Flanders... Here's to Belgian beer and Bruegel
Beer has been brewed in Belgium for hundreds of years, and its brands are famous all over the world. There are hundreds of breweries in the country - including some in Trappist monasteries - and Unesco has listed Belgian "beer culture" as part of the "intangible cultural heritage of humanity".
I have sampled quite a few Belgian ales - amber, red, brown and pale - but I had never heard of lambic beer before I arrived in Flanders on a recent visit. It turns out that this is not only one of Belgium's most popular types of beer, it is also one of the oldest brews in the world.
Genuine lambic is confined to a small region that is close to Brussels called Pajottenland. Over a few days, I explored some of these Flemish breweries and enjoyed some highly distinctive lambic flavours.
We began our tour at Timmermans, a small brewery to the south-west of Brussels. Most beers are fermented by cultivated strains of yeast, but I learned that lambic is made with a type of wild yeast that ferments spontaneously and is only found in this part of the world.
The traditional lambic beer is called gueuze, and it undergoes a long ageing period, rather like vintage wine, after it has been brewed. Apparently, this is what gives all lambic drinks their unusual flavour, which is rather dry with a slightly sour after-taste.
Beer has been brewed here for more than 500 years, and we were led through the various stages of its production by a young brewer. He told us that Timmermans had once collaborated with Guinness to produce a special mixture of lambic and stout. He rated it highly. Sadly, there were no bottles available for me to sample.
Lambic is also produced in a range of fruit flavours, and my first glass was made with cherries. I thought that it tasted more like a light wine or sparkling cider than the sort of beer I usually drink.
Later that day, we visited the Lindemans brewery in the small Flemish town of Vlezenbeek. This is a large manufacturing plant that was founded in 1811, and has been run by the same family for generations.
Lambic brewing takes place only between October and May. It seems there are many organisms floating in the air during the summer months that can spoil its flavour. However, climate change is already closing this window of brewing opportunities.
We were told brewers used to enjoy roughly 165 days a year when the temperatures were ideal; nowadays, only about 140 days are suitable. Despite that, the global popularity of the beer has grown in recent years. In addition to the traditional varieties, Lindemans produces a range of fruit beers - refreshing drinks that are ideal for the summer months.
We also visited the Boon brewery - another family-run business, and the son of its founder guided us on an tour of the production process. This is one of the newest lambic breweries, and also one of the most modern in terms of brew tech. However, as our guide emphasised, production of lambic beer should combine both science and art. New tech has been introduced, but old traditions are still faithfully followed.
Lambic was immensely popular with the farmers and peasants of medieval Flanders. In fact, its consumption features in many works by the region's most famous painter: Pieter Bruegel the Elder.
This year marks the 450th anniversary of Bruegel's death, and a series of major exhibitions and cultural events are being staged in Flanders to mark the occasion.
Bruegel's life and career were short, and only about 40 of his paintings have survived. His work was neglected for almost three centuries after his death, and it was only at the beginning of the last century that it was rediscovered. Since then, his work has inspired and influenced many modern artists.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Bruegel did not paint flattering portraits of kings, cardinals or aristocrats, and his work did not present the affluent and self-confident bourgeoisie of Antwerp or Brussels. Instead, he drew and painted large crowd scenes and complex landscapes.
His work often features the popular and boozy celebrations that were part of the everyday life of Flemish peasants, and includes a wide range of activities - bawdy, recreational, mischievous - which he infused with demotic energy.
Bruegel lived in the early 1500s, at the start of the religious wars in Europe, and religion is a central theme of his work - but it seems impossible to determine his own beliefs. Both Protestant and Catholic churches tended to disapprove of the fairs and feasts that often led to scenes of drunkenness and debauchery.
We visited the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in central Brussels where one of its attractions was the 'Bruegel Box' - ultra-high resolution images of his paintings displayed on three walls to provide an immersive experience that allowed us to explore his masterpieces through some remarkable animations.
These revealed the extraordinary depth of Bruegel's body of work, and we were also able to examine some of his original paintings at close range.
There is also a darker side to Bruegel's work. He lived through an exceptionally cold period in Europe's climate, and the feasts that he records often seem strangely bereft of any food. In one of his most famous paintings, Hunters in the Snow, a group of men and their dogs trudge home from a hunting expedition with just a single fox to show for their efforts.
We visited the huge castle at Gaasbeek, close to where Bruegel lived. It contains many objects from his time, and a remarkable museum garden which provides an assortment of forgotten vegetables and fruit. We were also taken on an art walk that followed the landscape that existed when Bruegel was alive.
Our starting point was the Sint-Anna Church in Sint-Anna-Pede, which features in one of Bruegel's most powerful and disturbing works, The Parable of the Blind.
We also visited the Halle Gate, the only city gate of Brussels that has been preserved from the time when Bruegel lived there. From the ramparts of its tower, some of the original medieval buildings - such as the church where Bruegel was buried - can still be seen. For me, Bruegel's work was a revelation and I would recommend experiencing it to anyone considering a trip to Flanders. While you're there, you might also enjoy a glass or two of lambic beer.
Visit Flanders is celebrating the influence of Pieter Bruegel the Elder this year to mark the 450th anniversary of his death.
■ Visitors can travel in his footsteps for a number of dedicated events, special exhibitions and see his works at the museums and galleries in Flanders and Brussels. For more info see flemishmasters.com/en/programme
■ To find out more about visiting Flanders's special lambic breweries in the areas and landscapes depicted by this Flemish master, see visitflanders.com/en/themes/belgian-beer/belgian-beer-styles/spontaneous-fermentation-beer/index.jsp
Sunday Indo Living