129 Hunter St. West, Peterborough
They’re an institution across Belgium—and in particular, the city of Antwerp. Flemish to the core, “brown cafes” (sometimes known as “brown bars”) are a favourite place for people to gather over a quality pint of beer— regardless of class or income. Built in a particular style, warm and cozy, they’re the lowlands answer to a good Irish pub.
Pools of warm light in a country that can experience weeks of rain, on end, the brown part originally nodded to walls tinted a particular shade by centuries of cigarette and pipe smoke. (Antwerp’s oldest establishment dates back to the 1500s, when the city was a global economic superpower, and merchants from around the world could come together to swap stories and find ways to trade.)
And Peterborough has had its very own brown café, St. Veronus, named for the (Belgian-born) patron saint of brewers, and fashioned after its counterparts across the pond. It’s all brown paneling and velvety banquettes and snug corners for conversation, and it’s been an institution on the corner of Hunter and Water Streets since 2002. Owner Roland Hosier lived in Belgium as a kid, and went back for a visit in his 20s. “The country has such a strong beer and food culture,” he says, with a grin that hints toward pride, noting that Belgium has more Michelin-starred restaurants, per capita, than France, as well as some 2,000 different cheeses. “They just never talk about it.”
St. Veronus specializes in cuisine a la biere, which Hosier explains is food cooked in beer, likening it to the way French chefs utilize wine in their dishes. Moules-frites, mussels and fries, is a Flemish classic and a top-seller (they serve four different types), but for Hosier his personal favourite is seafood waterzooi, a seafood stew comprised of cod, shrimp, mussels and scallops, simmered in a blonde brew from Averbode Abbey, which has been producing beer since the 14th century. The menu is seasonal, and Hosier buys local, or Canadian, as much as possible.
And then there’s the beer. St. Veronus offers a dozen on tap, and up to 80 in bottles—almost all of them Belgian. Hosier tells me about Lambic beers, which he serves. Dating back to the 1200s, they can only be made in the Zane Valley, near Brussels, and use a process of “spontaneous brewing” using natural, wild yeast. I try a could, including a type fermented with whole sour cherries in the barrels. It tastes like a bright summer day.
But, does he ever get Belgian visitors, and what do they think of his brown café? “They look around and say, ‘How on earth is this here,’” he laughs, noting that not even Toronto has a place like this. “They’re impressed. They say, ‘This is very much what it’s like.’”