British diners are catching on to the pleasures of pairing beer with food - but the Belgians have been doing it for centuries

Charlotte McDonald-Gibson travels to ale-loving Antwerp to learn what makes the perfect match.

Tim Ferket is clearly wary of throwing me in at the deep end. There may be more than 100 beers on offer at his restaurant and an extensive menu of hearty Belgian cuisine, but he begins by offering me a glass of ale and a bowl of crisps. Having travelled to Antwerp to learn about pairing food and beer from an expert, I'm tempted to point out that a pint and a pack of Walkers hardly constitutes a revolutionary shift in British dining habits.

But the simple starter turns out to be the perfect introduction to a revelatory evening. The bitter yet floral flavours of the strong blonde ale, Hopus, counter the sweet spiciness of the pickle crisps, creating a fizzle of flavours on the palette a million miles away from the unpleasant tang of prawn cocktail and a pint of lager.

"If you're talking about combining or pairing beer and food, you can go three ways," beer expert Tim explains over five expertly matched courses at his Antwerp restaurant, De Groote Witte Arend. "You can serve the beer that's in the dish, or you can try to reflect, or you can try to create an extra taste: so combine, reflect, and create."

That it was a Belgian giving the lessons is surprising given Britain's similar culinary history. Both countries have a tradition of consuming beer with food that dates back to the Middle Ages, when water was undrinkable and a light "table beer" took its place. The traditional foods that developed over the years – hearty stews and simple meats – were perfectly suited to eat with the brew.

"For most of our history, and for most people, this wasn't about fine food pairing but about simple practicality," says Pete Brown, author of Man Walks Into A Pub: A Social History of Beer. "A typical diet for most people would be a pint of foaming ale, some slices of meat from a spit over the fire, and some bread and cheese,"

But Britain fell under the spell of the French and decided that nothing but a glass of wine would do, even with something completely incongruous like a steak and ale pie.

"When wine took off across the whole population in the 1980s and 1990s, part of its popularity was that you had it with meals 'because that's what you're supposed to do'," says Pete. "I've got nothing against wine – I drink a lot of it – but the only reason we think wine is the drink with food is that we're slavishly following mainstream French principles."

Now, Britain seems to have come full circle, with restaurants trumpeting their beer-and-food pairing menus as if it's a niche innovation. In Belgium, however, people largely stuck to drinking beers with traditional food, perhaps because of the astonishing array brewed in the country, raging from the cider-like sour lambic brews (brewed using wild yeast) to the strong Trappist ales produced by monks behind abbey walls.

"Beer has a lot more tastes than wine," says Tim. "It is much more complex due to the ingredients, the hops and the type of grain they use, so we have a lot of different possibilities."

After the crisps came a glass of Antwerp's local De Koninck ale – available in bottles and on tap in the UK – with beef cooked in the same beer. This is an example of combining the flavours of the food and beer, but the taste experience is not as simple as you might imagine. The slow-cooking of the beef brings out the malty, caramel notes of the dark beer, while the De Koninck in the glass retains the slight bitterness from the burnt malts. Consumed together, you start to understand the complexities and layers of flavours. The same principle can be applied at home by serving the beer used in a stew or a steak and ale pie, which can range from European dark ales to stouts such as London's Meantime, Fuller's Golden Pride or Guinness.

For another course, Tim paired a very dark, strong Trappist ale – Westmalle Dubbel – with rabbit, bacon and onions cooked in the same beer. Game is particularly well-suited to beer, its hardy flavours standing up well to the challenge of a good brew. A simple way to conjure up an appropriate pairing is to think about the sauce you might serve with a dish. Duck breast goes well with orange or blackberries, and so it is also well-suited to a dark, fruity ale.

With strong foods, it is crucial to find a beer that stands up to them. It is a concept that can be applied to that other British favourite, curry. Most of us are inclined to plump for a lager, its bland fizz washing away the spice. But a coriander-infused wheat beer such Hoegaarden might be a better choice. That, explains Tim, would create a pairing in which the beer both reflects the food and creates a new flavour with the floral hints and spiciness. At the Cinnamon Club in London, they suggest a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale with tandoori paneer tikka.

The opposite is true, however, if you want to make a really complex beer sing. To demonstrate this, Tim chose the most unique beer there is: Oud Beersel, one of the lambic beers brewed only around Brussels. The sour flavour created by leaving the vats open and letting the beer spontaneously ferment is akin to cider, and he served it with simple mashed potatoes with bacon.

We ended with something I was never sure about: beer and cheese. While I could almost grasp that a tangy cheddar might be quite nice with stout, I never thought the creamier continental cheeses would go with anything but wine or port. But then out came the Kriek, a fruity Belgian beer. It was the most revelatory moment of the evening, the strong cherry and hops flavours bringing out all the velvet qualities of a fine goats' cheese.

Towards the end of the meal (and perhaps owing to the amount of strong ales I'd consumed) I started a game of mentioning random dishes to Tim to see if he could name a beer to match. Prawns: a sour beer to counteract the saltiness. Steak: a sweet beer to pick up the hints of caramelisation. Chocolate: a dark yeasty beer with hints of banana. The only dish I seem to be able to catch him out on was fast food. "If you go to McDonald's, it's a pity for the beer," he says. I'll drink to that.

Make your match: What to drink

Beef

A dark beer with malty, caramel notes such as De Koninck ale or stout.

Shellfish

A sour beer such as Belgian Rodenbach counteracts the saltiness of prawns, while the creaminess of Guinness pairs perfectly with oysters.

Curry

Wheat beers such as Hoegaarden pick up the coriander flavours in Indian food.

Cheese

The cherry and hops flavour of fruity Belgian beer such as Kriek brings out the flavour.

Chocolate

Match the dark cocoa with a stout or a dark German ale such as Paulaner Dunkel.

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