Stefaan Couttenye loves beer - drinking it, and cooking with it. He's the chef-proprietor of ‘t Hommelhof, a restaurant in Watou, Flanders, that offers the country's finest cuisine à la bière. People travel miles to sample his dishes - 6,000 miles, to be precise. California's beer fanatics flock here in their droves, along with many other nationalities keen to sample the best of Belgium's beer cuisine.
Strangely, the country's chefs have only relatively recently caught on to its potential. "Cooking with beer was something we did at home," explains Couttenye. When he first started cooking, it was Michelin stars he sought. Having trained under top chef Marc Paesbrugghe at the Sir Anthony Van Dyck in Antwerp, Couttenye opened his 65-seat restaurant in his grandmother's village, Watou, with his wife Sabine. Build it and they will come, he dreamed.
But they didn't. His food was too fancy for the locals, and for the tourists, who had started to flock to the town for its annual summer art exposition. "Then I thought, I'm here in a village surrounded by hops, with two breweries next door," says Couttenye. "Belgian has such great products - sweet North Sea shrimps, endives, asparagus, pork - but we didn't have a Belgian cuisine as such. But we have beer, so why not cook with it?"
Couttenye reckons he was the first chef in Belgium to truly combine beer with food when he opened 21 years ago, and ‘t Hommelhof has since become a mini Mecca for others wanting to do the same. "In the last 10 years many restaurants in Belgium now cook with beer and offer beers to match - even some Michelin-starred restaurants. It makes me proud," he declares.
His first dish was mussels cooked in beer, then came slow-cooked ham, and chicken cooked in beer - all still on the menu's 15-dish permanent section.
No country comes close to producing as many styles of beer. Belgium has about 120 breweries, producing 500 beers in a dozen major styles, with at least 50 sub-categories. Every restaurant in Belgium will stock at least 10 different beers. And no other country produces beers so complex in character, from the spontaneously fermenting lambics to the beers brewed by Trappist monks. Brewers have played around with herbs, spices, berries and fruits to flavour their beers since the Middle Ages, and the same approach is now applied to cooking with beer.
"In the early days the bitterness was a problem - people weren't used to it," admits Couttenye. "But tastes change, and I use a lot of butter to even out that bitterness," he adds, with a grin.
Couttenye uses beer for everything, from deglazing and slow cooking, to salad dressings and stocks. "It started with white beer with chicken and fish, dark beers with meat, fruit beers with dessert, but now I'm using fruit beer - raspberry - with salmon. I've worked with hundreds of different beers and I've discovered there are no rules," he says.
He admits some recipes are down to luck - for example, his lobster cooked with the local wheat beer (there are two breweries in town, Van Eecke and Sint Bernardus). The lobster is halved, placed meat side up in a buttered dish, covered in beer and stock and baked in the oven for 15 minutes then served with a beurre blanc and seasoned with cayenne (€
Couttenye's monthly-changing tasting menu (€43, £29.39) includes dishes such as tartare of tomatoes with shrimps marinated in Blanche de Watou, and blanquette de veau cooked in St Bernardus Triple with young vegetables.
To drink with it? Often the same beer the dish has been cooked in. But whichever beer it is, Couttenye reckons more than 60% of customers will drink beer with the food at ‘t Hommelhof - with British and Americans the most enthusiastic.
Beer and cheese soup, €6 (£4.10)
Warm goats' cheese on toast with a honey dressing and raspberry beer vinaigrette, €10 (£6.83)
Salad of Pata Negra ham with peaches, St Bernadus Abt vinaigrette with truffles and vanilla, €15 (£10.50)
Cod "aan de schreve" with Hommerlbier, €15.50 (£10.59)
Half-chicken cooked in Blanche de Watou, €13.25 (£9.05)
Rabbit stew in ‘t Kapittel blond, €15.75 (£10.76)
Watou mussels, €18.25 (£12.47)
Slow-cooked shoulder of lamb in St Bernardus Tripel with a ratatouille Parmentier, €18 (£12.30)
Flemish tart à ‘t Hommelhof beer, €8 (£5.47)
‘t Hommelhof, Watouplein 17, 8978 Watou-Poperinge, Belgium.
Tel: 00 32 57 38 8024