Ahhh Belgium – home of sumptuous chocolates, golden “frites” (french fries), and seemingly supersaturated beers! Our first stop in Brussels provided all 3 of these in quantities we could barely handle. Famous chocolatiers lined the streets and we delightfully sampled their wares piece by piece. Fries slathered in mayo and mustard sauces would provide the fuel to move us along to the local pub where the local abbey beers would lift our spirits, sporting typical alcohol percentages of 8-11%! In total, we sampled no less than 40 different Belgian brews in our 5 days here!
Of particular fascination for Neda and me was a visit to the family run Cantillon Brewery in Brussels, the last brewery in the world to brew only traditional Lambic beers. Lambics are special because they are inoculated by a broad range of wild airborne fermenting agents in the open cooling tun in which they sit for just one night during the winter months. In that night, the sugary wort that was distilled from boiling wheat, malted barley (and later hops), sits in the cooling tun (pictured right) and attracts all manners of life to grow inside of it. The result is a slightly different beer with each batch. In just one Lambic batch brewed at Cantillon, organic chemists have found over 100 different strains of yeast, 27 strains of acetic acid bacteria, and 38 strains of lactic acid bacteria. By contrast, a typical commercial beer contains only one type of brewer’s yeast, which is added manually instead of by nature. This leads to a uniformity of taste and to limited health benefits (as we’ll see later). To top it off, nearly every beer in the world is pasteurized after production (to extend shelf life) thereby killing whatever live bacteria initially fermented it.
While it might seem strange to seek out this “live beer” filled with bacteria and yeast, it is actually a tradition as old as time, and for good reason. Prior to modern brewing methods all beer was naturally fermented and the live organisms produced anaerobic (no air) environments inside the barrels that allowed the beer to stay preserved for years. But it's not just live beer that interests us – it's live food in general. Neda has been working on perfecting her sourdough bread recipe with wild bacteria. In this process, she mixes flour and water and catches live yeast from the fresh Bulgarian air by means of a temperature controlled “yeast catcher” her Dad made for us. Meanwhile, I made a mean batch of low salt sauerkraut that stays good for months not through the preservative of salt, but through the protection of the billions of probiotic bacteria living inside the jar. Nearly every culture has developed processes for creating live food, though their popularity has diminished in recent times. Neda and I are interested in studying the various forms and reintroducing them into our culture. Why you ask?
Simply put, live foods support our health from the inside out. A fleet of about 100 trillion microorganisms called by scientists the “microbiome” support our health in a variety of ways. In fact, there are 10x more microbial cells in our body than cells containing human DNA, making the question of our identity a little tricky. Are we just the packaging for their lives? All these organisms work together (there are over 1000 different species and counting that have been identified in the microbiome) to synthesize the essential proteins and vitamins our body needs to survive. These “probiotics” (bacteria supporting our health) also combat the growth of bacteriods, harmful bacteria that produce ammonia and promote the growth of unhealthy fungi and yeasts in our gut.
Essentially, live foods offering probiotics support our immune system, digestion, and a huge variety of other bodily functions. In this way, the beer at Cantillon could be considered the healthiest in the world because it packs a wallop of probiotics and the b-vitamins that they produce in each sip.
We weren’t just literally "living it up" with probiotics in Belgium. We countered any health we acquired with live beer with an endless stream of non-live beers (essentially all beers other than Cantillon), beef stews, fries, and of course those perfectly refined chocolates!
In between the decadence, we visited the famous Atomium (pictured above) - a sculpture of an iron crystal magnified 165 billion times and built for the 1958 World’s Fair. We learned about the dream for a unified Europe that arose out of WWII at the EU Parliament and we met many friends through couchsurfing. A special thanks to Maja for her hospitality, and to Annie, Collin, Ben and Christin for the homecooked dinner and homebrews! After Brussels, we headed to Gent, an ancient city highlighted by its magnificent skyline comprised of two churches and belfry. Our CS host Yola treated us like family as she took us on a tour of the city, its beers, its history, and its food! Finally, we ended our trip in Brugges, the romantic medieval city. The highlight for us there was a meal at Gambrinus restaurant (the legendary king of beer, said to have brewed the first lambic beers as described above), which served us Trappist cheese croquettes, beer braised rabbit, Flemish Carbonades prepared with “Gulden Draak” Beer, and Crème Brûlée perfumed with the dark Abbey beer Ename (pictured to the right).
Now it’s our first day in the Netherlands in a little village called Soest. We are staying with some CS hosts who left us their home for the day because they had to work on their boat. They made us a little anniversary breakfast (it’s our 4 year anniversary today!) and now are enjoying some time together before moving on to Utrecht and Amsterdam!
See all the pics of our great time in Belgium here: http://flic.kr/s/aHsjzZwKDE