POPERINGE - The hop fields stretch far beyond the horizon. The crop remain the trade mark of the Westhoek area of West Flanders. Hop farming began in the 13th century and was a significant source of revenue for Poperinge.
Marco Passarella waits to greet us in the new visitors’ centre of Sint Bernardus brewery.
“For 46 years we had been brewing under licence for the Westvleteren abbey of Sint-Sixtus,” he tells us. “Since 1992 the monks have been producing their own beer.
Our beers are selling well, especially the Abt . We bottle 200,000 bottles a week.”
The brewer uses spring water with a high mineral content and a slightly salty taste with aromatic hops from Poperinge. “In our brews we use the abbey yeast,” Marco divulges.
“This also goes for our fruity white beer, which was introduced here by Pierre Celis, the father of Hoegaarden.”
The In Den Nieuwen Appel cafe is a mecca for traditional pub games. We try a round of 'baanbolling', bowls played with balls in which the weight is unequally distributed.
The skill is to throw the balls so they follow as straight a course as possible. A minor detail: the bowling lane itself is hollow.
Hoefijzerwerpen - horseshoe throwing, shooting the 'liggende wip' which is a form of archery, 'vliegende vogelpik', a throwing game with a moving board.
"Uitebolling" is another ball throwing game similar to "Shove ha'penny" in the UK or the Dutch 'sjoelen', in tonspel you try to get the puck in the hole, there are table skittles, throwing rings…
In this border area between Flanders and France, they like to play them all. Although the classic cock fight has been banned from the Westhoek and Belgium all together.
We toast this with a slightly bitter picon in "De Hanekamp" (‘the cock fight’) in the village of Abele, which crosses the Belgian-French border. Dinner is waiting in La Paix in Poperinge’s market square. Poperinge’s restaurants are promoting the hennepot this summer. Hennepot is an ancient regional dish containing chicken, rabbit and veal.
The meats used to be boiled together, then put into an earthenware dish which went into the oven to slow-cook along with the bread. We are enjoying our hennepot cold, in an aspic made with lemon juice and white wine and accompanied by a salad.
Chef Koen Sambaer guides us through the culinary map of the Westhoek region, which tastes of Poperings Standevleesch: salted, smoked and boiled ham with seasonal vegetables.
'Kabeljauw aan de schreve', translated as ‘Cod on the border’, hop shoots and Terrine of rabbit with Sint-Bernardus Tripel as an alternative for rabbit with a Trappist beer.
'Mazarinetaart' is a sponge cake in a hot butter sauce with cinnamon, reminiscent of baba au rhum. If you have a sweet tooth you are likely to go for the local almond macaroons, known as Keikopjes. Hops are omnipresent, with hop paté and the traditionally distilled ‘hoppedruppel’.
Joris Cambie of 'De Plukker' in Proven grows no fewer than nine hop varieties, all famous for their aroma. “Biological culture requires extensive fertilisation as well as using natural means to combat diseases,” he explains.
“By its nature, the hop plant is very sensitive to diseases. As a hop is a fast-growing climber, this is only to be expected. Within two months, a plant can reach a height of six metres.”
The brewing kettle will only contain hop cones produced on the farm. 'Keikop', a blond high fermentation beer, is an ode to the inhabitants of Poperinge who are renowned for their headstrong nature. Kop means head and kei refers to the cobblestones.
Joris started off as a home brewer; now he is hop farmer cum brewer. “We started everything from scratch,” he tells us. “We built our brewing equipment ourselves using stainless steel milk tanks.
I am proud that I am now able to brew using fresh, green hops that I have grown myself. For the future I am planning to develop a ‘single hop’ beer.” It is only in the picking season in September that Joris is able to brew with freshly harvested hops. The hop cones go straight from the vine into the boiling kettle.
Take a cycle ride of 30 kilometres and you will get to know the hop plant that features in all the local beers. This includes a visit to the Hopmuseum and a tasting at Sint-Bernardus abbey brewery. For more information contact the Tourism office in Poperinge (details below).
A guided tour will take your group (minimum of 10 participants) to various pubs where the owner will receive you with a regional beer and a popular pub game.
Grote Markt 1
Telephone: +32 (0) 57 34 66 76