Drink / Let them drink beer
French beers for Bastille (or any other) Day
In an off-licence near my home, I recently spotted the obvious libation. Sans Culottes is an aromatic, appetising, fruity-tasting, strong (7.0 per cent) bronze beer, made at the farmhouse brewery of Alain and Martine Dhaussy at Hordain, south of Lille and near Valenciennes.
The brewery also makes a slightly stronger (7.5), more soothing, vanilla- tinged beer called Brassin Robespierre. This not only honours the revolutionary but recalls the fact that he came from a brewing family.
Their other products, also at 7.5, include a less complex Blonde and a toffeeish Ambree, both under the name La Choulette.
The hinterland of Lille has nine or 10 small breweries making beers in this style, with a fruitiness closer to that of a British ale than a continental lager. Some are, indeed, made with ale yeasts.
In rural areas, they were originally produced with enough strength and living yeast to be laid down as a provision, and they are still known as bieres de gardes ("beers to keep").
These days, most are matured in the brewery, typically for a few weeks, but sometimes for months. Several have a cellar character (almost a musty earthiness), along with a distinctively spicy maltiness. Barley grown in the Champagne region, and hops from French Flanders, are often used. Many bieres de gardes are put into 75cl Champagne bottles with wired corks. Some have a yeast sediment and a Champagne-like toastiness. These flavoursome brews are far more individualistic than the mainstream Alsatian lagers that fill Volvos and Transit vans homebound from Calais.
Among bieres de gardes available in Britain, several bear the marks of French history. The Jeanne d'Arc brewery of Ronchin, near Lille, has recently introduced the grainy, figgy-tasting Ambree des Flandres (6.4 per cent) and the golden, smooth, malty Grain d'Orge (8.0). Both are beers of some complexity, especially the latter. It carries a neck-tag bearing a series of recipes using the beer. My most recent example told me how to employ Grain d'Orge in a sauce for Coquilles St Jacques.
St Patron, a beer from the Castelain brewery at Benifontaine, near Lens, celebrates the 11th-century monk (and later bishop) Arnold of Soissons. He is one of the patron saints of brewers, having defeated a plague by advising the populace to drink it rather than water. This beer, bottled sur lie (ie with a yeast sediment), at 7.5 per cent, has a fresh fruitiness and perfumy hop character.
Much as I have enjoyed all these beers, I thought I had found the ideal Bastille brew when I stumbled upon the very strong (9.3) La Guillotine, with a fine head, sustained bubbles and a peppery finish. As it turned out, the name had misled me. La Guillotine is from a brewery in the safe haven of Belgium... and one that claims to predate the Revolution The La Choulette range can be found at the Chiswick Cellar, 84 Chiswick High Rd, London, W4 (0181-994 7989), and the Beer Shop, 14 Pitfield St, London N1 (0171-739 3701). A wide selection of beers can be obtained (by mail-order, if required) from Beer Paradise, Unit 11, Riverside Place, South Accommodation Rd, Leeds, LS9 ORQ (0113-235-9082). There is a selection of bieres de gardes at the Beer Cellar, 31 Norwich Rd, Strumpshaw, Norwich, NR13 4AG (01603 714884)
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