Close the Saloons

Of Town and Country

In Norwood, St. Lawrence County, NY a newspaper printed a take-no-prisoners anti-saloon tract in 1886. The article was reprinted from the “Independent”, possibly a newspaper of that name in New York, NY. It focused on the increasingly popular lager beer and the saloons it was sold in.

It is interesting to compare the tone of the piece to the contemporary, big city coverage we have often related pertaining to beer, breweries and booze. The Sun in New York, Daily Eagle in Brooklyn and other larger New York-area papers were writing in a proto-hard-boiled style, one that would mature in mid-20th century popular culture (“dick” films, guys and dolls dramas, Walter Winchell columns, Dashiell Hammett and similar).

The big city writers were kind of blasé about booze, explicating the endless chambers of massive breweries for readers, explaining European cafes and drinks, charting the decline of ale vs. lager, and generally covering booze in a way similar to today’s media.

One sees the shadow of temperance attitudes in some of this writing, but not much more. For example, a pro forma sentence might be included that, we intend here to talk about the way beer is brewed and sold, not the right and wrong of drinking it. Beyond that, down to business.

In small towns, it was very different, one would never read articles of this type except possibly where liquor was manufactured, as in Kentucky. Norwood is in St. Lawrence County and I’ve written before how liquor, legal and otherwise, was appreciated there too but the public face of it was always the obverse of what New York said. Propriety was everything in a small place. You couldn’t run or hide, and the preachers and others on their side had writ of the land.

The story below, which I’ve reproduced in full, covered all the bases: family integrity; morality and religion; and keeping strikers out of the workplace. It has a stark frankness and simplicity. There is no dissimulation, no fine distinctions made, no fence-sitting as are legion in our politics today. It’s more, this is what we’re going to do, and don’t cavil with us else we’ll steamroller you.

There is even an implication that if “Germans” got in the way of total Prohibition they would be dealt with, too. How was not specified. I’d assume this part of the article, at least, was simple hyperbole.

The resolution exemplified by the article grew and prevailed in the country by 1919, it is fully prescient as to what would occur within a generation. While I don’t agree with the specifics of the issue as addressed here, I do admire the forthright tone and stance, the refusal to cavil before what was seen as a mortal threat to the land. There is a lesson in it for today’s politics and today’s challenges.

The Lager Beer Saloon.

The old whisky bar, or rum-hole was bad enough; but it had this advantage, that it had the credit of being frankly disreputable. It had no defenders. Lager beer is not so intoxicating as those distilled liquors, but the lager beer saloon is more demoralizing than the old doggeries [sic]. The importation of lager beer is the worst evil that has come into this country since slaves were first brought to Virginia. The effect is not immediate, but the evil is progressive and the habit debasing. A young man who has got into the habit of frequenting the lager beer saloon, is pretty nearly ruined.

It is because lager beer tippling is not so disreputable that it is so dangerous. In our cities the lager beer saloon is everywhere and it is patronized by the mass of the workmen. Little children are sent by scores to bring a pail of beer to their parents. They are taught to haunt these spots, and to drink from their earliest years. Our modern drunkenness begins on lager beer, so that lager beer makes the most of our drunkards. It is the parent not only of drunkenness, but of all stupid inefficiency aud unthrift. It is a besotting drink, where it does not produce absolute intoxication.

The lager beer saloon is the haunt of lazy and crazy fools. It tempts men to sit still and do nothing but talk silliness and mischief. The one danger which threatens the Knights of Labor, comes from the lager beer saloon. Mr. [Terence] Powderly has again and again warned them of it. If their members can keep free from the lager beer saloon they can be trusted to be clear-headed and diligent. It is the men who hang about the lager beer saloon that stir up differences between employers and employed. We never had a report of a strike, perhaps a just one [sic], degenerating into violence, but that it is out of the saloons that a crowd runs to beat an honest laborer. It is the lager beer saloon that is always the headquarters of violence, lawlessness and anarchy. The Chicago anarchists did their plotting in their saloons. The leaders of the same crew in this city keep lager beer saloons. Shut up the lager beer saloons and you have broken up the whole organization of the anarchists.

The corrupt politics of the day has its center in the lager beer saloons. That is where the pot-house politicians gather, where the candidate sets up a keg for the crowd. Shut up the lager beer saloon, and you have done three-fourths of what is necessary to purify the politics of the country. So we say whatever else is left, shut up the lager beer saloon.

There is a curse in it. It must be abolished. It should have no quarter. The man who sells lager beer ought to be shut out of the Church. The man who makes it should be ostracised from decent society. These men are foes to God and their country. There should be no mercy shown to the traffic. The sacred cause of prohibition must make war on the fermented as well as the distilled stuff.

It makes no difference what the politicians say, what German vote the Republican party may lose, for the lager beer saloon must go, and if the German vote or the Republican party resist they must go too. Downright abolition and prohibition, sweeping and complete, unyielding and compulsory, is the only thing to which we can give consent.


The Bass Stink

It always comes as slight shock to realize that certain reputed foods and drink don’t objectively taste “good” on first acquaintance.

This is what is meant by acquiring a taste. From Sauternes, in which “la pourriture noble” (noble rot from botrytis) has a skein of flavour, to the best caviar – always a little fishy – the great foods and drinks often taste a little strange. Food habits are largely arbitrary, which explains the great diversity of things people eat and drink. Fermented mare’s milk, 100 year old eggs, fish sauces of Asia fermented as in Rome of old (garum), Limburger and many other cheeses, cider redolent of old horse blanket (Brettanomyces) – nations acquire a taste for things other cultures can’t abide. And vice versa.

National preferences tend to go in one direction or another. Britain’s traditional food has been said to be relatively bland. But even there exceptions exist and more so in the past. Ever had a bloater (form of smoked herring)? Old Stilton blue used to run with maggots. The British liked mutton, and game hung for weeks. Not for shrinking violets.

One kind of British beer, the famed pale ale of Burton-on-Trent, has always had a stenchy note that reminds many of (apologies) passing gas. Sulphate ions from dissolved gypsum in well waters explains it, in combination apparently with certain yeasts. People got used to the taste and it became a kind of national specialty, indeed an international one.

One might wonder why a taste not immediately attractive could gain a market foothold. It was thought the hard water in Burton beer created a tendency not to sour (see top right-hand column), a consideration which ended perhaps by trumping others. It may be too people just liked it, e.g., German lager is often redolent of dimethyl sulphide, a compound in this case deriving from pale lager malt, not mashing and brewing water.

Bass and other Burton pale ales superseded the original pioneered by Hodgson of Bow, London. Whether Hodgson’s was superior gastronomically is an open question. London’s soft waters were considered more suited to porter production, but if they produced a bitter without the tang of over-boiled egg, I’d say Hodgson’s had the edge. Commercial competition rendered this moot. Later, when all pale ale was vouchsafed from instability, the Burton type had the edge from tradition and pedigree.

I recall when I first tasted Bass in England about 30 years ago being disappointed in the “Burton snatch” as it’s called. It’s noticeable in Marston’s ale too, the other great surviving Burton beer (of the old school). A good English pale ale/IPA often still has the Burton snatch regardless of where brewed, as brewers’ chemists know how to mimic the effect. Much ado about … gastronomy…

In America in the second half of the 1800s, Bass beer was a reputed import, replicating its success around the world. It always cost more than domestic ale. It was from England, home of great ale, ancestor to the American project. Domestic brewers argued their beer was as good or better, but always had an uphill battle. Later-1800s press accounts on the domestic ale trade in New York attest continually to the falling position of ale and its downscale image. See for example this 1880s Brooklyn Daily Eagle piece, and this one.

It must have taken courage to say Bass was “stinky”, but some Americans mustered it.

In 1900, a Congressional hearing looking at food safety and additives in beer heard evidence that on opening a bottle of Bass ale, people expected the “Bass stink”. In the extract reproduced herein, there is discussion on the causes. Given the state of science at the time, even experts didn’t really know.

Some thought it was due to lime (or the related) sodium bisulphite, a preservative which can certainly lend a sulphury note to foods and liquids preserved with its aid. Brewing writers of the period often commented on the effect but preservation was considered necessary particularly for some exported beer. This was a time of transition, when pasteurizing beer to neutralize residual yeast hadn’t taken hold. In any case draught beer was not pasteurized then, only bottled where the process was used.

Another potential cause was Brettanomyces, as Bass ale then was long-stored at ambient temperature in uncoated wood before bottling. A Dutch scientist, Custers, around 1940 isolated brett yeast from bottles of Bass. This followed upon the landmark discovery around 1900 by Nils Claussen that vatted or long-stored English beer underwent a secondary fermentation from wild yeast, or brett, which imparted the flavour in question.

In the 1900 testimony, Bass strongly denied using preservatives. See my new article on American “musty ale” in Brewery History where I reference the evidence and expand the discussion of preservative in beer.

I’m inclined to believe Bass, and think the Bass stink must have been attributable either to the Burton snatch (gypsum in water) or Brettanomyces, or both. Still, the fact that Bass was bottled by numerous separate concerns – Bass didn’t take in the bottling function until much later, as ditto Guinness – suggested some bottled Bass sent around the world was probably dosed with bisulphite. But whatever the cause, one of the great beers of the world, Bass ale, was … odoriferous.

In the event, once something has cachet it is very difficult to dislodge it. Even today, the status conferred by certain beer and wine imports is magical. Many craft lagers, say, by virtue of being unpasteurized and freshly consumed, are superior to an imported German lager, but still people still endlessly order the latter. It’s the factor of “name”, or recognition. It’s true for many kinds of cheese and wine as well. It takes a long time for things to turn around, for people to develop the confidence to support local production when it is good.

Bass prospered as an export to the U.S. no less after Prohibition. You can still buy Bass in America, it is brewed today under license in New York State and, for local draft supply, Toronto. There is no more Burton snatch in it, no more Brettanomyces, it’s been rubbed out. (The English draught original still features the snatch though, or so I understand).

Was something lost? Yes and no.

Note re images: the first image was extracted from a 1902 issue of the New York Sun, here, available courtesy the NYS digitized newspaper resource. The second image was extracted from a 1904 issue of the same newspaper, here, courtesy the same resource. The last image is via the HathiTrust digitized library as linked in the text. Images appear for educational and historical purposes. All intellectual property in the sources resides solely in their lawful owners, as applicable. All feedback welcomed.

 

 

 


Wine of the Orchards

Drink of golden fire … wine of wild orchards, of russet summer, of plump red apple

-Cider With Rosie, Laurie Lee (1959)

Cider is something I try only occasionally. I like it, and its traditions and gastronomic interest are second to none in the world league of drinks, but somehow it gets left aside in favour of beer as a staple.

Still, some cider sloshed up against us recently. One was French, not from the west but Camargue in Provence. The second: the craft-sounding Caple Rd. from the old-established regional, Henry Westons in Herefordshire, England. The third was local, from Peller Estates in Niagara, best known as a winery.

The French one issued from Le Mas Daussan, an apple orchard which stresses organic production. You can read about it here. It had the intense perfumed notes I associate with Normandy cider. The Weston product, aged 18 months in stainless steel and wood, was rich but equable. Clearly apples of different types were blended, the west’s typical cider varieties but also probably a touch of Cox Pippin or other dessert types.

The Canadian one, No Boats on Sunday, was full of McIntosh apple character, with a good balance of sweet and sharp. The latter has hops in it too although one wouldn’t know from the taste.

While the southern Rhone mightn’t seem propice for cider, the Camargue is subjected to the mistral. Its climate is not the “baking Mediterranean” type, perhaps one reason the apples performed so well in a drink more typically associated with the Viking and Celtic pays of Atlantic France.

None of the three had brettanomyces flavours, a plus IMO. I dislike the barnyard haut goût of much farmhouse-style cider. I recall a scrumpy sold from the bar top in a paper box in London some years ago which literally stank of it. To be sure, many gastronomic specialties have tastes that objectively are unpleasant or at least must be acquired – good beer, say – but brett should be used with caution I think in (any) drink.

The mass market side of the business probably goes too far the other way – Strongbow in particular seems much blander than even 10 years ago. The big sellers in general seem sweet and simplistic but obviously a lot of people like them.

The “Mac” apple has an appealing flavour and has long been “the” Canadian variety. It hails from eastern Ontario but has long been associated with apple orchards throughout eastern Canada, and is the basis of Canadian apple juice. The flavour is bright and partially of the wild apple the Mac derives from, but without the sourness.

Quebec has an established cider industry since the 1970s. Before that it was sub rosa, farmers would make it for their own use or to sell to passers-by. It had a rough, characteristic taste, kind of cardboard-like. Some of the cheaper commercial brands in Quebec still remind me of it. The Mac flourishes in particular in the Rougement area near Montreal.

Even though each country makes a variety of cider styles, sweet, dry, flavoured, etc., there is a national imprint of flavour I think. The English and French types are close cousins. The North American ones remind me, generally, of our apple juice standard and once again the Mac profile. Varying apple types are used in Ontario, I know, but still there is something in our soils I think which confers a characteristic flavour.

Ontario must have 15 or 20 cider makers now and there is every hope the future will bring more variety and taste.

 

 


Brooklyn Lager – A Taste of History

Having enjoyed a glass of Brooklyn lager on draft in France recently, I sought out a can of Brooklyn lager here to test and compare. The canned one was brewed in New York, I assume in Utica at F.X. Matt Brewing Company where Brooklyn Brewery has long made the bulk of its production until its planned large-scale brewery in Staten Island, NY (or possibly elsewhere per last press reports) is up and running.

Brooklyn Brewery is a pioneering, East Coast craft brewer which first marketed its contract-made brews in the late 1980s. Later, some draft production was supplied from the company’s small showcase in Brooklyn, NY.

According to the website, this is the origin of the lager recipe:

… Steve [Hindy] and Tom [Potter] commissioned fourth-generation brewmaster William M. Moeller, a former head brewer at Philadelphia’s Schmidt Brewery, to brew Brooklyn Lager at the FX Matt Brewery in Utica, New York. Moeller pored over the brewing logs of a grandfather of his who had brewed in Brooklyn at the turn of the last century to develop a recipe for Brooklyn Lager. The result was an all-malt lager beer with a tangy aroma created by “dry-hopping,” an age-old technique of adding hops during the maturation process to create a robust aroma. Brooklyn Lager made quite a splash in the 1980’s beer scene in New York City, dominated by the light, rice and corn lagers sold by Budweiser, Miller and Coors.

It was interesting to read this, as when I tasted the beer in France, brewed under license by Carlsberg in Denmark, I immediately thought of my research on the main form of 19th century American lager. It was malty, reddish-brown, hoppy, exactly like Brooklyn lager. This form of lager preceded the paler, Bohemian type which became the template for American adjunct lager. In retrospect, one can see it was a bridge from the pre-1850 top-fermentation days to the new, German-influenced era.

To read this morning the beer was in fact inspired by a c. 1900 brewing log makes perfect sense, everything ties together. I had been aware that Sam Adams lager was inspired by a 19th century recipe, and broadly it shows the traits the research disclosed, but I hadn’t known that Brooklyn brewery’s lager had similar roots.

I’ll admit when I first tasted the beer around 1990, I didn’t like it and didn’t favour the other productions of the brewery either, in any form – bottled or draft. To me, the beers were just not “on”, something wasn’t right. Obviously the market as a whole liked them and the company grew. It now makes a baker’s dozen brands year-round with seasonal specialties and one-offs. Indeed it is reaching overseas with distribution and contract brewing help from the likes of Carlsberg.

So why did I enjoy that beer in France, and the canned one last night no less? (They were virtually identical in character).

I think the beer improved, frankly. It’s probably been that way for some time, but I hadn’t revisited it in a long time due to my initial reactions.

It is my experience that the craft breweries who stay in business generally improve their products unless they are pitch-perfect on release, as Sierra Nevada’s beers were, for example, or Anchor Brewery’s since the 1970s. Few breweries get it right right off the bat though. Time often has a way of bettering the product as the brewer learns with experience, better technical resources, more capital, etc.

In fact, I now recall that I had a glass of the Brooklyn lager at the Dominion pub on Queen Street last year. I liked it a lot and made a mental note to buy it again but forgot later in the general hubbub of the beer scene/beer business. I’m sorry now I didn’t try the East India Pale Ale in Paris when I had the chance – it was on draft in a couple of places, too.

But I’ll catch up with it somewhere before long.

 

 


New Publications by Gary Gillman

I’m referring to publications separate and apart from our frequent blogging here on different facets of beer, distilled spirits, other drinks and food.

We had a short piece earlier this month in Calgary Metro, a daily print and digital commuter newspaper which is part of the Star Media Group. It was part of a spread for Calgary International Beerfest held May 5-6. The piece, “A Resurgence of Many Styles of Beer To Enjoy”, can be viewed on pg. 15 in this link. It may re-appear in Edmonton soon we understand.

It’s directed to a general audience and was written accordingly. Nonetheless it reflects some long-held ideas we have about the origin of the modern proliferation of beer types.

In addition, Brewery History, a long-established scholarly journal devoted to beer and brewing history, has just published its latest issues, nos. 168 and 169. No. 169 contains two articles of mine. One is a lengthy, fully-referenced and illustrated piece on the history of American musty ale. The other is a review of Empire of Booze, the book published last autumn by English drinks writer Henry Jeffreys.

Brewery History is a fascinating and important resource for those interested in the historical aspects of beer and breweries. Anyone interested to obtain the current issue, or to subscribe, should write to Dr. Tim Holt, the Editor, at tim.holt@gmail.com. He can assist or direct you accordingly.

As the policy of Brewery History is to permit the book reviews to be publicly accessible on publication, my review may be read here (scroll down to pg. 82). The reviews contain much else of interest, especially the review of Frank Appleton’s new book. He is a pioneer of craft brewing in Canada.

Finally, our legal blog at www.lawgill.com has been updated with a multi-faceted discussion of the Canadian 9.09% whisky blending rule. It factors useful background we have gleaned from our historical studies as reported here in past postings as well as certain experience gained advising clients recently on this matter.

 

 

 


Beer. Paris. Now.

The beer scene in Paris, based on a week’s stay after a lapsus of seven years, is still dominated by brands of the large groups: Heineken/Pelforth, Carlsberg/Kronenbourg, AB InBev/Stella Artois. These are the main cafe beers available. Occasionally you will see Jupiler, also from AB InBev, a Belgian lager which was the best of the bunch. Meteor’s pilsener too appears here and there, from Hochfelden in Alsace. Meteor is independent.

I assume Heineken is the same all-malt brew we get, so it has an inherent quality, as does Jupiler. The others, all local staples, had a strong note of brewing adjunct to my taste (corn, wheat, or some kind of glucose addition). In particular Pelforth Blonde, which is or used to be an ale vs. a lager, seemed to decline a lot since my previous visit. The basic Kronenbourg was metallic-tasting, the 1664 version a bit better.

Meteor makes a range of beers some of which surely have character- a Grande Malt looks good – but the beers are hard to find in Paris as the main market is in Alsace-Lorraine.

An option is sometimes offered by these breweries in the form of an “abbaye“, a Trappist-style beer, or a “blanc” or vaguely Belgian white style. Of these I tried the blonde Affligem, familiar in export markets as well. It was good with the perfumy, chalky yeast background typical of Belgian top-fermentation. I had a taste of Grimbergen as well, darker but similar. These are salutary to have but don’t alter the general picture much.

The concept of guest beer seems almost unknown, at least I didn’t see it. This is the system where an industrial brewer allows a true craft beer on the bar it supplies.

The one shining light in the general commercial system was the appearance albeit rarely of Brooklyn Brewing’s lager or East India Pale Ale. I tried the lager and it was great, better than I remember here. Based on a Twitter discussion, it seems it’s brewed by Carlsberg under license in Denmark now. All to the good IMO and in truth it was one of the best beers on the trip. It is the “bon ton” beer of the young crowd and it appears Carlsberg is promoting it quite actively.

This is just the cafe scene, or the beers at the corner brasserie or “tabac“. There is plenty happening at a deeper level, in different ways. There are at least 15 beer bars proper, new school I call them and easily found on an Internet search (“best craft beer in Paris”). They sell craft beers from Paris, elsewhere in France, and beyond, some may brew on their own. I was only able to visit one, Brewberry in the Mouffetard area, Left Bank. La Fine Mousse was the other I wanted to see especially as there was a tap takeover by a Lille bar, but we ran out of juice that day.

I liked The Bowler in the 8th arrondissement a lot, which projects an English pub image but is really just a good beer bar with a changing international selection, both draft and bottled. When I was there there were some primo lagers including Westerham’s Bohemian Rhapsody from England, an awesome Czech-style lager with delicious sweet malt and a ton of aromatic Saaz hops. And surprises (for me) like Innis & Gun’s Gunpowder IPA which had none of the coconut-like taste from aging in American oak barrels and was superb, better than similar session IPAs here.

There is, side-by-side with this newer group, an old-school list of beer bars, some of which date to the 1950s. And here is a good time to say, when you read a breathless description how craft beer is new in Paris, that the scene only took off in the last five years, blah-blah, well, no. There has always been good beer in Paris. You had to search it out, but that’s not so different than anywhere or today’s Paris really.

Places like Au Trappiste, Sous Bock, l’Académie de la Bière, Falstaff, Hall’s Beer Tavern and more carried the flag and still do. There was also the Frog group of British-style pubs, still going strong with seven bars. And there was O’Neil, an outpost of the now sizeable and international Au Trois Brasseurs which started in Lille. These overlap with the newer group and all together offer a lively scene.

On top of this, there were in past days a number of beer specialty retailers, some of which are still in business notably Bootlegger in the 14th arrondissement. So again these join to the newer retailers and the expanded selection you find in some supermarkets.

Every generation thinks it has found something new, but there has always been good beer in Paris and if you want to go back to the 1800s, that was the heyday of local brewing with dozens of breweries in business. I took a tour organized by a local beer group which reviewed this history and impressive it was.

The American citric hop taste is new but it has only penetrated the EU in general in recent years. At Brewberry, I had a textbook black IPA made in Italy as it happens. A juniper- and rose-flavoured beer from Lorraine impressed much too, both in a range often found here.

In a wine bar off the Champs Elysées, an IPA from Brasserie Artisanal de Paris had a strong citric/dank taste very similar again to our IPA. The beer bar De Mory, whose bottled beers are made currently in Germany, also makes a good IPA indistinguishable from our versions. And so on for sours, stouts, saisons, etc.

 

In Franprix, a ubiquitous supermarket system in Paris, you can find London’s Meantime Beers (now owned by a large group), and other good-tasting beers including some of the more widely distributed Belgian and northern French beers.

The pioneering artisan beers of 30 years ago from Lille and environs (into Picardie, west to the Atlantic, east to Champagne) still do well. Jenlain, Trois Monts, La Choulette, Thellier, Gayant, Ch’ti are the main names. Jenlain was disappointing, thinnish and nearing the mass market taste IMO, at least the regular amber. I didn’t get to taste the others except for the amber of Ch’ti below.

 

It was rich-tasting, craft in every sense but demonstrated the house flavour, a “corky” taste I never liked.

The best beers I had were Brooklyn Brewing’s lager, Jupiler (very acceptable, malty and bitter), Guinness West Indies Porter – a newish, malty release that needs to appear here – and the IPA from BAP mentioned.

Good beer abounds in Paris, both in bar and at retail. With just a little effort you can seek it out. And what you’ll find is similar to here, a similar range of craft flavours with perhaps more influence from Belgium given its propinquity to France. By the same token, the cafe beers are quite similar to our mass market beers, in part due to international consolidation in the industry.

Finally, Belgium’s multi-generational influence in the international beer arena is a story unto itself. From the founding of the importer Merchant de Vin in the U.S. some 40 years ago, about the same time Belgian beer started to penetrate the U.K., to today’s exponentially larger craft and import industry, Belgian brews glitter in the beery firmament. Through times of boom and bust in craft brewing, of changes in the economy, Belgian brewing retains its lettres de noblesse. Whether this is merited is another question, for another day.

 

 

 


The Pâté of Houdan

“Protecting the old ways, for me and for you”

– “The Village Green Preservation Society” (Raymond Douglas Davies, 1968)

One of the features of French gastronomy which gives hope to retain its distinctiveness is the rescue of local breeds and dishes based on them. One sees it occasionally in other countries, the Rare Breeds Survival Trust is an example in the U.K., but there is a level of popular committment in France that is nonpareil.

Looking at Ninette Lyon’s listing of charcuterie (cooked meat and sausage) for Paris-Isle de France in her 1985 Le Tour De France (Gourmand) Des Spécialités Régionales (Marabout), I decided to check on the fate of her pâté de Houdan. We have seen how at least two brie cheeses she mentioned, Melun and Coulommiers, still exist and are sold in Paris shops today, but what was/is Houdan and its pâté ?

There is a surprisingly rich history behind Ms. Lyon’s few words. Houdan is a locality west of Versailles in the Yvelines district of Isle de France, an hour’s drive from Paris. It was noted for its poultry market in the 1800s and until WW I. The village gave its name to a breed of chicken with many distinctive features, including its five toes versus four for most breeds, and its striking butterfly comb.

You can read in Wikipedia here details of the Houdan chicken. Its lineage is old and not fully understood, but the Dorking, an English variety also with the rare five toes, is thought to be part of the bloodline. In this regard, one might ponder that England ruled Houdan between the end of the Hundred Years War and 1475.

Its meat was highly prized and said to resemble partridge or fine pigeon. North Americans might think of squab, which is young pigeon. The breed was an aristocrat of the poultry family, as the poulet de Bresse is, and was formerly served at the Versailles and St. James courts. It was the subject of a detailed manual in 1874 by the Briton Charles Lee. (Read the introduction for a masterful exposition of Victorian gentlemanly tact).

The meat was used to make the pâté after a local charcutier devised the dish in 1850. To be sure, pâté in a pastry crust was not confined to this type of meat. It is a feature of northern cuisine in general – Amiens has one based on duck –  but is known elsewhere in the Hexagone, sometimes as a festive dish. There has been a revival of interest in recent years in such pâtés, and chefs have introduced their versions in recherché restos. This 2012 report from Le Figaro gives the background.

English cold pies based on hot water pastry are well-known, or used to be, and bear more than a passing resemblance to the French pâté en croute. Melton Mowbray pork pie is a classic example. Once again we see how English and French influences compare, contrast, and intermingle, in food, languages, and other aspects of culture to this day.

Gastronomic associations have strived in recent years to save the Houdan breed and promote the once-famous pâté made from it. A recent Confrérie devoted specifically to the Houdan chicken and pâté has held two annual events to celebrate this history and keep it alive. Details can be viewed on its Facebook page with numerous images of the rescued dish. This association is one of many in France which promote interest in traditional foods, dishes, and beverages – indeed one in Paris devoted to beer appreciation hosted the in-depth tour I attended last Tuesday of former Parisian brewing sites.

This level of involvement by the general populace  – not necessarily professionals of the food industry – testifies to the special relationship France has always had and still has with the world of food and drink. No other country can claim, even today and despite the advances made by foreign dishes in Paris, such lettres de noblesse.

A gastronomic restaurant in Houdan, “La Poularde de Houdan”, features the pâté, you can see it on the menu here. It’s not clear to me if the real Houdan meat is used as so few of the birds are left and are used mainly for show purposes, but at any rate the famous bird and old recipes are the inspiration. In fact, it seems the breed disappeared completely from France by the 1960s but it was re-introduced from breeding stock sourced in the U.S. and Germany where specimens had been maintained since the breed’s renown in the 1800s.

That a stylish country restaurant would place an old local dish on its menu shows a respect for tradition – and an interest in simple good eating – that is typically French. In other countries, restaurants rush to offer the latest, usually foreign-inspired fad, neglecting so often their own culinary or agricultural history.

Ms. Lyon mentioned poultry among other meats used for pâté in Houdan. This is probably because the meats were sometimes mixed as is characteristic often of pâté, but in any case the version based on chicken was a culinary star at one time in Isle de France and Paris. Writing in 1985, the influential Ms. Lyon thought fit to mention the tradition, something which perhaps contributed to its restoration in recent years.

This online culinary guide proposes an authentic formula for the dish which uses multiple meats including foie gras. More detailed recipes are available online for the dish or its general type. If anyone makes it – try it with squab instead of chicken – let me know you make out.

Note re images: The first image above was sourced at loulouchanel, a French historical images site, here. The second was sourced from the Wikipedia entry on Houdan chicken linked in the text. All intellectual property in the images belongs solely to their lawful owner or authorized users, as applicable. Images are believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


Hommage A Mme Ninette Lyon

Ninette Lyon was a prolific French culinary author and journalist. While writing many conventional books, some in English for Faber & Faber, she had an interest in food history. With Alan Davidson, Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson, and a few others she was a path-breaker to what is regarded today as a valid academic study.

Her inventory of French regional products and dishes written in 1985, mentioned in my previous post, is a landmark in food studies and deserves to be better known. You can buy it currently on Ebay here for a song. While essentially an enumeration – of some 350 pages – it is not bereft of her trademark humour, as when she says of coq à la bière, or chicken cooked in beer, in Nord-Pas-de-Calais, it should be made with a coq de combat (fighting cock), those “qui ne se sont pas montrés assez agressifs”. She adds, when you order it in a restaurant, it is far from certain you will get a former coq de combat, but it will be enough that they send you a rooster, not a chicken.

Below is a short extract of her Isle de France-Paris chapter, on charcuterie. (The cheese listing below it is only partial, it carries on on the next page but brie forms an important part. You can see images of brie de Melun and brie de Coulommiers today in my previous post mentioned, satisfying links to the past).

I had a brief correspondence with Mme Lyon c. 1990 a propos the French origins, as the case may be, of two Quebec dishes. She was extremely helpful and wrote me to boot in perfect English. I highly recommend her book to anyone interested in depth in French food. Indeed it is still relevant, if only to hunt down many rare but surviving specialties. And some things she remarks are quite contemporary, for example the infatuation of Paris with green beans. Indeed the legume formed part of three dishes on our short tourney of Paris recently.

I raise a glass to her memory.

 


Fun Food Facts – France

I’ll start with a due disclaimer: just a week in France, and only in Paris at that, must give a limited perspective on eating in the country. This is especially as everyone’s experience is defined by their choices, pocketbook, and parts of the city they saw.

Still, dans ce cadre, my impressions: when I first visited the city some 20 and 30 years ago, the central arrondissements had a large number of charcuteries, boucheries, cheese-vendors, and bakers. Their number seems far less now. Correspondingly, there are many more Franprix and other supermarkets, and frozen food shops.

Similar items are still sold but meat and cheese is packaged in foil or plastic wrap of some kind. In a word, the industrial food system now dominates over the older, artisan and shop-based one.

I am not saying none of the older-style shops exist, and probably there are more of them outside the city and in smaller towns. But I saw very few on a number of rambles through various parts of the Left and Right Banks.

A generation ago, you saw large piles of rillettes, the white/pink/scarlet/red-coloured pork spread described in Ninette Lyon’s 1985 Le Tour De France Gourmand Des Spécialités Regionales. The exact hue depended on the cooking time, she said. You saw the large Paris baguettes, 700 gr. as she describes, with a white and pliable crumb. Today, the baguettes seem smaller and saltier too than I remember. I didn’t see a single large pile of rillettes anywhere, or one shop indeed where the meats were hanging from rafters or piled on the counter unwrapped.

We had a number of different breads at our hotel each morning, part of the generous breakfast included with the room price. Good to eat certainly but generally the crumb was darker than I recall, perhaps reflecting more whole grain usage. The croissants and pains chocolat were similar though to past decades.

The flavour of the famous Auvergne ham, a Paris staple, seemed as good as ever despite the presumed change in packaging. Quality too depended of course where you ate it. The best I had was at a brasserie near boul. St. Germain, it was served sandwich-style, cut into small squares to facilitate eating with a drink.

These changes reflect of course the march of time. The kind of daily shopping the old economy permitted, when most mothers did not work, has disappeared with the much greater number of women in the work force and improvements in the day care system.

Food is still taken seriously of course, and overall quality is high as compared to North America, but changes there have been. One area that impressed much was cheeses. Our hotel provided a changing variety each morning and the taste was strong and pungent for the most part, reflecting limited or no pasteurization.

As to restaurants, we ate in bistros, brasseries and ethnic restaurants, so I can’t speak to the more traditional “cuisine” places often benefiting from a Michelin star or more. This part of the culinary scene is very active still and since menus must be posted by law, I was able to read many of them including from the Relais and Chateau down the street from our hotel. The Escoffier-based cuisine which was a Right Bank staple many years ago, only partly challenged by the nouvelle cuisine of the 1970s, seems largely replaced by a more diverse scene.

The old dishes are sometimes still available, but lighter cuisine and often the chef’s personal interpretation seem more the order of the day. One place featured the “molecular” cuisine, a fad in recent years. Some of the high-end places reflected the fusion trend which has been an enduring part of the culinary scene internationally. One good bistro we went to had dishes where Thai or other Asian influences were evident.

There are many more Chinese and Middle Eastern restaurants than before, of excellent quality to be sure. The French, today, like international variety in their eating at least in Paris but Paris is a bellwether: il n’est bon bec que de Paris is an old adage. Bagels are a fad today, there are shops on almost every corner although the famous Jewish bread form looked rather pallid to me.

The one real disappointment was the reduction in classic bonne femme and provincial dishes that were the standby of every bistro and middle-class restaurant. Dishes like lentils from Puy with salt pork, roasted chicken, smoked herring and potatoes, sliced tongue, various fish preparations from the North sea (fish supplies are reduced, I saw pollack offered once!), onion soup, earthy andouillettes, etc. Only the steaks beloved of France are still available everywhere, the bavettes and rib steaks with the familiar pepper or butter or herb sauce and French fries on the side.

Vegetarian dishes and especially burgers have progressed in proportion. Burgers are hot in Paris. Almost every brasserie offers six or seven types. They looked good but it seemed odd to order one in France so I didn’t. Of course too all the major chains are there, McDonald’s, Quick (French-owned I believe), KFC, Burger King now, and more.

The old dishes certainly exist, I saw them here and there, but you have to search them out more. Food in restaurants on average is still of high quality, paralleling the general high quality of ingredients. A veal tournedos in port wine sauce stood out for me, and dish of lieu (colley, a cod-type fish) with chopped fresh cabbage. There was a faultless choucroute Alsacienne, the sauerkraut and meats dish of Alsace, and a fine tajine with lamb in a local market.

I should add that the old “zinc” or bistro which specialized in (generally) Beaujolais wines, reduced in number even 30 years ago, has almost disappeared. La Tartine on Rivoli street still carries the flag, and one or two others. The zinc bars still exist, physically that is with their curious warmth, repurposed for other uses. No wine is bottled any longer in the bistrot’s basement from barrels shipped by winery or wholesaler, at least that is what I was told. It used to be put in bottles without a label and you paid only for what you drank.

In general food “looks” more American than it used to. In part, our own food looks more foreign than it used to, or different anyway. Probably the twain are meeting somewhere on the way, as the languages will over time.

 


Paris Peregrinations

I will write some notes on our recent Paris journey, in three phases. First, general impressions of the city. Second, our reaction to the food scene there. Third, comments on beer in Paris (while not intending to focus on our pet subject, inevitably I was drawn to it when in situ).

As for 20 and 30 years ago when we first visited the city, the architecture is the main draw. At every corner you think you are in a museum of some kind, an outdoors one based on buildings, monuments, and the engineer Haussmann’s long-lived design. Paris survived almost intact the two major wars of the 1900s, and his work and the previous infrastructure left standing retain all their glory. You get a burnished golden look to many of his buildings which helps define the city.

This museum-character is virtually unique among major cities of its age and importance.

The famous Metro works as well as ever. The RER (interurban system often aboveground) works well too although in general the cars seemed older and scheduling less rigorous. Traffic is thronged, and somehow the city manages without the speed bumps and bike lanes which have made city-centre traffic so dense and slow-moving in many Western cities. I have a feeling there are aesthetic reasons too why these refinements of social paternalism are dispensed with there.

The city, while it has the same look as preceding generations stretching to the late 1800s, is however less French than before, dans un double sens one might say. The French language has increasing amounts of English in it, in public signage and in newspapers and other media. Even where French seems unaffected by English, one can see that many phrases borrow their word order and ideas from English. For example, the verb se positionner, or to position yourself (say to make a run for office), seems of this type.

Much of the business language in the press uses cant words from New York and London, but in French. I suppose practical people would say it’s gagnant-gagnant (win-win).

Many signs now are bilingual, one sees it in the Metro, the system to buy tickets certainly, in museums, in many shops.

I’d think in a couple of hundred years French will be replaced by English as the lingua franca (sorry).

As well, many more Parisians speak English than before. Not just in hotels and restaurants, but those whose work requires interaction with Britain, U.S., or other parts of the EU. Of course globality and the Internet promote all this. Still, knowing some French helps the visitor a lot. With my Montreal upbringing, expressing myself came easily but I had trouble following some of the French due to the speed and monotone style in which Parisians speak. Quebecois speak much more in a musical way which to my mind is more understandable, but it’s all relative. All the French I met expressed great interest in Quebec and many said they would like to visit here.

I told one person that most French Canadians trace their lineage to Normandy or Brittany. He expressed surprise at this and said the modern Norman accent is not like Quebec’s, but of course things change over time.

In mid-2017, most of the tourists seemed Asian or East or North European – very few North Americans. The reasons are well-known, especially the fear of more Islamist terror attacks. One sees soldiers festooned with submachine guns frequently in town, especially near the seats of government in the 2nd arrondissement.

A group of Czechs was in town wearing white and red football-like costumes, some with funny hats. A bunch of them, men and women, sat in a line in a cafe and ordered large mugs of beer at noon. My kind of crowd. We met some on the Seine tour boats as well.

The city remains very livable. Like London, it almost instinctively knows how to preserve a kind of tranquility once the traffic dissipates and dusk falls. This is achieved in other ways too. Walking for hours each day, I think I heard an emergency siren once or twice – in Toronto it would be many more times. There is less heavy construction, of course because so much of the city remains the same, hence less noise from that source.

I didn’t see any of the zones where large numbers of French and immigrants live of North African or similar origin. These areas must be relatively distant from the main arrondissements of the city centre. There is an ethnic diversity in that city centre of course, but it seemed not much different from decades ago.

The media especially tv seemed preoccupied with politics especially the election just held. The style of news seems much influenced by what we first saw in America, the panels where each speaker tries to shout down the other, the experts brought in from academy, army, or business to weigh in on this or that. It’s still very French though. Emmanuel Macron’s victory speech was a triumph of banalities in my opinion, just vague, inspirational talk, and he mentioned almost nothing of policy. Frequently this was the tone of the commentary as well including the print versions (Figaro and other newspapers).

There is an intellectual tone to all this that seems impressive but sometimes you get the impression people like to hear themselves, and others, speak…

In the end, Paris remains itself, and that draws untold millions to see its wonders, and will no doubt into the distant future.