No need to be a Grinch around Belgian cheese

Published December 11, 2021, 7:00 AM

by Carol RH Malasig

A get-together over wine and nibbles with friends from Belgium

SAY CHEESE The St. Maure de Durbuy (ashened cheese on the right) was an instant favorite

The holiday season is in full swing and I have a confession to make. I’m not the biggest fan of Christmas. I know it makes me sound like a monster, but hear me out. I did love it as a child but as I got older, my inner Grinch started to take over. I know that I’m not alone when it comes to these types of feelings, though. The stress of preparing, the traffic (which is present everywhere, by the way, not just here in the Philippines), and getting yourself emotionally ready to see family who are always armed with questions and comments that don’t necessarily bring holiday cheer. Topics often include (but are not limited to) weight fluctuations and pressures on family expansion. I’m often so tired this time of year and my husband is also at his busiest in the office. Christmas is indeed made for kids as adults need to put in the work. I should remind my godchildren not to hurry with growing up.

The silver lining has to be Christmas shopping that’s done on weekdays during office hours. You get the holiday sets and the good prices while avoiding the mad rush on weekends when most malls must be avoided at all costs. There are also get-togethers with friends—both new and old—and they’re always purely fun. That’s exactly how it went at the home of our friends from the Belgian Embassy who hosted wine and cheese night on Monday. All guests were vaccinated, of course.

HOLIDAY SMILES From left: Rafael de Bustamante of the EU Mission to Manila, Brian McCrohan from the Irish Embassy Manila, Shilpa Iyer from WHO, Rebecca Zistel of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, Sonya Jetcheva, Jérémy Thirion of the Belgian Embassy, and the author

Such intimate settings are my favorite forms of soft power and something one truly misses during lockdowns. These events can sometimes be overlooked but they’re exactly why diplomats and their spouses remain as relevant as ever. Part of the job of representing one’s country includes personal connections and basically being charming. It’s the unwritten bit of the job description.

Coming together to try food from a particular country is always a great way to introduce one’s culture and give people a great impression. People often underestimate word of mouth and anecdotal experiences but a personal interaction or a connection made at such an event is often passed on. It never ends with the nine people in one’s dining room.

BAKING TRADITIONS The Sourdough Library is just outside Brussels

The wine and cheese night was made possible by the Belgian Filipino Business Club (BFBC), which would import and deliver the cheeses and wines to participants for a fee. During the pandemic, this annual event moved to the online space—a Zoom get-together the same evening the cheeses are delivered from Belgium. The online event allows participants to learn more about the Belgian products they received, from the cheeses to the alcohol and even bread from Puratos.

When it comes to cheese, people often look to France and the Netherlands. Belgium is a go-to for chocolate but it turns out the Belgians have a thriving cheese industry as well, one that enjoys the traditional influence of their cheese-producing neighbors but has the wiggle room to be quite experimental about it.

For us, however, we had our live guides through our hosts: Jérémy Thirion, the deputy chief of mission at the Belgian embassy, and his wife, Sonya Jetcheva. When it comes to cheese, people often look to France and the Netherlands. Belgium is a go-to for chocolate but it turns out the Belgians have a thriving cheese industry as well, one that enjoys the traditional influence of their cheese-producing neighbors but has the wiggle room to be quite experimental about it.

RASPBERRY BEER The same brand also comes in cherry

The St. Maure de Durbuy became an instant favorite. Goat cheese that’s sprinkled with salted charcoal ash, which draws out moisture for a stronger taste and allows for mold formation at the crust. It paired really well with the 2021 Boschendal 1685 Sauvignon Blanc, which cut through the creaminess of the cheese. Sourdough was also on the table and we learned that St. Vith, less than a hundred miles from Brussels, is home to the world’s Sourdough Library. It’s like Norway’s Svalbard seed vault, but for sourdough starters. Its dedicated librarian, Karl De Smedt, has been traveling the world since 2013 in search of bread traditions that can be preserved in the library.

As a nod to Sonya’s heritage, we had Elena filet (cured meat from the Elena area) from Bulgaria. A couple more Belgian cheeses were on the menu: Le Caprin, Witteke van Rumbeke, Brebis de Brakel, Vagebolleke, and Bio bleu fumé, each one offering a memorable gustatory experience. We also had the Boschendal Nicolas 2016 to go with them as well as beers like Lindemans Framboise and Grosse Bertha. Yes, cheese can most definitely go with beer.

Our hosts also had kriek—or Belgian cherry beer—in the fridge. It’s a drink I was more than happy to be reunited with after trying it in weekend markets in Berlin. Not a lot of people enjoy sweet beer but I do love it. It’s a liquid dessert with fizz and it also gets you tipsy. What’s not to love?

Our lovely evening happened on the first week of December and it was a great way to open the holiday season, even for a self-confessed Grinch like me. It’s hard to stay pouty over holiday stress when it had such a great start. I’m still talking about the St. Maure de Durbuy to anyone who’s remotely interested in cheese.

Here’s to hoping the BFBC will be able to take the event back to the real world by next year. We’ll be keeping our fingers crossed and staying updated through their Facebook page. Thanks to Sonya and Jérémy for opening their home to expats, diplomats, and a local to enjoy a slice of Europe in the heart of Metro Manila.

 
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