The Weasel

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The Independent Culture
A session with a selection of Belgian gins has the senses reeling, while a trip to the Tate sees planes being built in the name of art

FOLLOWING THE success of those knee-weakening Belgian beers, could fruit-flavoured Belgian gins, properly known as genevers, become the next alcoholic fashion to emerge from our intoxicatingly inventive neighbour? They are of middling strength (around 22 per cent alcohol), and I first tasted them on a trip to Ghent. Ever since Mrs Weasel dragged me away from a genever bar after a mere five glasses, I have felt deprived, as if booted out of heaven after a few sips of elysian nectar. I was reminded of these jewel-like grogs a few weeks ago at the London launch party of Beerodrome, the first bar to be opened by Belgo, the Belgian restaurant chain.

This clamorous Islington hostelry claims to stock 101 different genevers. A number of wooden slats on the bar turned out to be an integral part of the genever experience. A "stick" holding four shot-glasses costs pounds 6.50. Depending on your appetite, you may prefer a six-stick, an eight-stick, a 12-stick, a 24-stick or even a 32-stick (pounds 49.50). A plan began to form in my mind...

The tasting-panel who assembled at Beerodrome last Wednesday evening consisted of self, Mrs W, my pal Jim, who is something in the City, and Mary, Belgo's charming press officer. Marc Stroobandt, the company's bar products manager, did the pouring. Instead of bringing a 32-stick, he simply filled our table with a forest of bottles. Neighbouring customers looked on in envious amazement. We kicked off with a lemon genever, most popular of all genever flavours.

Sharp, irresistible, moreish, it whizzed me back to the home-made lemon barley water of my childhood. Then we tried mandarin. "Very nice, like marmalade," said Mrs W. It reminded Mary of jelly after Sunday tea. Next came grapefruit, which captured the acid astringency of the fruit with stunning accuracy. Marc said it was usually regarded as a "breakfast" genever. Crumbs! Though the scent was spot on, melon was rather too sweet. Similarly, chocolate flavour was impossibly sticky for my taste, but Jim insisted it was wonderful: "I could drink it all day."

Marc made us sniff the next glass before sipping. It delivered an astonishing herby sock to the nose. Could it really be celery? Just like the crunchy stalk, its taste was a let-down after the smell. Jim reckoned it would make a great bloody Mary. We thought that vanilla and hazelnut were both on the syrupy side, though they might have been OK after dinner. But then came a real stunner - the exquisite tang of green apples. Essence of Granny Smith. Apparently, it is not unknown for that noted gourmet and ex-Pogue Shane MacGowan to pop into Belgo for a 12-stick composed solely of green apple genever.

At this point, I noticed we were not the only ones engaged in in-depth sampling. At a nearby table, a polyglot quartet were sinking their second 32-stick in an unusual celebration of St Patrick's Day. Back at our tasting, we had reached the umpteenth tot and the effects were beginning to show. After we decided that pear genever was more like pear-drops, I insisted on doing a Hercule Poirot impression: "Ah, zee unmistakable scent of pear- drops means only one zing. Prussic acid!" Inexplicably, this failed to strike a chord with our Belgian host.

The strawberry flavour was like "a child's sweetie" according to Mrs W. Jim said he found it impossible to say whether the banana was accurate, because he was "not a great banana-drinker". Blood-orange flavour drew a round of applause on all sides. We then lapped our way though peach, plum, redcurrant, litchi, pineapple... but here my notes deteriorate into illegibility. I remember Mrs W saying: "Thish passion-fruit ish jusht perfect. Not too shweet, not too dry." Thank goodness, there was no sarsaparilla flavour. I'd guess we got through 32 genevers. Only 69 to go.

EARLIER ON Wednesday, I popped along to the Tate Gallery for the launch that never was. It was intended to be the press opening of When Robots Rule by the Los Angeles conceptual artist Chris Burden. Commissioned to produce an art-work for its sculpture hall, he came up with the idea of an automated factory for the construction of small aeroplanes. Balsa wood, tissue paper, rubber bands and glue go in at one end of the 40-ft production line and a plane takes off at the other, all within two minutes.

I was intrigued to see the artist because I followed his career with interest in the Seventies. At one of his shows, he was nailed to a VW Beetle before being burnt and electrocuted. He also lay, covered by a canvas sheet, at the edge of a busy highway, with flares at head and foot to warn motorists. But he is best known for a work called Shoot (1970), when a friend shot him through the arm in a Californian art gallery. I recall Mr Burden saying "It was like being hit by a truck."

Still, the passage of the years has mellowed us all. These days Mr Burden would be a spit for Sir Derek Jacobi, particularly if the great thesp gained a pound or two. In the Tate's Duveen Galleries, the artist strode in front of his assembly line, while a team of nine British technicians tapped at lap-tops and tinkered with conveyor belts. It was not unlike seeing a slightly irritable Santa surveying his industrious elves. Every so often, there was a sigh of compressed air from the machinery. It slowly became clear that no planes would be built that afternoon.

"It's a miracle to make a machine that takes two minutes to build a plane that would take four hours by hand," said Mr Burden, before adding, in slight contradiction, "I'm in the business of demystification - that's what all artists do." Frances Morris, who curated the show for the Tate, insisted that there was a continuity with the artist's previous oeuvre: "It all answers the question: What if?" One of the press contingent, Ken Sheppard, editor of Aero Modeller, described the work as "brilliant but totally impractical for the model market".

In response to requests from photographers, a technician wound up the rubber band of a prototype plane and attached it to the end of the assembly line. Everyone held their breath, in particular the engineer representing American Airlines, the show's sponsor. Seconds later, the tiny plane was wheeling exquisitely under the Tate's octagonal dome. It touched down perfectly, to loud applause. Soon afterwards, the technicians returned to their tinkering and Mr Burden departed for a bite to eat.

Yesterday, the Tate told me that the assembly line was producing a plane every half-hour. The technicians hope to reach the planned production rate of a plane every two minutes over the weekend. Over the next four months, the art-work is intended to produce 20,000 planes, which will be sold for a fiver each - if they survive the launch flight, that is.