CHIMAY - The Chimay name has a resounding reputation in the beer world. This Trappist beer can now be found in 40 countries. The town itself, its surrounding region and the Trappist cheese are far less well known than the abbey and its beer. This is undeserved, as it turns out.
The small town of Chimay nestles between the forests of the Fagne and the Thiérache regions, the latter continuing into France. It’s a normal Friday morning and the market is bustling. Clucking poultry is waiting for buyers. Nothing betrays that Chimay is a principality.
The local ruler was awarded the title of ‘count’ by Charles the Bold. Maximilian of Austria upgraded the title to ‘prince’. Nowadays you can visit his splendid, fully-restored castle, iPad in hand.
Local names such as “Forges Philippe” tell the industrial, metal working story of the region in the 18th and 19th centuries. The slender, bulging tower of the Church of Saint Peter and Paul disappears from sight as I reach Chimay Abbey’s cheese dairy.
They produce a Chimay ‘grand classique’, one ‘with beer’ and a Chimay à la Bleue, rinsed in Chimay Bleu. Or there’s the Vieux Chimay, matured for three months.
The semi-hard cheese is made in the same way as it was 150 years ago, without any additives. However, the quality of the milk is a lot more consistent these days. Although the cheese is now made outside the abbey walls, the monks still keep a watchful eye.
Cheese affineur Jean-Marie Boch says: “We produce our cheeses following the Trappist philosophy. We aim deliberately for a small-scale operation so we don’t endanger abbey life.
A large slice of the profits is used for charity and flows back into the region.” To make the Trappist cheese, beer extract is added to the milk, so the heavenly aroma is retained. “Try this one in a raclette,” suggests an enthusiastic Jean-Marie, “accompanied by a beautiful blue Chimay! Heavenly!
The taste of the beer shines through in the cheese. Both products come from the same ‘terroir’.” To what extent does the cheese cellar determine the taste of the cheese?
“Lay down the same cheese in two different cellars and the taste will be different,” Jean-Marie Boch replies.
“Therefore we will always make sure that the typical cellar environment – with its moulds and bacteria – is not disrupted.” The cheese affineur himself comes from the French Vendée, so what drew him to this corner of Hainaut? “The good life,” is his answer.
“This region still has soul. Walk in the forest with a hint of mist or a ray of sunshine poking through the leaves and you can taste pure magic!”
The lake of Virelles was created 500 years ago to provide water for the forges of the region. It is now a nature reserve with 80 hectares of water. In the afternoon sunshine the golden yellow of the reed beds lights up against the blue water. A bird watcher takes up his position in a watchtower. A large egret descends.
Three blue herons are hunting breeding frogs amongst the reeds. In the distance a pair of mountain ducks is bobbing on the water. Bitterns are hiding among the reeds. You will hear rather than spot them.
Virelles is the only place in Wallonia where the Savi’s warbler breeds. There is plenty of space here for this little bird in the 12 hectares of uninterrupted reed beds. The rare black stork nests 5km away from the lake shores.
Unfortunately, the tourists who visit the reserve may cause too much upheaval for this shy bird’s liking. Otters were last spotted here in 1985.
We anxiously await their return to conditions which could have been designed for them. A bow’s shot away from Virelles you will find Lompret, one of the prettiest villages in Wallonia. Café-restaurant L’Eau Blanche is the perfect place to taste an escavèche, a regional dish made with trout or eel and deliciously paired with a nice big chalice of fresh Chimay Tripel trappist beer.