At the Wuustwezel meeting this year I talked to Jan about him organizing another Semois expedition. The last one had been in 2011 and was my introduction to the unique Belgian leaf, the breathtaking landscape of the Ardennes and the excellent beers of our Southern neighbours. I had such a blast then that I wanted to repeat that experience. So somewhere in the first part of this year a date was picked: 24 May. We would meet again before the castle in Boullion and then make a trip past the remaining Semois producers.
Back in 2011 Shaun drove together with me and I stayed the evening and night at his place so of course I asked if he wanted to join me again. Unfortunately (for me) he was in the process of moving into a bigger apartment with his charming girlfriend so he could not make it. I wished him all the best and started to think about other options. Perhaps a bed & breakfast? Or a simple hotel room? Hmm.. I knew that from The Netherlands two other forum members would join the group: Rob and Teunis. Perhaps it would be fun (and cheaper) if we together could rent a holiday-house somewhere in the Semois region and stay for the weekend. So I sent a message to the both of them and luckily they loved the idea. After a short search I stumbled upon a few suitable holiday-homes for a decent price. In the end I choose one in Corbion (after the approval of Rob and Teunis) where Vincent Manil and J.P. Couvert reside.
Friday 23 May: At 3 p.m. the holiday-house would be available and it was a 4 hour drive from my home (without traffic-jams). So to be on the safe side I decided I would drive away from home at about 10 a.m. I woke up pretty early that morning and packed my belongings under which 2 corncobs for the Semois tobacco of course. It was nice driving weather so I programmed the TomTom and began the journey. The first part went smooth until I came in the vicinity of Maastricht. For some stupid reason you have to pass some traffic lights instead of speeding over the highway to the Belgian border. The result was a big traffic-jam which took me about half an hour before I could press the gas pedal properly again. TomTom is not the smartest device so once in Belgium in stead of sending me over the ring-way near Liège I was directed right through the city. Beautiful to see, don’t get me wrong, but driving there was pretty sh*tty because of all the busy traffic. Once I hit the highway again a real sense of vacation washed over me. This because the landscape became more sloping. In The Netherlands almost everything is flat so when a Dutchman sees hills and slopes, *bam*, instant holiday-feeling. The rest of the journey was smooth sailing under a sunny sky until I arrived exactly on time in Corbion at the vacation-house. There I paid the remaining sum at the owner, got the key and was left alone. I unpacked my belongings, sat outside, lit up a pipe, started reading in Tolkien’s Silmarillion and waited for the other guys to arrive.
After almost an hour I heard a car and yes, it was Rob (Teunis would come by motorcycle). We shook hands and chatted away until Teunis arrived some time later. The holiday-house had 2 sleeping rooms, one with a 2-person bed and one with 2 bunk-beds. Because Rob was the oldest of us he could sleep in the 2-person bed and Teunis and I would sleep in the bunk-beds. While Teunis unpacked his stuff Rob and I decided to do some shopping. Fortunately there was a supermarket in the village at which we bought Belgian beer and already some things for breakfast, fresh bread we would get the next morning. We then picked up Teunis and drove to Boullion to have dinner. After walking a bit through the town-centre we managed to find some kind of luxury snackbar. With the food I guess I made a good choice (no idea what I was ordering, the menu was in French..). This because I ended up with an open cut baguette which had some Ardennes sausage inside and fries on top! Yummie! Back at the holiday-house in the evening it was becoming too soon too chilly outside so after a couple of beers we moved inside where Teunis more or less managed to get a fire going. We did not know if we were allowed to smoke inside but on the kitchen table stood a small ashtray. For us a sign that the pipe-God granted us permission to puff on our pipes indoors. Besides, the smell of the hearth would mask all odours. Needless to say it was a great evening with lots of great beers and great discussions. Pretty intoxicated we hit our beds late at night.
Saturday 24 May: Semois D-day had finally come! Without a major hangover we all awoke surprisingly fresh. After a shower Rob and I went once again to the supermarket which had fresh bread and croissants. Back at the holiday-house Teunis had set the table inside (it was too cold outside) so Rob could begin with the baking of some ham and eggs. Nothing better than a sturdy breakfast if you have a long day ahead. At the end of the morning we drove to the castle of Boullion where at a nearby café the other members of the expedition waited for us: Jan, Geoff, Tommy, Joyce, Hans and Herwig and his wife. We warmly greeted them and because the weather cleared up a bit of sun drove away the outside chill. Beers and snacks were ordered and after some cosy conversations we decided to go on our way. First stop was our holiday-house where some group members wanted to grab a quick bite. I made use of the opportunity to step into my own car. This because I like driving on curvy roads in the hills. It is a male thing I guess. Next stop: Vincent Manil.
When we entered the store with the group we were soon nervously greeted by Vincent’s daughter. I had seen her in 2011 but it was obvious to the eye she underwent some pleasant to look at changes. She tried to speak some Dutch but because her Dutch is as good as my French she soon fell back on her native language. At least we were all able to buy some tobaccos and bouchons de la Semois. The daughter then asked if we were willing to go downstairs to Vincent’s workrooms and the museum. Some group members had already seen that in 2011 and decided to wait outside.
Below we met Vincent himself who was working furiously to get a big order ready for The States. For you Americans who do not know this yet, since the beginning of this year Vincent’s Semois is available at The Pipe Guys and in a short time also at SmokingPipes.com & PipesAndCigars.com. Despite Vincent being busy he generously took the time for us and encouraged us to fill up a pipe with the tobacco laying around. Vincent is a man with passion for his profession and in rapid French (Arrgh! My French is so bad!) he explained the process of making his Semois. For those of you who want to know more about this, please read my Sunny Semois blog-post. Because of the increased demand Vincent tried to speed up the process but to no avail. Three days is the minimum he needs for a big batch. He also bought some “new” machines (building year 1920!) to help him with the packing of the tobacco. But he still has to manually glue the labels on each and every package..
In the museum we were left alone for a while so we could watch a video about the Semois-making process. After that Vincent came back and like the teacher he once was sat before us to tell us about his craft and answer questions. Suddenly he went to the other room to fetch something. He returned with some old Belgian government tobacco-tax books dating back to 1900, impressive! After a good look at the also impressive museum (Vincent has collected some rare stuff throughout the years) we said goodbye. Unfortunately the shop of J.P. Couvert was closed. It is only open on Monday and Wednesday because the dear man does most of his business online. So we went on our way to Bohan to Joseph Martin.
After a magnificent ride over curvy roads with stunning far-sights and lush forests we arrived at the place where the store of Joseph Martin is located. And I must say, the location of the beautiful stone building is jaw-dropping. Just over the Semois river with amazing views on the green hills. I just wanted to sit down, fill up my pipe and do nothing for the rest. But that was not what we came for. We entered the shop where Mr. Martin was a bit surprised to see such a large group. I especially came for his “Langue de Chien” (tongue of the dog) variety. The name comes from the size of the leaf used, it is as large as, yes, the tongue of a dog. These leaves are a bit younger and thus smaller than the regular ones. This makes that the blend tastes softer, sweeter and has less nicotine. I asked if I was allowed to take pictures inside of the man himself and his blends but unfortunately he wanted none of it. Where Manil has a very open and outspoken personality Martin is a bit shy. Lucky for me Joyce, the charming girlfriend of Tommy, just clicked away with her camera without asking. However, Mr. Martin was kind enough to give us all a real Semois cigar which tasted exactly like the pipe-tobacco.
The time had come to visit the last Semois producer of the day: C. Didot in the town of Rochehaut. The ride there, what can I say, I love the Semois region, so beautiful. When we arrived at the store I was a bit disappointed after having seen the nice buildings of Manil and Martin. It just looked like a standard souvenir shop which it basically is. One of the shop-windows displayed some smokers-wares and inside behind the cashiers-desk there were some shelves with tobacco. Here I also bought the Langue de Chien variety, the difference being that this one was produced by Didot. Mr. Didot I did not see, Ms. Didot did the selling. But according to Jan I did not miss much. Mr. Didot seems to be somewhat of a smile-less sourpuss..
Rochehaut is famous for its high viewing point on the town of Frahan below. So we walked there and despite the fact that I also saw it in 2011 the view is absolutely magical. You see a valley where the Semois river makes a loop with on its borders lush green fields where in past times the famous tobacco was grown. Now only an old drying shed remains.
Besides the howling of the wind we could also hear our bellies growling, dinner time. We went to the same place as in 2011: La Cabane. Basically an oversized snackbar but that term would not do this business justice. You can also get food like steaks and meatballs. Which was precisely what I took, boulettes de la maison, meatballs of the house. The fries are also a thing which makes the place pretty unique. This because they are still fried in lard and not in some vegetable oil. Not so good for the body but oh so yummie!
After dinner we all said goodbye to each other and went our separate ways. Rob, Teunis and I went back to the holiday-house where more beer was waiting for us. And Semois tobacco! I was able to smoke some of the Joseph Martin Langue de Chien from Teunis and.. I personally liked it better than the more robust Manil Semois to be honest. Sweeter and softer indeed. A pleasure to smoke. The evening was once again great with lots of interesting conversations. And lots of alcohol of course. I like the personalities of both men. Rob is very witty and has a perfect feeling for timing his often funny and well-thought one-line remarks. Teunis is a well-balanced spiritual man with a lot of experience in life who loves to sit in a chair and play the role of shrink. Before we knew it, it was time to sleep.
Sunday 25 May: I was the first one to wake up and thus the first to hit the shower. The outside weather was (finally) very pleasant. A blue sky, sunshine and no cold winds. We had some leftover bread and camembert which I thankfully ate. When we all were downstairs we drank some much needed coffee after which Rob decided to head home. Lucky for me Teunis wanted to relax a while longer and said he would clean the dishes and bring back the key to the owner so I also could leave. Back on the road it saddened me to see the hills and sloping landscape slowly become flat again. A good reason (besides the tobaccos, beers and food) to go back sometime!
Thanks go out to Joyce, Tommy and Herwig for the permission to use their pictures!