Belgian breakfast

Celebrate the end of Lent with a Trappist ale

During the Lenten season of denial, my thoughts always turn to Father Theodore at the abbey of Chimay, in the Ardennes. He once told me that his fellow Trappists dubbed less rigorous orders of monks "meat eaters". Even the Trappists no longer follow the monastic Lenten diet of "liquid bread" - in other words, beer - but they still enjoy their own product with their meals.

The first time I met Father Theodore, in the mid-1970s, I noticed Pasteur's studies on beer on his bookshelf, and realised I was in the presence of a very serious brewer. Trappists are excused their vow of silence when they discuss their work, and Father Theodore was most voluble in his opinions on water, barley, malt hops and yeast.

At the time, his wonderful beer was unknown outside Belgium. "Now you have found us, we shall deluge the world," he joked as I departed. A few years later, he retired, and subsequently sent me a fax saying that he was bored. I don't know where faxes fit with the vow of silence, and I suspect that a life of devotion to God is not meant to be boring, but it is easy to see how Father Theodore misses the mash- tun and the kettle.

At 83, he still samples a couple of bottles from the day's output each morning. I was at the abbey recently, and joined him for a beer or two. The export manager offered me a third, and Father Theodore said that he, too, could manage another. "I'm not driving," he explained.

Father Theodore particularly enjoys the 8.0 per cent version of Chimay beer, with the white crown-top (Capsule Blanche). Since the 500th anniversary of the town of Chimay, this brew has also appeared in a champagne bottle, labelled Cinq Cents.

It is an especially hoppy beer, and therefore very dry. In either bottling, it is usually served lightly chilled. I have especially enjoyed it in nearby restaurants with escaveche, the peppery pickled trout or eel dish that is a reminder of Belgium's period under Spanish rule.

Perhaps Father Theodore does not monitor quite so closely the maltier, and sweeter, Capsule Rouge (or, in the champagne bottle, Chimay Premiere), at 7.0 per cent. Or the 9.0 per cent Capsule Bleue (Grande Reserve). Or perhaps he was telling God's own truth when he denied my suggestion that these two beers had lost some of their nutmeg and juniper spiciness and complexity.

Despite that misgiving, I still think the Rouge is the perfect Burgundian beer with the game dishes of the Ardennes, and the port-like Bleue with cheese. The monastery's auberge offers it with the monks' Trappist cheese, similar in style to Port Salut, but it is even better with a blue like Roquefort.

Some critics have suggested that a diminution in spiciness came with larger output during the 1980s, as the beers gained a following from London to San Francisco to Tokyo. Although production has not increased in the last few years, a more modern brewery has been installed. Open fermenters have been replaced by taller, closed, vessels. This has undoubtedly influenced the behaviour of the yeast, and the flavour of the beer.

The brewery is now managed by a well-rounded, red-faced, smiling monk who could have been selected by central casting. Many Belgian beers that are not made in abbeys use such figures on their labels to suggest that they are.

This upsets the genuine Trappist breweries: Chimay, Orval, Rochefort, Westmalle, Westvleteren and (across the Dutch border) Schaapskooi. They have been considering sharing a discreet logo on their labels as a seal of authenticity.

Not only are the Trappists concerned to protect their appellation, and worried that the consumer may be confused; they also feel that pictures of beaming monks show a lack of respect for their calling. Some of the monasteries have difficulty in attracting novices, and attribute this to the trivialisation of their image.

In fact, as brewing has grown into a small industry, it has become a demanding pursuit for a monk,competing with the with six or seven daily calls to prayer. The actual beer-making at Chimay is now carried out by two secular brewers. One, Paul Arnott, is a Scot from the brewing town of Alloa, who studied at Nancy on a European Community exchange programme. Lay workers are required to "have a spirit and culture consistent with the community". They need not, however, lead a monastic life. Since going to Chimay, Arnott has become a married man

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