This New Year, resolve NOT to resolve. Beer and chocolate can be good for you, and there’s no better place to start your “health” regime than Bruges.
The first meal of the day typically consists of a giant waffle served with a pitcher of chocolate sauce and gobs of whipped cream—and that’s just a warm-up.
Chocolate shops and beer halls vie for space along virtually every cobblestone block and market square in this impeccably preserved medieval Belgian town, tantalizing tourists with scented tendrils of cocoa and hops that waft into the streets, playing tug of war with your taste buds.
Resistance is futile, but here’s the good news. You needn’t bother trying.
According to the locals, chocolate and beer can actually be good for you…when consumed in moderation, of course.
For a brief background on the magic cocoa bean, I visit Choco-Story: The Chocolate Museum.
You might be disappointed to learn that this is actually a museum devoted to cocoa, rather than a building made entirely of chocolate—although it does feature nearly life-sized chocolate statues of Barak Obama, Brussels’ famous Manneken Pis fountain, and a giant egg that must have been hatched by a frighteningly large chocolate chicken.
The museum offers chocolate making demonstrations (and more importantly, tastings), as well as displays of antique tools and information on harvesting and processing cocoa.
But the most interesting bits are about the history of chocolate and its various uses.
The Mayans, for instance, used cocoa beans as money, and apparently, cocoa was so popular in Mexico in the 16th century that women even consumed it during Mass. After the bishop objected, he was murdered—from drinking poisoned cocoa.
Aside from the rare and random poisoning, the museum is at pains to point out the healthful benefits of cocoa.
A display insists that chocolate won’t make you fat, give you pimples, or rot your teeth.
In fact, it says, it can even help prevent cavities and reduce cholesterol.
Chocolate can also come in handy for appeasing angry gods. Just ask the Mayans, who mixed it with blood as an offering—although personally, I prefer mine with marshmallows.
Fortunately, Yvan Janssens, who leads tours of the Half Moon Brewery (a.k.a. the Huisbrouwerij De Halve Maan, the only brewery still active in the center of town) has just the cure.
“Instead of taking aspirin, drink some beers containing cumin,” advises the jolly Janssens, a 60ish character with a shock of white hair, explaining that cumin is an old-time remedy for relieving headaches. (Strangely, he neglects to mention that alcohol is also a well-known cause of headaches.)
We’re standing alongside our guide in a large timber-framed portion of the brewery, which was built in 1856 and enlarged in the mid-20th century. Beer bottles are lined up like sodden soldiers across the tops of the massive beams, and vintage beer signs and advertisements are tacked to the walls. It’s unclear what the actual purpose of this room might be, aside from making you crave a cold one and giving tour guides a moment to wax poetic upon the healthful properties of beer.
In addition to cumin, Janssens says, the hops plant is known to contain estrogen. “So instead of taking that pill,” he says with a nod towards the ladies, “today take a few beers.” The flower of the hops plant, he points out, is also good for the prostate, and it helps you sleep. (That sounds so much better than “pass out,” now doesn’t it?)
We pause in another room stocked with more empty beer cans (what fun the curators must have had “preparing” the exhibits) before ascending to the rooftop. Here, we take a moment to admire the brewery’s view of Brugge’s red tiled rooftops, canals and church spires.
It’s all downhill from there, but only in a literal sense, as Janssens continues to regale us with entertaining brewing facts and trivia. He explains that Guinness was invented when some poor schmuck fell asleep while roasting the barley. Instead of throwing the burned batch away, the thrifty Irish brewers decided to make a batch with it, and this distinctive dark beer was born.
He also notes that Lambic beers use no added yeast, relying entirely on natural deposits, and that Trappist beers are brewed in the bottle. “Don’t mix yeast in the bottom of the glass when you pour the beer, because it will make it taste bitter,” he advises. “You can drink the yeast after; it will clean your blood.” (Another handy health tip.)
After passing by a stand of old maturation tanks, we descend—backwards—down a flight of steep stairs, and I reflect that it’s a good thing you don’t get your free sample of beer until after the tour.
With feet firmly planted once more, I turn around to find myself in a room that seems to be filled with instruments of torture, and I briefly wonder if Janssens plans to demonstrate the effects of a hangover, perhaps with one of the evil-looking mallets or vices. When he explains that these are actually cooperage tools used to make barrels, there is an audible sigh of relief.
The tour ends with, surprisingly, a recipe of sorts. “This is for the ladies,” Janssens says with a wink. “Four bottles of Lambic beer equals 200 grams of bread, 180 grams of meat, and 72 centiliters of milk. The day you don’t feel like cooking, just put that on the table. It has all your vitamins and calories,” he adds with a laugh.
Huh. I picture my kitchen cabinets crowded with useless gadgets, and now I realize that all I really need is a bottle opener. Throw in a few chocolate truffles for dessert, and that’s dinner sorted, Bruges-style.
IF YOU GO
Tourism info: http://visitbruges.be
Choco-Story: The Chocolate Museum, Wijnzakstraat 2 (Sint-Jansplein), +32 (0)50 61 22 37, www.choco-story.be.
Half Moon Brewery (a.k.a. Huisbrouwerij De Halve Maan), Walplein 26, +32 (0)50 44 42 22, www.halvemaan.be.