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jenever

A clear, distilled alcohol flavoured with Juniper berries. No, not the same as gin. There is a jenever bar in Antwerp that serves more than 200 different sorts, including fruit jenevers. Classical music, scrubbed wooden tables - not a gin palace.
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In that admirable and robust book Moonfleet, the smuggling sexton often suggests "let us take a glass of Hollands, lads, to ward off {name of season} chills." A sensible attitude to warding off chills, and a clear reference as far as I'm concerned to jenever smuggled across from the Low Countries. The only gin we've tried that comes anywhere near the basic taste of jenever is Tanqueray.

What we've seen of jenever shows how different British and Belgian attitudes to strong drink are. There is a national jenever museum in Hasselt where they are allowed to distill twice a year; it has to be done under the direct supervision and beady eye of the Excise department, and despite the glut of recycled Customs officers since the Schengen agreement there don't seem to be enough to go round. The town has long been a centre for distilling, something which is enjoyably underlined by an annual jenever festival.

Shots of jenever are available from stalls in the streets, at the museum and at the distilleries, not to mention at the numerous bars and cafes or in the transparent disguise of a Hasselt coffee – but we've yet to see a drunk on the streets there. Whole families turn up to enjoy themselves, from grannies to babes in arms, and have the comfortable sort of day out that Belgians seem so good at.

Jenever stalls also appear during fairs and carnivals, and sometimes in ordinary weekly markets; this applied to Vilvoorde for a while, and we carefully warded off seasonal chills with a slug of Cockney's (a Ghent distillery producing satisfyingly dry fruit jenevers) as well as avoiding starvation with a freshly-made waffle or a black pudding in a bun. Those of you fortunate enough to visit Antwerp could try the jenever bar De Vagant, on the Pelgromstraat not far from the cathedral; over two hundred different jenevers, daily papers on reading-rods, classical or Indie music depending on the staff and a superb restaurant. Brussels offers l'Archipel, at 163 chée de Charleroi: a good range of jenevers and pekets, including an almost medicinally powerful genièvre with ginger, and the chance of live poetry or music.

During the celebrations for the Fête Nationale in Brussels, you'll find peket and jenever stalls in the Parc de Bruxelles along with the Strong Man in his leotard, the ear-distorting hunting-horn ensemble from St. Hubert, Belgian flags on sticks and everything else that goes with an old-fashioned public holiday. Lucy Snowe would recognise both the place and atmosphere.

And the first time we visited Chris' friend Fabien in Liège, we stopped for a coffee before heading back to meet the rest of the family: in the (alas) old-fashioned and disappearing way, it arrived with a small glass of péket.


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