|Many people in the English-speaking world will have heard of Wallonia, although most will not be able to tell you exactly where or what it is. Just like the regions of Bohemia and Transylvania, Wallonia is often believed to have been a once-famous historical area which has long since been lost in the mists of time (the author of one book review we read suggested he might originally have thought it to be a region adjoining Narnia!).
Wallonia is simply defined as the southern, French-speaking half of Belgium which comes under the administration of the Walloon government, in contrast to Flanders in the north of Belgium where they speak Flemish. Belgium has four distinct linguistic areas – Flanders (the majority of the north), Wallonia (the majority of the south), the two German speaking cantons on the eastern border between Wallonia and Germany, and the officially bilingual area surrounding and including the capital city of Brussels.
|Travelling east into Wallonia from the vast maritime plains of French and Flemish Flanders, the topography turns to rolling hills, then plateaux laced with river gorges, before finally reaching the heavily-forested slopes of the Ardennes in the far eastern quarter. The majority of the Walloon population live along the northern corridor which comprises the towns of Tournai, Mons, Charleroi, Namur and Liège, while the south remains particularly rural and secluded enough for the abbeys of the Trappist monks to miss the hurly-burly of the twentieth century. The coal and mineral industries have left their legacy in the once heavily-industrialised areas around Mons and Charleroi but most of the hills of spoil are now covered with shrubbery as monuments to a changing local economy.
The tourist trade is currently booming in Wallonia with the emergence of the Ardennes as an ideal “great-outdoors” holiday destination for visitors from all over Europe. With Mont Botrange reaching just 694 metres, the Ardennes can hardly be called mountains, but the dark forests, moors and peat bogs constitute a largely unspoiled, quite wild place. The towns of Marche-en-Famenne and La Roche-en-Ardenne are the main tourist centres, and offer just about every type of outdoor activity. The far eastern towns of Bastogne and Arlon are well visited by Americans who want to see the cemeteries and monuments to those who fell in the Battle of the Bulge which took place in the forbidding terrain of the Ardennes.
Another popular tourist spot is the Meuse valley with its spectacular gorge around Dinant and the cosmopolitan town of Namur, the capital of Wallonia and host to the annual “Fête de Wallonie”. Mons, another town that gained notoriety from war (but this time in the First World War), has a beautiful town square and many fine buildings, which survived its tumultuous past. Tournai also boasts a couple of attractive squares, surrounded by the ubiquitous Flemish gable-ended house frontages, and is dominated by one of the largest cathedrals in northern Europe.
Wallonia offers a rich diversity of excellent, often very artisanal beers that defy strict categorisation by style. There are just six surviving beer-brewing Trappist abbeys in the world, five of these are in Belgium and three – Rochefort, Orval and Chimay seclude themselves in the wooded hills of southern Wallonia (these should not be confused with the commercially-made contract beers for abbeys such as Leffe, Maredsous and Floreffe, which are so common in Belgium).
The most famous of Wallonia’s beer styles is the somewhat loosely defined saison “style”, which now encompasses too wide a spectrum of beers to be reliably descriptive of a specific character and taste. Many of these beers, such as Saison de Pipaix, Saison de Silly and Saison Regal, have a rich malty base with an aromatic and mouth-tingling spiciness. Other beers, such as Saison Dupont, Saison 1900 and Saison d’Epeautre (the latter made with spelt grain), exude a citric, spritzy character. Different still are the literally-named Saisons d’Erezée, of which four are brewed annually to coincide with each particular season and are heavily spiced with seasonal herbs, spices, flowers and leaves. “Saison” is a very old beer style which was traditionally made by farmer-brewers in the late winter to be laid down until the summer when they were provided as a thirst quencher to landworkers, probably forming part of their payment. This farmhouse origin helps account for its wide variety and its regional differences.
Wallonia possesses some very famous breweries, such as Dubuisson (Bush Beer), Union (Cuvée de l’Ermitage, the Grimbergen range of beers), Jupille (Jupiler) and Achouffe (La Chouffe and McChouffe) – but many, especially the very artisanal ones – remain almost unknown to all but the locals. We hope our book “The Beers of Wallonia -Belgium’s Best Kept Secret” and these Wallonian Beer Pages will give an insight into the excellent, diverse range of Wallonian beers and give them a deservedly higher profile.