has a long-standing connection to Brussels. Some of them are recognisable Brussels exports – pralines or fries – whereas others are more local peculiarities – think pottekeis or pain a la greque.
The only rules are: the beer has to have been brewed in one of Brussels’ 19 communes, and the dish has to have a verifiable link to the city.
In this round: Home-made Pottekeis, paired with Cantillon Gueuze and Brasserie de la Senne I Rate Saison.
Pottekeis is a traditional Brussels dish made with Brusselse Kaas, also known as ettekeis. Brussels dialect for “hard cheese“, ettekeis is made from low-fat cow’s milk, matured for two-to-four months, and is frequently washed with salt water, and soaked in brine before packaging.
As a result, the cheese has a strong salty flavour, and a strong, almost meaty aroma. I can attest, after making the recipe below, it falls into the category of regional dish with an ‘acquired taste’ that’s likely to remain regional; even locally it’s increasingly scarce. I was lucky enough to find a small, pungent puck of ettekeis in a city centre supermarket offering local specialities to tourists.
Pottekeis is made by mixing this ettekeis with a sort of cottage cheese called mandjeskaas (usually used fresh and in small wicker baskets – see this archive footage from 1974, starting at minute 1.33 for footage of a local chef traipsing through town with a tray of little baskets of mandjeskaas).
The two cheeses are mixed with shallots, spring onions, and a splash of geuze to make the dish. The pottekeis is sharply acidic, due to the combination of the cheese, the raw onions, and the geuze, and quite salty. I’ve cribbed this recipe from Kevin Desmet, swapping in cream cheese for mandjeskaas – which, unlike ettekeis, really has disappeared.
The recipe - Brussels Pottekeis
200g cream cheese
Teaspoon of mustard
1 spring onion
Splash of geuze (to liking)
Pepper to season
Mix all of the above together in a bowl, and spread over toast. Optional extra: if you think added punch is needed (it isn’t), you can top it off with slices of fresh radish.
I Rate Saison is a collaboration between Brasserie de la Senne and beer writer Melissa Cole. A 5,5% ABV saison, it was brewed with spelt and rye, and refermented with de la Senne’s brettanomyces yeast strain. It’s one more iteration of the style in Yvan De Baets’ on-going experimentation with saisons and mixed fermentation. Both the beer’s name and label design, by Jean Goovaerts, nod to contemporary obsessions with beer rating platforms like Untappd and Ratebeer.
The beer pours a cloudy, yellowish straw colour, with a strong, lasting head of fine bubbles. Aroma-wise, the brettanomyces give the beer a characteristic funky farmyard, musty smell, and almost the merest hint of goat’s cheese. Added to that is some pepperiness and a dash of citrusy lime. Some of those aromas follow through in the taste; it’s light and spritzy, with some oaky funk, a little tart green apple, and a slight hint of spiciness that could come from de la Senne’s clean house yeast.
It’s a solid bretted saison, and one which has the potential to pair well with the funkiness of the pottekeis, as well as matching some of the tartness, and that slightly rustic spiciness that the spelt provides could pair well with the toast on which the cheese is served.
Cantillon Gueuze is a survivor, the OG Brussels beer. Too much has been written about Cantillon for me to be able to add anything new. Gueuze as it is brewed at Cantillon today – a blend of varied quantities of one, two, and three-year-old lambics aged in wooden barrels – defines the ascetic school of lambic brewing. Their brewing process is rigidly low-intervention, with the emphasis on letting time and the environment of the brewery make the beer.
This is a straight up gueuze – no fruiting or heterodox blends. It’s a cloudy orange, colour with an off-white head that dissipates quickly. On the nose it has everything you would expect from a gueuze – heaps of barnyard funkiness, some tart green apple, and a little minerality. This is followed up by a sticky, sharply acidic (relative to the saison) taste, with some malt sweetness coming through towards the end. A gueuze should, obviously, pair well with the pottekeis given that a good portion of another bottle has been thrown into it alongside the cheeses and spring onions.
Unsurprisingly, the Cantillon accentuates the tang of the ettekeis and of the gueuze, causing my saliva glands to hyperventilate and flood my mouth. The combination brings out some of the muddiness and the brettanomyces influence, and together the pairing accentuates the sweetness of the pottekeis, the gueuze, as well as standing up to the acidic pop of the raw onions.
The I Rate Saison is helped by its strong carbonation, which helps to clean my palate after every creamy mouthful. The saison also brings to the fore the strong acidity and smack of the onions, and like the gueuze highlights the sweetness of the cheese. The bitterness of the saison is not a great match for the pottekeis however, and the general lightness of the saison finds just too hard to stand up to the sometimes-overpowering flavours of the cheese.
While both beers complement the acidity and funkiness of the pottekeis, and both have strong enough carbonation to strip clean my palate of sticky cheese, the gueuze is better able to stand up to the harshness of the pottekeis and particularly the ettekeis therein. In addition, the relatively higher bitterness of the saison clashes with the strong flavours of the pottekeis.
We have a winner
Gueuze, Brasserie Cantillon.
The Next Round:
Pistolet with filet americain, paired with Brasserie Cantillon's Chouke and Brasserie de la Senne's Stouterik