In the figure of the “jovial monk”, and, less affectionately, in centuries of anticlerical broadside, European culture has scratched away at the contradictions of monastic life. Cloistered professors of an evangelising faith? A simple existence weighed down by abundant food and ale? The spirit of hospitality offered in the austerity of the cell, or the silence of the Benedictine table?
I am not perturbed by such contradiction. I celebrate it! Contradiction – or let us say “contrasts” – are what make us human (all too human!). They excite the human in us. We each contain multitudes!
It is in pursuit of contrast-diction (I imagine) that my wife and a circle of her friends, all impeccably bourgeois ladies, set off on “microadventures”, styling themselves “Bivvies & Bevvies”.
The “bevvies” are beers, ideally taken at a country pub accompanied by mounds of roast potatoes. The “bivvies” are essentially thick, weatherproof sleeping bags. The ladies forego their warm, downy beds to sleep in these bivvies, rough and tent-less, on the sides of windswept hills, among the gnarly roots of ancient trees, or beneath whirring clouds of blood-crazed mosquitos, in top-secret locations that have ranged from a backyard in Tooting to the Stockholm archipelago.
On Friday, three of these intrepid lawbreakers joined us for an evening of beer and cheese tasting.
Did I say “tasting”? I meant drinking and eating. This was no occasion for austerity. Nonetheless, it was a microadventure: the pungent, earthy rind of a Saint Nectaire and the startling acetic bite of Duchesse de Bourgogne ensured that this journey into a wildernesses of flavour was not for the faint-hearted.
Our cheese came from the estimable Paxton and Whitfield in Jermyn Street. It soon became a free-for-all (I did say that these ladies were lawbreakers), but the idea was to progress from Aldwych goat, through a creamy Saint-Félicien, then the Saint Nectaire and a Comté, to finish with a blue Stichelton.
On the beer side of things, I pulled up from my cellar a 2011-vintage Boon Oude Geuze “Mariage Parfait”, some Westmalle Tripel, and a two year-old Saint Bernardus Abt 12; while Balham’s We Brought Beer furnished us with some Duchesse de Bourgogne, and the fine people at Utobeer in Borough Market rummaged about to bring me their last five bottles of Orval.
Last but not least, one of our guests was kind enough to bring along a bottle of Wild Beer Co’s Gazillionaire. A highly-eccentric beer that seeks to capture the essence of a Swedish cardamom-and-vanilla bun, it pairs a lactose thickness with a pale colour and a very perfumed nose and palate. The experience was like having the ghost of a Swedish spiced bun in one’s mouth, while it enjoyed an over-soapy bath. I am not sure what to think about adding ingredients to beer that make it taste like something else entirely: even at its best, this sort of endeavour results in something that intrigues without inviting you to try it a second time.
Beer and cheese are, to borrow a phrase, “un marriage parfait”. The bubbly carbonation seems to cleanse the palate, not allowing the creamy fattiness of the cheese to coat the tongue and close off taste receptors. Both hop bitterness and malt sweetness complement the varying shades of creaminess, nuttiness, saltiness and earthiness that cheese presents. Throw into the mix the tart-sour elements of a barrel-aged brew, or the barnyard funkiness of Brettanomyces phenols, and all sorts of wonderful things start to happen.
Nothing in our selection clashed badly but, looking for the most pleasing pairings, it turns out that contrast is not the most reliable guiding principle, after all. Complementary characteristics rang most truly.
The assertively tart, citrus notes of the Oude Geuze Mariage Parfait agreed with the clean zestiness of the goat’s cheese, for example. The smooth, honey-sherbet sweetness of Westmalle Tripel suited the opulent Saint-Félicien and the nutty Comté. The earthy, lemon-zest and leather flavours of Orval held their own against the pungent rind of the Saint Nectaire – although only just, as, regrettably, I could find ony 2017 and late-2016 bottlings of this beer.
Duchesse de Bourgogne, though arguably the most idiosyncratic of these brews, was wondrous with virtually all of the cheeses, with the one exception, perhaps, of the Aldwych goat. It was triumphant next to the Comté, where sweet met with sweet in harmonious union, and with the Stichelton, whose salty, coppery mould suppressed the beer’s sourness to reveal otherwise unheralded malty depths. The Bernardus Abt 12 served as an indulgent pudding beer, but also pleased those tempted to dip back into the Stichelton and Comté (and the odd sticky-sweet date).
I knew these women were a hardy, adventurous crowd, and they took the Mariage Parfait in their stride. Sourness in beer did not appear to faze anybody. “So refreshing!” said one, as the warm humidity of the late-June evening settled upon us. I heard the words “grapefruit”, “lemon” and “cider” as the conversation ensued. One friend had tasted Gueuze in Brussels, possibly a Lindemans, but the others were entirely new to Lambic. The Westmalle Tripel was enjoyed lustily – there was some shock when I warned about its well-concealed ABV.
Orval was the only disappointment of the evening. These bottles were too young for the Brettanomyces to have bloomed properly, and there was almost no trace of its characteristic phenols. Am I wrong to worry about the integrity of this classic beer? Two or three bottles I have drunk over the past year or so have lacked a certain magic. I have a May 2016 bottling in my cellar which can sit for another six months before I try it: let’s hope it revives my faith.
Thankfully, we followed with Duchesse de Bourgogne, the secret weapon in any tasting for people unfamiliar with Belgian beer. Even among other Flemish red and brown ales, this wields Acetobacter with impossible daring, taking beer recklessly close to the cliff-edge of balsamic vinegar, saved only by a centripetal force of sweetness that ought to be cloying but somehow, miraculously, is not. “I would never have guessed this was beer,” said one astonished bivvyist. “Bring me some fish and chips!” cried another.
The Saint Bernardus Abt 12 returned us to our master-theme of contradictions. This beer is brewed by Brouwerij Sint Bernardus in Watou, set up by the brewmaster of the nearby Saint Sixtus Abbey when the monks stopped brewing in the mid-1940s. He apparently took the recipes and yeast for the Saint Sixtus “Westvleteren” beers with him, and brewed them under contract for the abbey.
This arrangement could not survive the change in Trappist policy in the early-1990s, which said that products carrying the “Trappist” designation could not be made outside abbey walls. Eventually, Saint Sixtus recommenced brewing a small amount of the Westvleteren ales – including Westvleteren XII, upon which, by virtue of its mythic status and exclusivity as much as its quality, the debatable title of “World’s Best Beer” is often bestowed.
Brouwerij Sint Bernardus continues to brew with the same recipes, using the “Saint Bernardus” brand for its beers. The bottle labels still show a smiling “jovial monk” enjoying his beer from a traditionally-shaped chalice.
Or do they? Look more closely. That get up is like no monastic habit you’ve ever seen. And that looks more like an alderman’s chain around his well-fed neck, rather than an abbot’s cross.
It seems that, for some time after the tightening of the Trappist-designation rules, cafés and bars continued to describe Saint Bernardus beers as “Trappist”. This may have caused some consumer confusion. It certainly led to some legal “contra-diction”. And this may be the reason why the Saint Bernardus jovial monk quietly transformed into a sort of generic medieval gentleman.
And yet the beer still goes by the name “Abt 12”, “Abt” being the Dutch-Flemish word for abbot. How might one explain this contradiction? Well, this is Belgium.
But even outside Belgium, ladies-about-town sometimes choose willingly to subject themselves to being eaten alive by insects and drenched by midnight rainstorms. We adventuresome types don’t let a bit of contradiction spoil our fun. We celebrate it! We contain multitudes!