Wednesday, April 4, 2012

In the Land of Wine and Cheese

In June of 2010, I travelled to London for a class in Comparative Cultural Policy and Administration at Boston University’s London campus. As exciting as that sounds (and believe me it was!) this trip also afforded me the opportunity to see a little bit of Europe. The class was to meet for one week, so I booked my ticket to arrive one week before so I could take the train to the continent.

I had the choice to either visit Brussels or Paris via EuroStar and while the choice may have appeared easy, it was not. The problem was that the class had an excursion scheduled towards the end of the week in London to visit Boston University’s campus in Brussels, so I would be travelling to Belgium later in the trip. I knew I wasn’t going to get a lot of time to spend in Brussels during that visit, but I figured it was enough to keep me satisfied, so I opted to visit the land of wine and cheese for two days.

Those two days in Paris were beautiful. I’ve told Amanda a dozen times that the only thing that would have made it better would have been her company…

Of course I visited the major tourist sites, I walked up the Eiffel Tower, did a quick loop around Notre Dame and shuffled along corridors of beautiful paintings at the Louvre. My favorite moments were simply wandering around the streets and alleys finding places to purchase bread with the only French phrase I had memorized, “une baguette s'il vous plait.
I managed to find a few beer bars with some decent Belgian beer on tap and I even stumbled upon an expatriate Scottish pub with Belhaven on draught, but of course this was not Brussels.

On my last evening I had a lovely meal along a busy back alley and enjoyed plenty of crisp white wine with the meal as a small cat circled my table trying to nibble the crumbs that had fallen off my plate. I strolled back to my hotel, a lovely old place near the banks of the Seine and within earshot of Notre Dame’s blessed bells. I set my travel alarm to catch the train the next day and fell asleep to the sounds of the city just outside my open window.

The next morning I packed my belongings and headed to the train station. As I walked passed the Pompidou Centre down another small side street, I noticed a shop with Sierra Nevada Pale Ale in the window! I quickly popped my head inside and was greeted by the shopkeep who, after my clumsy exchange, asked if I wanted to speak to him in English—I guess I didn’t blend in too well. Simon was very interested in American beer and I was very interested in what the French were brewing and we chatted as I browsed his selection.

La Caves à Bulles was filled with artisanal beers from all around France as well as an ample selection of Belgian beers—I was quite overwhelmed by the selection. I asked Simon if he wouldn’t mind picking five or six beers that were his personal favorites for me to take back to London to sample. It was a shame that I hadn’t found this shop on my first day in Paris, but I wasn’t exactly looking for beer and I didn’t even know that France had such a burgeoning beer scene. I left the shop with a handful of delightfully obscure beers and I made my way to Garde du Nord to catch the EuroStar back to London.

When I got back to London I was very eager to give the beers a try. My favorite of the bunch was a beer from La Brasserie de Fleurac. Fleurac La Triple Brune IPA poured a dark brown with an appropriate café au lait colored head. Deep, rich, earthy hop aromas mingled with hints of toasted and roasted malt and some cocoa notes. Nice hop balance in the flavor with pine and earthy undertones and the accenting flavors of dark malt. The other beers were as expertly selected as the next. Simon certainly knew his beers and made sure I left his shop with the finest examples of artisanal French brewing.

I’m still amazed that I stumbled upon those beers completely by accident and that they were so fantastic—sometimes you find the best beers when you’re not even looking. The next time I’m in Paris, La Caves à Bulles will definitely be one of my first stops.

I did finally manage to make it to Brussels, but the time spent there was all too brief. Sometimes I think I should have chosen to spend my time there instead of Paris, but seriously, who gives up the chance to go to Paris? And I also remind myself of that little bottle shop a few blocks back from the Seine and the amazing beer I found there. The choice was easy.

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