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Flexing my mussels in the Rare Fox

See that fellow there' He was a foundling Illegitimate son of an aristocrat. The mother left him on a doorstep, with 75 francs taped to his belly. 0f course, that was a lot of money in those days.

"She left a note, saying: 'I'll be back in six weeks.' " She never showed up, of course. Chose a good doorstep, though. In the house, there was a poor family who already had 12 children. I suppose she knew they were experienced at bringing up kids.

"When he grew up, he got a job in a brewery. Then he became the owner of this cafe, he could knock back 40 to 50 glasses of beer in a day. Retired some years ago. He's in his eighties now." The subject of the story was wearing no clothes, though he was standing inside a beer cask, which was somehow suspended round his middle. I don't remember checking to see what was holding up the cask.

Some breweries use a pound of cherries for every two or three litres of Kriek.

His hands were otherwise employed one held a glass a fluted tumbler of the style used for Iambic beer, the classic Belgian beer brewed by spontaneous fermentation. The oven was holding a stoneware jug, from which Iambic was being poured into the glass.

The man in the beer cask smiled sheepishly out of the photograph framed on the wall. I smiled back, in wonderment. "Why did he do that?" I asked my host, Jef Schaumans, the present landlord. "Oh he was always a comic... " Jef would go quiet, then spark up with some more patter. I asked if we could look round. He said yes, but would we like some mussels for our lunch? First, he would organize that. They could be cooking while we had our tour.

I had arrived with my friend Nico. When one travels with Nico one usually rides in a Ford Mustang. He has six of them, as well as 6,000 1950s doo-wop records and 600 vintage Belgian beers.

We had come in a black and- gold convertible V8 1973 Mustang, which seemed a trifle ostentatious for Schepdaal on a Saturday morning. It is scarcely outside of Brussels, and it has two breweries, but Schepdaal is a village, with a right to sleepiness.

The church is at the top of the village, then the cobbled square slopes downhill. At the bottom of the square is a pink-painted cottage, bearing a modest sign announcing In De Rare Vos, "the Rare Fox."

Inside the cafe, the front room boasts a mere half-dozen tables and a bar counter, A 1960s gas radiator sits in a tiled fireplace. Like many Belgian cares, the Rare Fox has a framed, icon-like painting on glassy with a text saying: "Praise Jesus for Eternity. Amen." This is often half of a pair, the other depicting the eye of God, with a further text saying: "He is watching you. Do not swear."

In the Rare Fox, these two share the wall with a reproduction of a Bruegel painting, an original of the village church, and one or two photographs, including the previous owner in his beer cask.

The place seems tiny, but at the back there are a further five or six rooms for drinkers or diners, and a terrace and lawn. Altogether, it can accommodate about 400 people.

At the bottom of the lawn, behind a hedge of miniature conifers, there are three large sheds accommodating eight or nine pigeon lofts. Jef has 200 racing pigeons.

I had noticed pigeon on the menu, and asked Jef if there was not a ... well, a conflict of loyalties? "No problem!" he replied, smartly. "Twenty thousand francs in the casserole? No problem!!!" I was not sure whether he was joking, but he began warming to his theme. "I often buy a young horse for a blanquette. A Bra-bant horse. I prepare the blanquette with gueuze. It's on the menu today." Had I known in time, I would have ordered some. I am rather fond of horse, especially when it is prepared with gueuze.

In the kitchen, Jef showed me a rib-eye steak that must have weighed almost four pounds. It was Scottish beef, about five inches thick. "We usually cut these into two servings," he told me, "but we have some customers - including women - who like a whole one to themselves." His patter was catching. "Women? They must be ostriches," I replied, pleased with myself for knowing the Flemish expression. "Not at all," he said. "Elegant little birds." There are two cellars at the Rare Fox. In one, there were about 40 casks of lambic, 110 litres each. Jef keeps his own casks, and takes them to the De Neve brewery, in the village, to have them refilled.

He buys wort that has been innoculated with wild yeasts. The fermentation and maturation takes place in the cask. He sometimes adds cherries to the beer to make his own kriek. Jef told me he can sell 300 to 400 litres of Iambic and kriek in a weekend.

When customers order lambic, Jef or one of his waiters takes a stoneware jug downstairs, and fills it directly from the cask. The jug and one or more glasses are then taken to the customer's table. There are jugs for every size of order.

The other cellar contained about 1,000 75-centilitre, corked bottles of unfiltered gueuze - blended Iambic - from De Neve and Girardin. They were stacked horizontally on top of one another, alternate bottles facing in opposite directions so that the necks of two would cradle the body of the one above them.

There were no racks. It looked like a dry stone wall made out of beer bottles. The gueuze was mainly about three years old.

The Iambic was young. brewed only seven months earlier. It was fairly flat, with a vinegarish nose and a somewhat iron-like palate. I thought it needed more age, but Jef just sells what he has. He does not offer a choice.

The De Neve gueuze was sparkling, wonderfully complex and very clean, with an almost powdery, dry, lightness. The Girardin was fruitier, more tart, drier, and more assertive.

They made a wonderful aperitif, and were quickly followed by bread-and-dripping, and our mussels.

The mussels were served at the table in black pans. The lid of the pan was carefully removed, releasing a waft of steam, then placed on the table. The pan was propped on top of it, so that the curve and handle of the lid supported the pan at an angle to the diner.

Each pan contained two kilos of succulent mussels, steamed with onion (or perhaps shallots) and slices and leaves of celery in half a glass of gueuze, with a good dash of pepper.

Eating mussels is a messy business. When I wanted to wash my hands, Jef conducted me to the village pump.

As a digestif, we had the house kriek. It was beautifully balanced, with dryness and tartness but also a hint of fruity sweetness.

Jef told us that he usually drank 15 or 20 beers a day. On one occasion, he and two friends had consumed thirty-seven and a half 75-centilitre bottles of gueuze. He was quite precise about the half bottle.

When we asked for the bill, he refused to let us pay. We offered our heartfelt thanks, but warned him this was no way to run a profitable business. "I'll drink a little less beer today," he said. "That should balance the books."

Published Online: SEPT 2, 1998
Published in Print: OCT 1, 1990
In: What's Brewing

Brewery Review - Food/Pairings - Beer Styles - Brew Travel

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