When I first met Mr Smiles he told me that Belgium has over 800 different beers and he was gradually working his way through them on his annual trip to Ghent. He didn’t quite comprehend that his beloved future wife would take him so seriously. We now have an A to Z notebook entitled `The Smiles Good Belgium Beer Guide‘ ! My one condition of going to Belgium is that each beer has to be annotated in our notebook with a * rating and a description. The star rating is out of 5, ***** being outstanding and * undrinkable. This can prove slightly unscientific if you are a bit squiffy and have already sampled one or two! However even Mr Smiles has seen the benefit of his wife’s organised nature. Now when he selects a beer at random I am able to say `Well you had that one in 2010 and described it as unpalatable and like wine vinegar, I suggest you try a new one!’.
I have learnt quite a lot about Belgian Beer over the last few years. Several hundred different sorts are produced and each beer has a distinctive character served in a specific glass. The label Trappist refers to beers originally brewed by monasteries. Tripel denotes a strong ale that was served to the Abbot, the monks drank the Dubbel, while the peasants had only a watery ale.
So here it is:-
Smiles Good Belgium Beer Guide 2012
Val- Dieu Biere du Noel 7% ***
Het Waterhuis aan de Bierkant, Ghent
Mr Smiles liked the design of the bottle label better than the beer. Pleasant but disappointing for a Christmas beer. A bit bland and watery.
Trappistes Rochefort 6 7.5% ****
Het Waterhuis aan de Bierkant, Ghent
Mrs Smiles described this is a smooth darkish amber ale. It was deceptively strong and put a smile on her face.
St Bernardus Prior 8 8% Dubbel ****
Het Waterhuis aan de Bierkant, Ghent
Mr Smiles liked this one. It is a dark brown, sweet, mellow ale.
Reinaert Flemish Amber 7% ***
Chez Leontine Bistro, Groetenmarkt, Ghent
Mr Smiles thought this was pleasant, but not the best he sampled. He thought it had a slightly sour taste of bananas and had no aftertaste. The official Good Beer Guide describes Reinaert Amber as an archetypal Flemish amber ale, technically excellent but a bit too clean.
St Bernardus Tripel 8% ****
Leontine Bistro, Groetenmarkt, Ghent
Mrs Smiles liked this one and thought it was very drinkable. The triple is a blonde, golden ale and Mrs Smiles thought it was smooth and refreshing.
De Dolle Stille Nacht 12% ****
Chez Leontine Bistro, Groetenmarkt, Ghent
Mrs Smiles managed this strong pale ale in addition to the previous one! Stille Nacht is a strong, pale sweet Christmas Ale. It isn’t too fizzy and it gives a nice Winter warm after glow!
Christmas Leroy 7% ***
Chez Leontine Bistro, Groetenmarkt, Ghent
I liked this Christmas Beer. It has a warm, caramel taste reminiscent of sticky toffee pudding. Mr Smiles said ‘You can have too much of a sweet thing!’. However Mr Smiles says the same about sticky toffee pudding as well as Haagen-Dazs Pralines and Cream ice cream and I love them!
La Chouffe 8% ***/*
t’Klokhuys Brasserie, Ghent
This is a strong pale ale.Mrs Smiles described La Chouffe as a refreshing blonde and very quaffable. It had a hint of citrus. The glass is a distinctive tulip shape with La Chouffe gnome on it. Would have scored **** if it had been tasted in the Summer.
Westmalle Dubbel 7% ****/*
t’Klokhuys Brasserie, Ghent
Mr Smiles really enjoyed this ale. He thought it was a rich and complex dark beer. This is one he keeps coming back to.
Gruut Inferno 9% **
Holiday Inn Gent-Expo, Ghent
Mr Smiles was not impressed. In fact he didn’t even finish this one! Gruut Inferno is a strong golden ale, but not Mr Smiles’s cup of tea!
So the winners in the Smiles Good Belgium Beer Guide 2012 are Westmalle Dubbel and both Tripel and Dubbel St Bernardus Ales.
Mr Smiles has spent a long weekend in Belgium to sample the Christmas beers for over 10 years. He used to make the trip with three male drinking pals, but now he’s got me! (Which isn’t such a bad thing!)
We drive over to Belgium and stay at the Holiday Inn Ghent -Expo, on the outskirts of Ghent. I must admit when my future husband first took me to Ghent I was expecting to stay in a beautiful building right in the heart of the city overlooking the canals. The Holiday Inn is convenient as it is just off the motorway, but it overlooks the motorway and Ikea and is what can only be described as an `ugly concrete monstrosity, lacking in charm’. However it is very convenient if you are driving and is right on the tram route into town. I must admit the `Holiday Inn’ has now become a good friend. The breakfast is extensive, the rooms are comfortable and it is easy to get to.
Why do we choose Ghent?
Ghent is Belgium’s unsung city. Much of Ghents’ medieval architecture remains intact. I am sure this is equally true of Bruges and other Belgian cities. However Ghent is much less touristy and `tacky’.The vast majority of the centre is car free so it is a pleasure to stroll along the canal sides enjoying the amazing Flemish architecture.
Medieval Architecture – Ghent
Ghent has an almost Mediterranean feel with its cafes and bars spilling out onto the squares and paths. I would add though that the Christmas Market is disappointing. We did enjoy a hot glass of Mulled Wine and waffles listening to a band playing festive music. There were stalls selling mistletoe and Christmas trees. However I couldn’t see anything I would want to buy in the Christmas Markets as a souvenir.
Ghent has lots of restaurants, bars and cafes to relax in. The narrow cobbled streets of the 12th century Patershol neighbourhood are home to countless fine restaurants. The Patershol district was at one time the haunt of prostitutes and lay abouts. Now it is an exclusive part of town and is the culinary heart of the city. One of our favourite restaurants is t’ Klokhuys Brasserie on Corduwanierstraat. It has a typical Flemish menu with specials on a blackboard and there is a good choice of beers. One thing we noticed in Ghent is that every restaurant serves the classic dish of Gentse Stooverij, Flemish Beef Stew, slow cooked with generous amounts of Belgian beer accompanied with french fries. The other classic Ghent dish is Waterzooi. The original form is made of fish, either freshwater or sea, (viszooitje), though today chicken waterzooi (kippenwaterzooi) is more common. Both the chicken and fish versions are based on an egg yolk and cream thickened vegetable broth and the dish is usually served as a soup with a baguette to sop up the liquid. To be honest I am not keen on Waterzooi as it tastes like tinned chicken soup to me and I am not keen on chicken soup. This means that much as I love Flemish Beef Stew I don’t want to eat it in every restaurant for every meal with the obligatory french fries.
What we like about t’Klokhuys Brasserieis that it is a cosy little restaurant which serves a variety of dishes and cooks them to a high standard. I chose to have a pork casserole which came with a good selection of vegetables. For dessert I had a Belgian Chocolate mousse which was divine. The beer was good aswell!
The other restaurant we like is Chez Leontine Bistro. This is the sort of place we love -cosy, rustic and full of atmosphere. This Bistro is next to the Waterhuis, overlooking the river and Groetenmarkt, and therefore shares its excellent beer list .We had a lovely meal of the usual Belgian classics and found the waiter very helpful giving us advice on new beers to try.
Christmas Beers at Chez Leontine Bistro – Stille Nacht and Val-Dieu Biere du Noel
Beer is to the Belgians what wine is to the French. Several hundred beers are produced all of which have their own character and are served in their own type of glass. Most restaurants serve a few different beers however there is a greater selection in the many bars. We particularly like Het Waterhuis aan de Bierkant, Groetenmarkt. This is a popular canal-side bar with over 100 beers to choose from.
We spent a very pleasant afternoon enjoying the beer and sharing a cheese platter which was very tasty.
The other bar we like is De Dulle Griet, Vrijdagmarkt. It is quite a cosy place, with classic beer memorabilia and seems to attract locals, students and tourists in equal number which is good to see. Mr Smiles particularly enjoys a Kerst Pater Christmas beer in here. If you order a Large Kwak beer the bartender takes one of your shoes, deposits it in a basket, and hoists it to the ceiling – you get it back when, and if, you finish your beer. I declined one of these!
The only down side is the place gets very smoky and the narrow winding staircase to the toilets is quite a challenge if you’ve had a few Trappist Beers!
One fantastic find this year was the Beer and Ginhouse housed in a beautiful Medieval Building on the waterside, Kraanlei. The Beer and Ginhousein Ghent, Belgium stocks a large range of Belgium beers and jeneva (gin). I was able to stock up on 22 different ales and the glasses that go with them. The proprietor was ever so helpful and sourced all the beers I asked for from the Bierhouse under the same ownership. So watch out for more Belgian Beer Art over the next few months! I am planning to produce a calender next year. I have already had a suggestion that I should offer a free Belgian Beer with every calender purchased!
As a child I remember my Mum and Gran always baking and making things for Christmas. There was a quite a ceremony when the Christmas puddings were made. `Stir Up Sunday’ is the traditional day for everyone in the family to take a turn at stirring the Christmas pudding whilst making a wish. I remember it took ages! For some reason the dried fruit needed de-strigging unlike now when the fruit can be used straight out of the packet. The puddings and Christmas Cake were made at least a month before Christmas and this formed part of the excitement of waiting for Christmas. A coin was traditionally added to the ingredients and cooked in the pudding. It was supposed to bring wealth to whoever found it on their plate. The traditional coin was an old silver sixpence. We stopped the tradition when my Gran nearly broke her false teeth on the coin. I did try making my own Christmas Pudding a few years ago but had a bit of an accident with a cracked work top when the steamer had boiled dry and I put the boiling hot pan straight down on to the worktop!
Last year I made my own Christmas Cake for the first time. I was very proud of it. However the cake was so boozy the reindeer decorations collapsed with the alcoholic fumes! I was amazed how much it cost to make your own cake. It is much cheaper to buy one. However it’s not half as much fun.
We always had a good spread at Christmas tea and it was all home-made – sherry trifle, Christmas Cake, mince pies, chocolate log and my shortbread Christmas tree biscuits with illuminous green icing! On Boxing Day the chutney and pickles to go with the cold left over turkey and ham were always home-made.
I like the tradition of baking and making things to share at Christmas. This year I have made a selection of preserves throughout the year to give away as gifts to friends and neighbours. I made rhubarb and vanilla, rhubarb and ginger, strawberry and gooseberry jams earlier in the year. I wanted to add something Christmassy so this weekend made Cranberry and Port Jelly which is great in a cold turkey sandwich.
Cranberry and Port Jelly
1.5 kg cranberries
1 cinnamon stick
a few juniper berries
a few cloves
strips of orange zest
500ml ruby port
1 Put the cranberries, cinnamon stick, juniper berries, cloves, orange zest and port into a preserving pan. Add enough water to barely cover and bring to the boil. Simmer over a gentle heat for 30 minutes, until the cranberries have burst and become tender. This is one of the best bits of the recipe. It smells divine. There is a gorgeous Christmas aroma of fruit and spice like mulled wine. It made the house smell very festive as I sung along to Christmas songs on the radio. Mash well, using a potato masher, to extract as much juice as possible.
2 Strain through a jelly bag over a large bowl. Do not be tempted to press the fruit or squeeze the bag, as this will cause the jelly to become cloudy. Leave overnight. Handy hint – make sure the jelly bag is secure! I didn’t, and the bag fell off. We had red juice all over the floor and walls. Luckily I could rescue some to finish off the recipe.
3 Next day, when the dripping has stopped measure the resulting liquid and return it to the pan along with 275g preserving sugar for each 600ml of liquid. ( I needed about 350g of sugar, but had lost quite a bit of juice on the floor!). Stir well over a low heat until the sugar has dissolved. The liquid is a lovely deep, magenta colour.
4 Increase the heat and boil rapidly for 15 minutes until the jelly has reached setting point.
5 Remove the pan from the heat and allow the jelly to cool briefly. Carefully pour into hot sterilised jars. Seal the jars and allow the jelly to cool completely before labelling.
When I had finished making the jelly I parcelled them up in baskets and gift bags with pretty tissue paper to give as Christmas presents. The `proof of the pudding’ is in the eating. So we sat down with a nice turkey sandwich and enjoyed a good dollop of home-made Christmas Preserve!
I hadn’t a clue about beer until I met my husband. Mr Smiles introduced me to beer and particularly Belgian Beer. I always thought beer was a `mans drink’ so I stuck to wine. Being introduced to real ale has been a real eye opener. There are so many types of ale that there is a beer to suit everyone and not just `grumpy old men’.
I first met Mr Smiles at a walking club. I remember him enthusing about beer and Belgian beer in particular, whilst we ambled along at the back of the group. Mr Smiles mentioned that he always spent a weekend in Ghent, Belgium at Christmas time to sample the Belgian Beer and soak up the Christmas atmosphere. I liked the idea of Belgian chocolates but was a bit unsure about a whole weekend to sample beer!
I was introduced to the idea of beer slowly. Firstly Mr Smiles got me to try Leffe Blonde. I loved it! Leffe Blonde is an authentic Belgian Abbey beer brewed in Belgium according to the traditional recipes of the monks of the Abbey of Leffe. Leffe Blonde is still one of my favourites. It can make me a bit squiffy but it tastes really nice in a refreshingly kind of squiffy way! Beer is a bit like wine in that experts go out of their way to give individual ales fancy descriptions. I looked up Leffe Blonde (6.6%) and found it described as `a classic Abbey beer with smooth and well balanced fruity, warming flavours. The beer has hints of quince, gooseberry, bitter cherry and apple flavours together with hints of cloves, nutmeg and allspice.’ Well in 2010 when I was introduced to this beer I described it as `a sweetish lightly spiced blond ale’ and gave it 5* out of 5. I am yet to experience the gooseberry or quince!
Well we obviously got on well as I am now Mrs Smiles and Mr Smiles’s love of Belgian Beer is infectious. So much so that I have now become my husbands drinking buddy and join him on his annual trip to Ghent. We are off this weekend! In return Mr Smiles gets to accompany me on various outings to tea shops for tea and cake throughout the year. Fair exchange I think.
So we’re off to taste the Christmas Beer! Well what is a Christmas Beer? Firstly it will make me squiffy as these ales tend to have quite a high alcohol content. I usually manage to paint a few sketches of the beers I taste so watch out for a slightly looser and free style of art in my sketchbook when I get back! Christmas beers or Winter Seasonals are often rich, malty, dark, strong and complex. They are very different to refreshing Summery light hoppy ales. Christmas Beers are generally medium amber to dark brown in colour. Spiced versions are an American or Belgian tradition. English or German breweries traditionally do not use spices in their beers. A rich malty taste is common. Christmas beers may include dried fruit flavours such as plum, raisin, fig or orange peel. You may also be able to detect caramel, nut or chocolate. A light spruce or evergreen tree character is found in some. Mr Smiles’s favourite is Kerst Pater (9%) brewed by Van den Bossche. He describes it as `rich, dark, slightly sweetish and lightly spiced’. He will definately be having one of these. I will report back on this years favourites.
One of my discoveries was the micro-brewery `Compass Brewery‘ I tried their ales at my local farmers market. Mr Smiles was so pleased with my discovery that we had their ale the `King’s Shipment’ at our wedding last year.
Compass has brewed a fabulous Christmas beer called `Tannenbaum‘, their Christmas Tree Beer. It is made with sour malt from Germany and flavoured with spruce needles from Christmas Common in Oxfordshire.
Highly recommended! Cheers!
I look forward to telling you all about our Christmas trip to Ghent. Do let me know any beers you recommend we try!
This is my latest commission piece. Kate has a lot of vintage china that she has collected over the years.. This set had been in the family for generations but most pieces are chipped, cracked or worn. I gave it new life in a watercolour and invented the pattern on a new cup as all the cups had been thrown away.
It is a really pretty set but sadly has no Makers Mark to identify it. It does have a Pattern Number of 2/615 but this doesn’t give us a date. If you have any idea as to the date of the tea-set please let me know and I will pass the information on.
I really enjoyed painting this commission. The colours in the china are very similar to the lovely patchwork table-runner and the client’s curtains. I am pleased that I have managed to convey the light streaming through the window on a sunny day.
Do get in touch if you would like me to bring your care worn china to life in a commissioned watercolor.
When I first started painting I went to the nearest shop that sold watercolour paints and bought one of those economical paintboxes which has a multitude of colours and a variety of cheap brushes and paper.I have learnt over the years that it pays to spend a bit more money. Buying cheap paints, brushes and paper really is a false economy.
My current paintbox has a limited palette of just 6 paints in it and I have 1 favourite watercolour brush. How did I choose the paints in my box?
Artists or Students Paint? Not all paint is of equal quality. Artists paints are the top of the range using the finest pigments. Artists’ quality contain a high proportion of good quality finely-ground pigments Student paints are cheaper, therefore they may have synthetic fillers and less expensive pigments. They can give good results but they will never be as good as the Artist range. Due to the intensity of the artists’ quality pigments and the purity of the colour, less paint is needed when mixing. You will give yourself the best chance of producing fresh, vibrant clear colours in your painting. I want to give myself the best chance of producing a good painting so now always choose Artists Paint, often using Winsor And Newton. A lot of my paintings include delicate fine porcelain or flowers so pure fresh colour is very important to me. I would recommend choosing a few carefully selected good quality paints rather than lots of cheap ones. I buy my pans individually and add them to an empty box purchased from Jackson’s Art Supplies.
Pans or Tubes? Tube paints can be kinder to your brushes and are easier to achieve strong, bold colours. However tubes are less convenient for painting outdoors or when travelling. I find tubes messier. I often get the lids stuck on and the tubes split. I therefore prefer pan paint as it is easier to transport and not as messy. I also waste less paint. My paintings tend to be fairly small and delicate in colour so pans suit me. If you favour large paintings and want to go really bold you may get on better with pans.
Which colours? My first paintbox had a myriad of pre-mixed paint colours in it. I soon found out that this is a sure way to create mud on the paper. If you have too many colours you will struggle to get familiar with them. The objective of colour mixing in painting is to create the largest number of options from the minimum number of colours and to be able to mix the colour you want. When you become familiar with your paints they become like old friends and you become passionate about colour and how colour can be mixed and used to create exciting results.
Edward Betts: `Nobody is born a colourist. You become a colourist only after many years of looking, experimenting and painting. And painting and painting.’
When choosing paints for a limited palette a bit of simple Colour Theory helps. In simple terms all we need is three primary colours to get us started. Primary colours are red, yellow and blue and cannot be mixed from other colours no matter how hard we try. I often pick 1 blue, 1 yellow and 1 red to produce a painting with a primary palette. Limiting the paints I use in a painting gives the end product a real cohesion. The more colours used in a painting , the more difficult it is to achieve a colour harmony. That is why if you use a lot of the colours from a ready made box you can end up with a painting that doesn’t work. The colours just don’t hang together. To be able to make a Primary Palette work for you, you do need to know how the three colours will mix together. To this end I have devised a colour mixing book. Everytime I use a new variation on a Primary Colour Scheme I produce a chart to experiment with the range of colours I can achieve with the three chosen pigments. I am very systematic about this. To some this may seem very scientific rather than artistic. However it really does help to know how your paints work and mix together. It is invaluable. If I want to mix a specific colour in the future I can refer to my charts. Before I start a painting I try to work out which three primaries will give me the best range of colours.
To produce my chart I start by choosing three primary colours – a red, a yellow and a blue. On the colour wheel I mix two primary colours together in equal amounts to make secondary colours – green, purple and orange. It is amazing the variation in secondary colour depending on the primaries you start with.
I then do a line chart mixing two primaries together in varying amounts to create more secondaries. These are still a mix of two colours but in varying amount.
I then do another line chart. This time I take the secondary which is an equal mix of two colours and mix this colour with varying amount of it’s opposite color on the colour wheel. i.e I mix orange and blue, red and green, and yellow and purple. These mixes give a wide range of tertiary colours or neutrals. These mixes are invaluable for creating neutral shadows. Much better to use a colour you have mixed than yet another colour from your box.
`Vintage Tea’ is an example of a painting I made with this primary palette of three colours – Permanent Rose, Aureolin and Winsor Blue (Green Shade). I chose these colours because the permanent rose and a dash of the blue would create the pinks I needed. The fresh green of the leaves could be created with the slightly greeny yellow of Aureolin and the Winsor Blue. I was able to warm up the yellow with the permanent rose to create the cakes.
A Six Colour Palette is easier to work with. For reasons of simplicity, we are taught that the three primary colours – red, blue and yellow – are all that are required for colour mixing. In fact, in pigment form every colour has both a masstone and an undertone. Many people talk about warm and cool colours. This can be confusing. I have found red paint referred to as warm and yellow as cold. However I have also heard people called warm in colouring if their skin tone is golden but cool if their skin tone is more pink. How confusing!
Thinking of paints as having a masstone and an undertone is easier to understand.
A blue pigment (masstone) will have either a red undertone or a yellow undertone in comparison to another blue pigment. French Ultramarine is a red shade blue whilst Winsor Blue(Green Shade) is a yellow shade blue.
The undertone of each colour however, is relative to the next one. For example Winsor Blue(Green Shade) is more towards the red than Manganese Blue but both are classed as yellow biased blues.
So, red, blue and yellow alone are not the whole story and in fact six colours provide a wider base for colour mixing: a red with a yellow bias, a red with a blue bias, a blue with a yellow bias, a blue with a red bias, a yellow with a red bias and a yellow with a blue bias. The six colours I have chosen in my paint pallette are based on this theory.
The primary colours I choose to work with are appropriate to the secondary I wish to mix. For example, if the subject I am painting has a vibrant orange colour in it I need a yellow with a red undertone so I choose Indian Yellow. I also need a red with a yellow undertone so I choose Winsor Red as it is more biased towards yellow than my other red. If I wanted to paint the secondary colour purple I need a red that has a blue undertone such as Permanent Rose. I also need a blue with a red undertone such as French Ultramarine. However if I used Winsor Blue (Green Shade) instead I would not achieve the vibrant purple I was after. Winsor Blue has a yellow bias. If you mix the three primaries together you get mud . Therefore if you mix a red with a blue undertone with a blue with a yellow undertone you get a muddy, dull colour as you actually have red, blue and yellow in the mix.
This theory has helped my colour mixing immensely. In my `Jubilee Tea’ painting I needed very specific colours. I wanted to stick to a traditional three colour palette, however it was impossible to get the colours I needed to make with just three paints. The blue needed to be French Ultramarine as I needed a blue with a red undertone for the very specific colour of the china and the flags. I needed a yellow red for the flags and the flowers. However if I mixed a red with a yellow undertone to the French Ultramarine blue I got a muddy muted purple and not the vibrant purple blue for the flowers I wanted. I also couldn’t make the bluey red for the strawberry jam. I therefore added Permanent Rose as a fouth colour which worked a treat!
There are many other choices to be made when it comes to paint selection eg transparency, opacity and granulation.The six paints in my palette are transparent where possible as I need to achieve light, bright images suitable to my chosen subject matter of vintage china, glass or flowers. However achieving very dark ,darks is therefore not easy. I will talk more about paint selection in future Blog Posts on `Mixing Colours for Flowers’ and `The Colour Green’. Colour mixing is so exciting and I look forward to sharing more of my colour experimentation in the future!
My love of vintage china started with Ethel’s jug. Ethel was my great, Grandma and the jug is the sole survivor of her tea-set. I remember both my Grandma Betty and my mum using the tea-set for afternoon tea. The tea-set was most likely part of a wedding gift to Ethel Spice and Henry Berry when they married in June 1913 in St James Church, Clapton, London. The milk jug dates from around 1913 and is described as Radfordian Ware, made by Samuel Radford Ltd.