CHIMAY - I find myself in the green ‘boot of Hainaut’ just below Chimay. This is the region of escaveche, where you come across eel or trout pickled in vinegar. This dish, found on menus everywhere in the Chimay region, originated as a method of preserving fish. Nowadays, each restaurant has its own recipe, using eel, smoked or freshly baked trout, with a gelatinous or runny sauce.
Escavèche is from Spain. The term refers to decapitating fish. Closer to home, in the South of the Hainaut region, an escavèche is river fish pickled in vinegar. We tasted pickled eel with a glass of Chimay to hand.
From Egg to Escavèche
The trout farm at Cendron produces both rainbow trout and the local breed. Combined, both species account for an annual production of 20 tonnes, a considerable proportion of which is used to make escavèche.
“Over here we have excellent spring water with a stable temperature,” explains trout farmer Henri Detiffe. “What’s more, we always have a good supply of water, which reduces the risk of illness and contamination.”
The farmer is in control of the entire development chain, from the eggs to the adult fish.
There are four recognised providers of escavèche,” comments Pascale Honhon, who is preparing escavèche in her small factory. “Three are in Belgium and there’s one in France.
Our recipes differ but they always contain vinegar.” This small ‘atelier’, or workshop, is located next to a trout farm on the banks of the Wartoise.
Hence, Pascale uses trout to prepare her escavèche. In the wider region, eel is a more common ingredient. It used to be caught in the subsidiary rivers of the Meuse but nowadays it is imported.
A Seasonal Product
Pascale sells her escaveche at markets just across the French border in Fourmies, Vervin en Laon. “We find that Flanders or Brussels are too far away,” she says. Pascale’s escavèche will keep for two to three months. “My recipe has a gelatinous sauce which is very tasty,” she explains.
“My fish is pickled in fish stock to which vinegar is added. My escaveche is therefore less acidic than a 'rolmops' herring which uses pure vinegar.” The fish is oven-baked, pickled in fish stock with vinegar, and flavoured with lemon and herbs.
“The escavèche contains zero percent fat,” Pascale informs us. “It is an excellent food, inexpensive and will keep for some time. I am in charge of the entire production chain as I only use the fresh and smoked trout that comes from the farm.”
Escaveche is a seasonal product, which in summer sells five times as well as it does in winter. It is usually served with chips or a baked potato. This hot-cold combination works well. Pascale does not recommend heating the dish in its vinegary sauce. “You would need a strong stomach for that!” The escavèche is also very tasty accompanied by fresh raw vegetables, or as part of a salad.
High time for an escavèche tasting. My next stop is L’Eau Blanche, a restaurant in Lompret on the banks of the eponymous river. “Do you like your food sour and pickled?” Nora, the owner, asks me before I place my order. “Otherwise, you’re better off not ordering an escavèche.” I opt for an eel escaveche accompanied by onions.
While I am waiting, a farmer passes with his muck cart. He is on his way to the water pump just down the road. The outdoor smells are thrown in free of charge. Then I watch the Chimay cheese truck passing, followed by a beer lorrry displaying the well-known logo.
I am tasting an escaveche with eels stewed in butter provided by the local farm. The sauce is clear and runny. “Over here, we are using best practice,” Nora says. “Our escavèche is stored in eartenware pots, not in plastic.” I already know what I am going to serve for dinner when I get home.
Escaveche would not be complete without a glass of Chimay. As the main producer of Trappist beer, Chimay produces 16,500,000 litres a year, a lot of which finds it way abroad.
The abbey was founded on 25 July, 1850. Seventeen Westvleteren monks started cultivating a plot which had been gifted to them by Prince Joseph de Chimay. The monks observe Trappist rules, with fixed periods of prayer, work and rest marking their lives.
The first Chimay beer was brewed in 1862. This table beer was followed by a stout, perhaps inspired by the brews of Westvleteren. The brown La Première was a predecessor to the Red Chimay (75 cl).
In 1948, brother Théodore, in collaboration with Leuven University, succeeded in isolating and storing the Chimay yeast cultures. This took two years of investigation and experimentation.
The Chimay Rouge was succeeded by the black Chimay Bleue, which was originally intended to be an Easter beer. The Chimay Blanche which has since been christened Triple, followed in 1960. Brother Théodore’s recipes remain unaltered. The blonde Chimay is best drunk young, within two or three years, or else its hoppy character will vanish.
However, a blue Chimay can be safely stored for five years or longer, when it will acquire a port-like aroma.
The abbey and the brewery are not open to visitors. You are welcome to explore the Espace Chimay visitors’ centre, in the Auberge de Poteaupré, which has a restaurant and hotel.
The interactive Espace Chimay exhibition will show you everything you need to know about the abbey, its beers and its cheeses.
Your visit includes a tasting of the Chimay dorée, which was brewed exclusively for the Auberge de Poteaupré.
Chimay Red (7%): copper-coloured Trappist, velvety smooth, a slightly bitter taste, fruity smell reminiscent of apricot.
Chimay Blue (9%): brown Trappist, powerful and complex, aromatic rose bouquet, caramel.
Chimay Tripel (8%): velvety smooth, aromatic, a hoppy aroma with touches of muscat grapes, raisins and ripe apples, a pure and bitter aftertaste.
Chimay Dorée (4.8%): a blond ‘refterbier’ (reserved for monks only). It can only be purchased as Chimay Spéciale Poteaupré in the nearby Auberge de Poteaupré.
Hainaut Tourism Office
Rue des Clercs 31
Telephone: +32 (0) 65 36 04 64