If you wish to know how long it takes to walk from Dijon to Bruges, the internet is a marvellous invention. However, for some reason, Google Maps doesn’t give journey times for travelling on horseback, which makes me wonder if we are quite as superior to the ancients as we like to think. Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy from 1419-67, would have known that trip’s exact duration, as he owned both cities and was fond of travel. But all I can do is calculate that if walking takes 102 hours and Philip’s mode of transport, though faster, required resting and feeding (to say nothing of the delays caused by a 15th-century lord’s entourage), it would have been at least a three-day commute.
Why bother? Many medieval lords owned territories they didn’t see that often: turning up in your far-flung lands was what you did when someone else was trying to filch them, but, to be fair, that was pretty common. Philip moved his court frequently and I believe his reasons had to do with drink.
Even when winemaking techniques were in their infancy and production was the province of monks who may well have considered too great an emphasis on the Blood of Christ’s actual content inappropriate, owning Dijon would have been a licence to drink well – and tax the purveyors of your pleasure at the same time. Bruges, on the other hand, though a great trading port, would have been more of a place for beer. The tussle among brewers over using gruit, a haphazard selection of herbs (including heather, rosemary, mugwort) that was enthusiastically taxed, versus hops – which weren’t – would not have affected a duke. We know who won: I’d never heard of gruitbier until I visited Bruges’s new beer museum, but I’ve never heard of any adult who has never heard of hops. (Apparently gruitbier is dark and smoky and tastes a little like vermouth, thanks to all those botanicals.)
My theory, entirely unsupported by history, is that Philip loved both wine and beer, and that this fondness for the drink of two different regions made of this great landowner a permanent exile. He had reason to drink, having handed Joan of Arc over to the English. Even in a murderous age, sending to her doom a young woman who might have a direct line to God was surely a stressful activity. I picture Philip in thriving, beautiful Bruges, sipping his dark beer and dreaming of vineyards, or back in Dijon, his palace strewn with travel-weary courtiers, swirling a goblet of red wine and inhaling a tantalising fume of mugwort or rosemary.
There’s information on gruit in the Bruges Beer Museum, but to read it you must point a tablet in the right direction: paper labels presumably being too medieval. The present passion for interactivity would doubtless have displeased Philip and his cohorts, in an era when claiming the right to speak directly to God (much less receive an answer) could get you roasted. Again, I suspect our modern devices are overrated: the real interactivity in this frankly disappointing museum comes at the bar, where your entrance fee gets you three generous tasters of beers including Oude Lambiek De Cam, a juicy flat beer with an orange-grapefruit tang; the slightly barbecued-sausage Steenbrugge Blond; and Rodenbach Grand Cru, a red-brown beer matured in oak casks for two years, which has a malty nose and a sweet, almost liquorice kick atop an odd sourness that I’m convinced would work well with rabbit.
Scent and flavour are the last refuge of the exile, who can assuage his homesickness with something that tastes like home, just as the deskbound traveller can inhale, sip and be magically elsewhere. Time of travel: the blink of an eye. Beat that, Google Maps . . .
Nina Caplan is the Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year 2014 and the Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year 2014