Drink: The Dunkirk spirit

Genevas, genevers or jenevers. Whatever you call them, flavourful continental gins are well worth crossing the Channel for. Illustration by Frazer Hudson

One of the best meals I ever had began with mushrooms and shallots poached in French gin, followed by rabbit in beer. It was at a cottage- like restaurant between Dunkirk and Lille. Although this delightful spot is in France, its address, the hamlet of Ste Marie Cappel, near Hazebrouck, sounds Belgian. So does its name, Le Petit Bruxelles.

This deliciously simple meal reinforced my belief that almost everything tastes better with a splash of booze. In this case, the gin added a perfumy, oily, earthy, sensuous kiss of arousal. This unusual, yellowish potion was identified on the label "aseau de vie de seigle et malt aux baies de genievre" (distilled spirit of malted barley and rye, with juniper berries). It was made not far away, at Preux- au-Bois, in the Avenois.

France may not spring to mind as a producer of gins but this one, Grains Noir Brabant, named after the whole black juniper berries visible in the bottle and the Duchy of Brabant to which this part of France once belonged, is an exception. The Duchy survives in the names of two modern Belgian provinces to either side of Brussels and a third across the border of The Netherlands.

Belgium isn't best known for its gin either, though Dutch gin may ring a bell. These Lowland spirits are a classic family in their own right, often with a distinctly full, firm, malt-and-rye background as well as a grassy, woody juniper note. They are all part of a tradition that crossed the Channel around the time of William and Mary to give us our lighter- bodied, more floral, London Dry and Plymouth gins.

If it is true that distilling was brought from the ancient world by the Moors, and spread north through Spain and France, it's possible gin was first made around Lille. Further south, grapes were distilled; in the east, fruits like cherries and plums; but north of Normandy, grain is grown. A grain distillate flavoured with juniper berries is a gin.

The word gin even comes from the French word for the juniper bush. The Flemish and Dutch renditions are variously geneva, genever and, most often, jenever. In those countries, the first letter is pronounced as a "y", and the second two syllables rhyme with "raver": y'nay'ver. At Bierodrome, the new bar-restaurant in Islington, north London, specialising in Belgian gins and ales, they're Anglicising it to sound more like "Jennifer".

The oldest working gin distillery in the world is also in France, again with a Flemish name: Claeyssens, at Wambrechies, near Lille. Outwardly, this seems to have changed little since its foundation in 1817. Claeyssens' premium Genievre Vieux Malt is subtitled Brut de Fut, implying a dryness from being aged in wood. It has a full, golden colour that would not disgrace a malt whisky. Its big aroma and palate embraces juniper, the minty spiciness of rye, and a vanilla-like, cedary, oaky background.

The usual practice is to present jenever straight, in a shot glass or small tulip, chilled if it is young but at cellar or room temperature if it is aged and has more complex flavours. Most are served before dinner, or at the bar possibly with a snack, but Claeyssens Vieux Malt could be a fine digestif in a warmed snifter.

This speciality is within reach of Eurostar-trekkers at Auberge de la Garenne, 17 Chemin de Ghesles, Marcq en Bareul, Lille. The producers have also been talking to the Belgo restaurant chain in Britain, which owns Bierodrome.

The jenevers touted in 32-glass long wooden strips at Belgo have always seemed watery to me. At below 22 per cent alcohol they are - compared with what you get in shops. This dates back to the worldwide wave of temperance that accounted for decades of pubs being shut in the afternoon in Britain, Prohibition in the US and a Belgian law which specified this lower limit for gin sold in cafes but not shops.

The Belgian law had the unintended side-effect of encouraging the production of super-strong beers to replace spirits. Since the limit on the strength of gin was repealed in the mid-Eighties, Belgian jenevers have emerged with remarkable vigour from the sleep of Rip Van Winkle, with alcohol strengths in the 30s, 40s and 50s. I've spent the last 20-odd years trying to introduce the world to its beers - perhaps I should have found more time for the jenevers.

The best of them are unforgettable. I still remember, 15 years on, the surprise of discovering the Filliers family's fino-like, sherry-aged jenever at a pantiled, brick-built distillery amid Flanders fields near Deinze. In the same province a couple of years ago, I was offered an aperitif of Oude Balegemsche Graangenever. The name implies "old" and "pure grain" (no molasses or sugar), and this deliciously creamy jenever is made by another rustic establishment, Van Damme, at Balegem. Both these distilleries are south of Ghent, which claims to be an early home of jenever. This is possible, since it is an historic trading city, not far from the sea, and many jenevers (along with English gins) use exotic, imported ingredients such as Curacao orange peels, coriander and grains.

The more outgoing Dutch like to tell the world that the first jenever was made in Schiedam, a town adjoining Rotterdam, and that the first great distillery was the firm of Bols (also a prolific liqueurist), in Amsterdam. Hence the use of terms like schiedamse gin or hollandse gin and the occasional belief that there is a drink rather than a brand called Bols.

If you have a dusty stoneware crock of jenever brought back from a trip abroad, here is what to do. Serve it at the beginning of your next dinner party. If you are too timorous, you don't have to accompany it with eels or herrings. No one will object to gravadlax. Or poached mushrooms

Bols Zeeroude (pounds 15.75 for 70cl) is available from Selfridges, London W1; De Kuyper (pounds 13.20 for 70cl) from Tanners, Shrewsbury (01743 234500); Bloomsby (pounds 7.99 for 70cl) available from Asda stores nationwide.

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