Gold in Trout
I sometimes see the signs of Spring: the pollenated ground; a lonely green leaf on a tree; flapping wings of birds building nests; tadpoles congregating in illusions across a pond. Winding downhill in a maturing canopy of foliage, I downshifted to cut the personal effort, passing the burden down the line and straight to the transmission. Far south in the Luxembourg Province of Wallonia, just north of the French border, forest yields to field. Brown sheep sporting dreadlocks chomped the young, short grass situated within ancient and sturdy polished stone walls. Ochre colored sandstone, the “pierre de France,” rose from the grass in walls, belfries, and arched sally ports. Vines climbed in symmetry on the walls of an old guesthouse. In the background flashes of red maple buds added to the palette as the Spring day fought vestiges of Winter. A trout, lips pursed upon a golden ring, embossed the keystone of the entryway arch leading to Orval Monastery.
Like all truly great and interesting products, people, and places Orval oozed rich history and legend. Founded in 1070, Orval became the site of local legend in 1076 when Countess Matilda of Tuscany, wife of deceased Godfrey IV, Duke of Lorraine and uncle to the famous Crusader, Godfrey of Bouillon, dropped her wedding ring into a clear, deep spring. While I’m sure she wasn’t short on gold rings, she retreated in devastation for prayer. Upon returning to the spring, a trout rose, ring in mouth answering her spiritual whisperings. Orval’s iconic bottle and chalice still bear the image of a trout carrying a golden ring, and the brewery still draws from the same spring to brew Orval’s equally legendary beer.
The monastery grounds are large, containing a modern monastery, ruins of the monastery destroyed during the French Revolution, a small guesthouse, a brewhouse, and a cheese factory. Unfortunately, the Orval brewery is only open once a year to the public; however, a building just outside the ruins contained an exhibit illustrating their brewing process, displays of equipment, and historical glassware and memorabilia. Brewing began in 1931 to finance the construction of the new monastery. Traditionally Orval fermented in shallow, open vats. Now they use vertical, closed, conical fermenters. Fortunately, changes to the fermentation schedule have retained Orval’s unique flavor. Special yeast strains added three times throughout the process and ample dry-hopping yield a fresh, bright, aromatic, and tangy beverage. Bottle conditioned and containing wild yeast strains, the flavor of this beer develops and changes over time, starting hoppy and citrusy and slowly changing to orangey tartness and leathery farmhouse with the years. The recipe is very unique. At the intersection of many distinct brewing cultures - French, Dutch, Belgian, and German - each left its own impression upon the iconic brew. Not a pale ale, not a funky lambic, not a triple or dubbel, Orval shed all classification. The glass alone inspires an air of sophistication, and their memorabilia incites envy. The images and typeface are somehow both modern and archaic: a blend of new wave with medieval.
The ruins remain for visitors to stroll and glimpse the past. Brick walkways bordered in low, stone walls divided squares of grass and garden. Doves lounged upon the ground in the patches of sunlight. An old oak vaulted towards the sky and arched out in wide fingerlings, casting shadow throughout its quad. Cedars also lined the perimeter and emanated the clean, sharp smell of evergreen. Entering the old monastery, I saw the new abbey through embrasures left by vacated medieval stained glass. Blue sky replaced the absent ribbed vaults of the ceiling, trading stark gothic reverence for the fluid light of day and season. Peace still pervaded from the stone walls of the old church, now seeping into the slipstream of nature: the alter, nave, and choir no different than boulders rolled downhill in a storm of erosion or volcanic explosion; the moss and lichen growing upon the wet stone columns, accumulating in the depressions of the fluted surface. Walking into the nave aligned between the aisles of paralleling columns, we looked up towards the apse where a crucifix once stood and out the open windows above the chapels. The ground was mostly earth with occasional flagstone. Beyond the vague confines of the cathedral, we walked through a cloister (a quad for monks) likely strolled by wanderers and monks for centuries.
At A l’Ange Gardien, a restaurant down the street from the Abbey, we rehydrated with two Orval “green beers:" a lighter, tap version of Orval only available in the restaurant and the monastery for the monks (or if you manage to secure a bed in their guesthouse). We perused the menu and found a dish to split: white asparagus braised in Orval beer, topped with Orval cheese and Ardennes ham. To accompany the meal, we ordered two Orval aged for over a year and a half in their cellars and served at the prescribed 15 degrees celsius in the branded Orval chalice. What a delightfully complex beverage. Bottled on September 14th, 2016, a thick, frothy head of very fine bubbles accumulated above a deep copper orange liquid bubbling strongly with a fine, continuous bead. The head remained strong throughout the duration and left a beautiful lace as I progressed through the glass. A clean and subtle citrus aroma rose from the glass. A subtly dry, orangey tartness, pronounced by the orange color, along with a leathery farmhouse funk streamed across my palate. The flavor finished clean and balanced with a lingering dryness and background funkiness. The white asparagus melted in my mouth along with the salty Ardennes ham. I scooped any remaining sauce with my spoon or bread and slurped at the remaining foam in my glass like a kid with a milkshake.
We enjoyed dinner with our AirBNB hosts in the evening. On their back deck, Bitterballen (fried sausage) and cheese appetizers crowded the table alongside chalices of Orval. The last few radiant beams of daylight broke through the clouds rising and twisting in a helix. Wind through rotting wooden fenceposts and fields of wild grass carried a fresh country smell. The rain drops pushed us inside to the dinner table showcasing Belgian meatballs braised in beer and traditional Belgian Fries - fried twice at two different temperatures for the perfect crunch. Towards the middle of the meal meat sweats kicked in and the room took a halcyon glow from the bottom of an empty Orval glass. The food and beer created a large bulge beneath my shirt and pulled me by gravitational force towards bed. I had to sleep on my back the entire night because I was so full. I didn’t feel like eating again until dinner the following day.