Jane Grigson, English Food, English Beer

IMG_20160417_091018I’ve mentioned Jane Grigson (1928-1990) a few times as a premier English food writer of the post-war era. She was raised in County Durham, Oxbridge-trained, and was married to the poet Geoffrey Grigson. They were one of the intellectual power couples of their time, but of a more retiring, cerebral sort than is common today I think.

Grigson (nee McIntire) wrote books on English foods, on vegetables, French pork cookery, fish, Italian food, and other areas. She had a good publisher and was followed by a loyal coterie of thinking cooks. Many were busy householders but with the interest to know that little bit more about food – its historical and cultural aspects in particular – than those who simply want reliable recipes or to try new foods.

Jane Grigson’s like must still exist today – I hope so at any rate – even in the age of celebrity chefs such as Nigella Lawson and Jaime Oliver. Perhaps I just don’t know the names as well as 20 years ago. In North America, Jehane Benoit and Julia Child, as well as James Beard and others, were her contemporaries although not quite the same I think, more popularizers and explicators. Grigson was that but more, she was a writer whose erudition spoke through all her work while retaining a practical, straightforward bent from her north-east background.

Last year in The Observer a fine appreciation of her work appeared, which should be read by anyone interested in the British Isles and culinary matters. As the writer explained, Grigson foresaw modern trends such as the return of farmers markets, the emphasis on traditional products and breeds, reducing processing where possible, and an appreciation of Britain’s often-misunderstood culinary history.

The fashion in recent years for serving beef cheek, say, and board charcuterie and that kind of thing, was something she promoted when these foods were at best little understood or regarded as primitive survivals.

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Her 1984 The Observer Guide To Regional British Food was written with Derek Cooper, he did the parts on drinks, mainly beer but also cider and whisky. They searched out the traditional products of the regions especially unusual ones or those rescued from history. This meant the fish cures, seafoods, hams, lamb dishes, breads, poultry, cakes, vegetables, salts and herbs, and local beers or ciders. The book is illustrated with excellent photos and is written with great knowledge and passion. Her trademark scholarly approach is evident but it informs, even entertains, rather than fatigues.

Many surprises are revealed by her knowledge. At one time in the West Country, garlic was valued by the local people. She offers a dish of veal with garlic and saffron, another old West Country favourite, from the famed Devon hotel, the Horn of Plenty, to reflect this old tradition. It puts paid to the notion the British always disdained garlic.

A theme is the relative insouciance of the British to preserving and valuing the best of their culinary heritage. Of York ham, she explains it was originally smoked from the shavings of the carpentry required to build the Minster of York cathedral, and writes:

Certainly York does not bother much about its hams, not in the way a French town would with posters everywhere and a series of placards at the town boundary – “Bienvenue à York – sa cathédrale – ses jambons – ses Yorkshire poundings – ses Yorkshire pies de Noël”. What a dreary impious lot we are, no sense of fun, no pride! In fact you have to hunt down Scott’s, which is quite near the Minster, before you can find anyone who knows what you are talking about.

 

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Sadly, Scott’s closed in 2008, this press report explained why. What was lost was precisely what Grigson was trying to arrest.

Of the black-skinned Bradenham ham, she notes it originated in Bradenham Park, Buckinghamshire, where Benjamin Disraeli once had a home. She muses, “I cannot imagine he had much to do with its development”. Pointing to where Jewish Britons contributed to the quality of national cuisine, she lauds the Jewish way with salt beef in East London.

To wit, she mentions “Gold’s in Baker Street, near the Classic cinemawhich reached a high, and consistent, standard. Who knows if it still exists – certainly the theatre is gone. Then too, newer traditions will always enrich the London scene. If Grigson was writing today she would include them no less.

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Grigson notes tartly that someone once observed “traditional” means something at least 15 years old. She would have understood, for example, that the French regional repertoire is largely a recent or at least relative concept. One can see this in British Cookery, as she explains what one ate was partly a result of one’s means and class but also how one’s mother cooked – it differed with each family especially before recipes were written down and widely disseminated.

Her description of the food of “great houses”, where gentry and aristocracy resided, is revealing, yet so is her discussion of Lancashire tripe, which she liked – one variety of it is mentioned for its “chickeny” flavour. In this, her contemporary William Fowler disagreed, thinking tripe tasteless: he fed it to the minks on his farm!

To be sure an area has its ingredients which arose from local soils, gardens, waters, livestock, husbandry, but these were combined often in more ways than appear from recipe books. She therefore reminds us of the individualistic side of cookery, that a regional guide is not a code.

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This has assisted my thinking on English beer cookery. If the available sources seem to suggest it had limited application in English food history, well that only goes so far. Some families may have used beer more than others. Perhaps they just liked it or had worked out a way to get particularly good results. In my three part discussion of beer in English cookery recently, I discussed how William Fowler used beer in numerous dishes, and no one was more English than he. Anyhow, if foods are characteristic of a region and you feel you can combine them to good advantage, go ahead: the recipes in her book are illustrations, not a set of bound rules, is her message.

Beer Et Seq’s interest in dishes cooked with beer isn’t, in fact, met by Jane Grigson’s own work, which includes only a few such recipes: Gloucester Cheese and Ale (like Welsh Rabbit), beer in Christmas cake, and the Sussex Stewed Steak dish which she explains is from Elizabeth David. She does offer a porter cake from Ireland, which sounds very good. Her other writings on English food, those of which I am aware, disclose a similar lack of interest in this area. She does like cider in some dishes though, and gives a few recipes. I think she probably didn’t like the taste of beer in food, and fair enough.

Of the fine northern eating that characterized the families of the rich “cloth towns”, she writes:

[It] began, I suppose, with the Cistercians who swarmed all over Europe in the first half of the twelth century with an intensity of agriculture. They settled their communities with an eye for sweetness of site and efficiency of operation that makes the ruins they left behind a pleasure to visit.

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She contrasts to the northern tradition – the best of it – the “impoverished state of public food”, the relatively low standard of publicly available food in Britain (restaurants, cafes, markets) compared certainly to France in the same period. Has anything changed in Britain in 30 years regarding her point that the British need to understand better their culinary history, to offer a better average standard of food?

I can’t really say, perhaps readers in Britain would offer their opinion. Some things surely have changed for the better and I’ve seen some evidence of it myself, e.g., Borough Market in London, the gastropub (which London invented), and the proliferation of snout-to-tail and “market” restaurants focusing on seasonal products. However, there is such a continual interest in foreign foods that I wonder if Britain’s own culinary legacy is still too often overlooked.

Beer is an area I know better, and there I’d say the English have “looked back” with great interest and passion. Since the 70s, they have ensured notably the survival of cask ale – along with welcoming foreign innovation, notably U.S.-style craft beer. It may be that the gustatory passion of the British is most expressive for fine drinks, not least their own beer, whisky, cider, and some of the wine being grown there now.

And that’s fine, the contributions of the British to the realm of drink are legion and internationally acknowledged. If English and other British food never rose to the heights of neighbouring France, there is the consolation of the great English writing on food and food history, not least by Jane Grigson.

Note for all images above save the first: the second, a 13th century recipe from a manuscript, was sourced here. The third, from the news story on Scott’s linked above, here. The fourth, a Suffolk black ham, here. The  fifth, here and the last, laverbread and toast, here.  All are believed available for educational and historical use. All feedback welcomed.

Thoughts On Goose Island IPA

IMG_20160416_090751I had the draft as available in Canada a few years ago when I’m fairly sure it was imported.

Goose Island is now brewed at different Labatt plants including the London, ON plant. I’ve had the lower-gravity Honker’s Ale as brewed here but not, to my recollection, the IPA, so I opened a can last night to test it out.

It was a chance to see if a classic craft beer had “changed” under the aegis of the mega firm, AB-In Bev, which has owned it for about five years.

I visited the original brewpub in Chicago many years ago and tried the IPA and other beers in the range. First, I never thought they were outstanding beers. The flagships, including the IPA, were the best, but you have to like the aggressive, edgy interpretation Goose Island places on American pale ale viewed broadly. (I.e., there is no firm dividing line between pale ale and IPA just as there never was in the England, it’s more a continuum with deviations here and there).

Numerous hops are used in the brewing, and they weigh in with citric and bitter force. Styrian Goldings are included, a European variety at least originally, but most of the hops are New World types as one would expect of the style, such as Centennial and Cascade. As poured from the can, the beer is somewhat turbid, which doesn’t mean it isn’t pasteurized; I’d guess it is but can’t be sure. The taste is full yet on the dry side, and it reminded me quite a bit of Grant’s India Pale Ale, the first American beer to use the India Pale designation in modern times (early 90s). I’d infer it had an influence on the Hall family, founders of Goose Island.

Check out especially early reviews on Beer Advocate of Grant’s India Pale Ale. There are a number of parallels to Goose Island IPA, particularly with adjectives such as harsh, astringent, herbal. (Bear in mind these are compliments for a certain style of IPA).

Goose Island IPA has every marker of a craft beer – visual look, nose, lavish hops and cereals taste – and is very similar to what I recall tasting in Chicago and elsewhere when Goose Island was brewed only there.

It’s a very credible example of American IPA, indeed a classic type given the probable influence by the first generation of modern American IPA. Bert Grant amped up and dried down American Pale Ale but used the same type of hop approach. I tend to prefer a sweeter IPA and one with a more refined hops character, but that’s subjective. Goose Island IPA represents a defined style of IPA with its lemon verbena, almost sage-like intensity. It has won the awards it advertises for a reason, but the taste, as with any beer, will not appeal to all.

Generally I don’t care meticulously to pair beers with food – drink the beer you like with the food you like. In this case, I can see the company’s point that the beer goes well with blue cheese and curried dishes. Sometimes a strongly flavoured beer is right with very spicy or strong-tasting foods, not just to stand up to them, but so you still taste the beer after starting on the dish.

My verdict: it’s the beer it always was, the Labatt plants haven’t changed it or not significantly. The choice to buy it should be based on the kind of beer it is, nothing more.

 

It’s Bock Beer Season!

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Rock The Bock

In the days before the craft beer revival bock beer was important for those who had more than a passing interest in beer. Around springtime the Canadian breweries, one or two of them anyway, released their version of bock. Many American breweries did, too.

Bock was a stronger style of beer, originally an “ale” (top-fermented) which transmuted over time into all-malt lager with the onset of Bavarian bottom-fermentation. It derives by old accounts from the town of Einbeck in northern Germany, and may originally have been a dark wheat brew. It was shipped widely including to Bavaria where it was admired for its strength and restorative qualities.

Due to its special qualities there have long been monastic and even royal associations with the beer. The Paulaner Franciscan order apparently devised the extra-strong version called Doppel Bock.

This 1890s account of bock’s origins has a ring of truth about it and accords with other accounts going back at least to the 1820s. Einbeck, sometimes formerly called Eimbeck, has a brewery that still makes (bottom-fermented) bock, indeed more than one kind, all highly regarded.

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Bock in Germany, the regular kind, was a couple of points stronger than regular lager in the 1800s, around 6% abv. Labatt Breweries 30 years ago had a “Super Bock” in the market at 6.5% abv. I remember it well. It had a nice tawny colour and a more pronounced taste than regular beer. Still, by today’s craft standards, it would be considered fairly inoffensive.

In an unlikely development a bottle of Super Bock was found in recent years and opened, you can see the video of the team that drank it, here.

Strangely, bock in its most traditional form is often overlooked by the craft breweries – that is there are welcome exceptions.

You can find everything from Silesian smoked wheat beer to tea-flavoured stout to … you name it, but relatively little dark bock of the old spring, seasonal type. Helles bock, a later variant based on a golden lager, doesn’t really flatter the style, IMO. This type of bock seems to appear nonetheless with more frequency from craft brewers.

Perhaps they feel the light colour will appeal more than a regular dark bock. Good dark bock shows the qualities one associates with great German beer: a clean, mineral-like hop character and rich malty notes, but in bock the latter should always predominate.

Schlenkerla’s Urbock from Bamberg in Bavaria, only lightly smoked, is an outstanding bock, and there are many others of distinction from Germany.

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The Doppel versions from German brewers are usually very good but tend to be early winter specialties and hard to find in North America. These and numerous other bock variants are well-described in this German Beer Institute entry here.

In Ontario, Brick Brewing in Waterloo made an excellent bock for years but I haven’t seen it lately.  Molson-Coors’s Creemore UrBock is first-rate if well-matured to expel the boiled veg note that the Creemore lagers tend to exhibit (IMO). I keep a few cans for months in the fridge, bought in the winter when it is only available. This extra “lagering” usually makes them perfect by the autumn following. Molson used to have its own bock beer (see image appended) at a modest 5% – to my best recollection this was fairly ordinary, and its Creemore brand today is a decided improvement.

I heard that Side Launch Brewing in Collingwood, ON just issued a bock which is good news as anything from that brewery is top quality. I’ve been trying to track it down, so far without luck. Maybe Saturday will be Der Tag.

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You still hear the story that bock beer is or was made from the residues at the bottom of the vats, before they were cleaned. It’s not and never was true. Michael Jackson, the great beer author (1942-2007), wrote that various beer legends were embroidered and transposed to result in this tall tale. Fest lager made in March but finished up in October – what was left in the vats – became associated with bock because both were stronger and darker than regular blonde lager. Fest beer was sometimes called March beer since it was brewed then, so the last of the March beer consumed in the fall became associated with the strong dark beer called bock which hit the market in March and April.

The goat association results from the fact that in the Bavarian dialect, Einbeck sounded like ein bock – a goat. Goats famously can kick, so the association with bock beer was a natural and has never disappeared – a harmless story which makes for fun labels.

If you can find a genuine, un-hyphenated bock, locally made or imported, it is a treat. Whether it tastes like the 1300s Einbeck original, we will never know. But it’s great beer either way.

Note re images: The first image above is in the public domain and was sourced here. The second and third were sourced here, and hereThe fourth, in the public domain, here. All are believed available for educational and historical use. All feedback welcomed.

Some Taste Notes Including For A Fine Bourbon

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A very fresh can of the Barca stand-by, Estrella Damm, under eight weeks from packaging working back from the best-by date.

While an adjunct brew, it has a full and beery taste – nothing retiring about it. However, it has a noticeable dimethyl sulphide note (DMS) in my opinion, which tends to colour the character of the beer, much as yeast can do when prominent in the finished product.

This is a traditional blonde lager profile – one of them – but not to my liking. I left the glass shown on the counter with a small plate on top and the remainder of the beer still in the can. Tonight I’ll try it again, or maybe even tomorrow night. The DMS may lift off, as has occurred in other similar situations. Otherwise I’ll blend it, probably with a strong stout. Some carbonation will escape of course but surprisingly little if the glass and can aren’t disturbed. Also, losing 30%-40% carbonation is actually an improvement to most beer.

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It’s a cliché to say it, but this German Red Ale is one of the best beers I’ve ever had. It has a clean but very flavourful malt richness and sturdy but not dominating (as appropriate) hop character. I think Perle and Magnum hops are used. The label says Altbier style and it is exactly that, made in St-Eustache, Quebec by Brasseurs Illimités.  I had a sticke Altbier once from Dusseldorf, Zum Uerige’s, flown in a wood keg to a fest in Baltimore, MD some years back. Brasseurs Illimités’ version is very similar.

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An abbey classic from Belgium, rich-flavoured and faultless in authenticity. It’s made by Moortgat, which holds the licence from the Benedictines of the abbey where the recipe was originated. This is Maredsous 8, 8% abv, the dubbel. I’d guess it is flash-pasteurized for export but am not sure. It’s got that fruity background typical of good Belgian beer but that Belgian yeast gets up my nose. I find if I drink it and don’t “think” about it, it tastes much better. Voilà!

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Tasted at a LCBO tasting counter, Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve, 120 proof (60% abv). From the bourbon powerhouse which is Beam Suntory in Clermont, KY. I added enough water to bring it to about 40% abv. What a whiskey! Very full and rich, elegant, everything in the right place. People say some bourbon is like good Cognac, often an exaggeration but in this case fully justified. I don’t mean to say bourbon isn’t as valid a spirit as good brandy. But it is rare in my experience that you can sip a bourbon neat and get perceptions similar to good Cognac such as softness, a velvet quality, and refined taste.

This bottle bears a nine year age statement, the Knob Creek standard unless it has changed lately. Yet, the whiskey in the current single barrel bottlings is a few years older than that. A little birdie told me, plus it tastes more matured than regular Knob Creek. The regular-issue stuff is hardly to be disdained, but this 120 proof version is the bee’s knees. The barrel birthed something real special here, folks.

The trademark yeast/anise flavour of Beam-recipe bourbon is completely absent. Presumably, extra aging and/or barrel selection resulted in a different profile. They should do this for the regular Knob Creek.

Finally, don’t try to drink it neat and be a he-man. High proof bourbon, even at 100 proof let alone 120 proof, was almost never drunk that way in the classic era of bourbon, say 1840s-1990s. It was mixed in cocktails or drunk with ice and water. Sometimes it was drunk neat, but not at 120 proof. More typically this would have been at 80-90 proof, or 40-45% abv.

Getting 120 proof simply means you are getting a better value – more alcohol – it’s not an invitation to drink it straight at that proof. Take a micro-sip just to see what it’s like, if you wish. Otherwise, adjust it so it’s like a standard bottle in proof (80-100). Not only will it taste in your drinks as it should, you are in effect saving 20% or more off the sticker price – itself quite reasonable for a bourbon of this, er, caliber.

Pasteurization And The Next Frontier For Industrial Brewers

Louis_Pasteur,_foto_av_Félix_Nadar_Crisco_editPasteur Had A Good Run, But What’s Next?

When the beer revival started over 30 years ago pasteurization was a big deal, or rather, the absence of it. It was noticed when the new crop of beers wasn’t pasteurized, which was often the case.

Earlier, almost all bottled and canned beer in North America had been pasteurized.

Coors was an exception: it used a fine filtration method that it felt removed most of the active biological matter, especially yeast. But Coors applied end-to-end refrigeration to lessen the risk of undue spoilage.

A couple of other brands, usually advertising a “draft” character, similarly skipped pasteurisation but were carefully filtered; Miller Genuine Draft is a good example.

Draft beer generally had not been not pasteurized because it was sold locally and within a short time frame. It was also kept cold until the beers as served. Today in Canada I am quite certain the mainstream brands are pasteurized whether bottled/canned or draft. In the U.S., you hear different things, but I’d guess the mega-brewery draft beer, except Coors and Miller Genuine Draft, is pasteurized.

The same applies to old-established regionals like Yuengling.

The onset of flash pasteurizing for mass market U.S. draft was encouraged as well by the Sankey keg system. It was invented in the U.K. in the 1950s and  was designed to be filled in connection with flash-pasteurized beer.

As for craft beer made by mega-brewers which now own those brands, practice varies. Some of those beers are now pasteurized, some are not. In Canada for example, I’ve heard that Molson Coors does not pasteurize any form of Creemore Lager. What about, though, Goose Island IPA as brewed in a Labatt plant? I’d think it is pasteurized but am not sure.

Pasteurization takes its name from the French scientist Louis Pasteur. In experiments to promote the better keeping of wine and beer, he concluded that application of relatively low levels of heat (c. 165 F) would stabilize the product and retard souring for longer. The idea wasn’t new, canned food had been treated with heat to preserve its contents by then, and centuries before the Chinese were heating wine to preserve it. But Pasteur had a huge impact on the beer industry.

Early descriptions of the process refer to “steaming” the beer, or even sterilizing it although pasteurization is not sterilization technically (that would involve using a much hotter process which would destroy much of the character and taste of the beer). Pasteurization is not applied to make the beer safe for consumption: alcohol in beer ensures dangerous pathogens are absent. Rather, the process is used to retard undue spoilage, especially souring. An old, unpasteurized beer cannot harm you, in other words, it is different where the process is used in the milk and cream industry. Below, I show an image from the 1930s of a pasteurizer which happens to be from the dairy industry, but the principle is very similar to that used in brewing.

There are two forms of pasteurization, the tunnel method and the flash method. The former is more intensive and the bottles stay in a tunnel for 30 minutes or more and their temperature is elevated within a period calculated to secure a given period of stability. The flash method entails heating the beer to a higher temperature (some sources say lower) but for a much shorter time. This correspondingly obtains a shorter period of stability for the beer. I could give more technical details, for any interested, but this explains the nub of it.

By definition, English-style cask ale is not pasteurized since it is unfiltered after coming out of primary fermentation and remains so until dispense – killing the active yeast in the beer would defeat the purpose. The lack of application of heat and retention of some residual yeast in the beer gives it a delicate edge pasteurized and filtered beer doesn’t have. Many traditional small breweries in Europe never pasteurized, even where they filtered their products clear for the market. Many connoisseurs sought out these beers for their extra character.

Following this example, when the first modern craft beers emerged in North America, most were unpasteurized regardless of packaging method, and the breweries made a point of this. Either the beers were filtered to be clear or left with some residual yeast (in bottle or barrel), but pasteurization was avoided to retain the fullest flavour possible. Therefore, a beer like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale to this day is not pasteurized. Certainly the bottled beer isn’t and I believe the draft, even as exported to Canada, is not. Most craft brewing in Ontario does not pasteurize. Sleeman, now owned by Sapporo of Japan, always did, I understand, but it is an exception.

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In the U.S., the iconic Anchor Brewing in San Francisco has pasteurized throughout its revival, as it sought to meld the best of old and new brewing practices. The “best”, in the minds of its management in the late 60s, included pasteurization. Even its draft beer is pasteurized. Anchor uses the flash method for all packaging forms, however. I’ve read that Samuel Adams’ bottled and canned beers are pasteurized – in part this may have been because a lot of it was contracted out to industrial breweries. Its draft, at least as sold in the U.S., is not pasteurized. Some other well-known craft names do pasteurize, but information is hard to come by as this information is usually not volunteered.

Some years ago, I asked Anchor Brewery why it pasteurizes everything when, i) most craft beer is not pasteurized, and ii) one can regularly drink all forms of craft beer made on the other side of North America and it seems usually just fine. The LCBO imports craft beer from British Columbia, say, and many other far-away places. Rarely can I recall buying one that was sour in the bottle without intending to be – maybe once or twice in 30 years. Are modern brewers who pasteurize being too conservative?

You can read Anchor’s reply to me here. In essence, they said that despite modern brewing sanitation methods being used (to avoid wild yeast and other sources of contamination entering the packaged beer), pasteurizing is an insurance policy to lengthen shelf life. They acknowledged that some people feel taste is affected by the process, but offered the opinion, as many brewers I’ve met do, that people cannot tell the difference when tasting blind.

Moosehead Brewery in Canada has a commendably long discussion of pasteurization, here, which is similar in its arguments to Anchor’s. Moosehead states however that flavour can be impacted, particularly hop character, but opines that adjustments can be made at the brewery to compensate.

All brewers seem to agree that pasteurization must be done “correctly”, and e.g., if beer is heated too high, it may lead to a burned caramel taste (which I sometimes taste in all kinds of pasteurized beer) or even premature oxidation – damp paper staling. This can result from the effect of the heat on residual oxygen in the beer. (I have encountered this problem too).

While I have never done a blind test – happy to participate if anyone asks – I am convinced that pasteurization does alter flavour somewhat. Some brewers feel the same, and e.g., the advertising for the “tank” version of Pilsner Urquell you can get in some specialist bars in Europe specifically claims a superior flavour due to absence of pasteurization. Look at this explanation, in regard to such a pub in Ireland.

That explanation states that unpasteurized Pilsner Urquell is good for only three weeks and once tapped should be used up within a week. How does that square with being able to drink perfectly sound craft beers made thousands of miles away which have to be older than three weeks from packaging, in some cases much older? I think again brewers are being conservative. Also, Urquell is 4.4% abv, rather weaker than most craft beer. Higher alcohol probably preserves beer for longer. The other explanation many brewers give is, craft beers often have high levels of hopping or other flavour attributes which disguise any faults resulting from absence of pasteurization. I’m not sure I agree with that, or not entirely.

Yesterday, I discussed the Heineken BrewLock draft dispense system, an improvement in the eyes of its producer on the current method to dispense draft beer. However one views that, one thing the process doesn’t change is pasteurization – BrewLock Heineken is pasteurized as all forms of Heineken lager are, even for The Netherlands market.

A real innovation, and I predict it is the next frontier, is introducing commercial draft beer which is not pasteurized, in particular for well-regarded imports. Doing so will take a leaf from the book of the craft brewers, most of whom do not pasteurize. Tank beer is the wedge – and it is not just Pilsner Urquell which is available in some places in that form, other Czech beers are also including Staropramen and Budvar.

IMO, there is no reason today that beer can’t reach our market from Europe or almost anywhere within four weeks. Some bottled/canned beer already gets here, even in the LCBO’s system, within six to eight weeks from packaging. Modern transportation and logistics systems should be able to accommodate fast transport of unpasteurized beer including in refrigerated form if necessary. Certainly a brewer who does this first will have a leg up because I believe unpasteurized beer is superior if drunk within a reasonable time from packaging. The timeline may vary with the type of beer being made, but experience with a wide range of craft beer shows that it is perfectly drinkable for much longer than four weeks.

Finally, just because the flavour difference may be subtle in many cases, and the average customer can’t articulate why he/she prefers one form to another, doesn’t mean an unpasteurized beer won’t appeal more than one which is not. It will.

Note re images above: Both are in the public domain, and believed available for educational and historical purposes. They were sourced here and here. All feedback welcomed.

 

 

 

Heineken Pops Up in Toronto in a New Guise

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I had seen a bus shelter ad on King Street downtown for the new BrewLock Heineken dispense system, and looked into it further. Heineken has been rolling this out for a little while but it’s new in North America. Only one pub has it so far in this area, the Coach and Four, out in Oakville on Lake Ontario. I went there for lunch on Friday (nice place) and tried the beer. It was good but seemed not really different to regular draft Heineken.

Yesterday, after a long (cold) walk around downtown, I happened upon a pop up offering a free glass of the new beer. A Heineken brewer was present to give a demonstration of how BrewLock works. Most lager and craft beers – almost all that aren’t “cask” real ale – are forced to the bar by carbon dioxide, or a blend of CO2 and nitrogen gas. It is forced into the keg from a cylinder and regulator. The gas presses on the beer from the top – hence the old expression, top pressure – and forces it out of the keg to the bar. The beer travels up through a hollow tube in the centre of the keg which reaches almost to the bottom.

The BrewLock system uses compressed air to put pressure on a plastic sack or bladder of beer within a hard plastic (PET) tubular shell. So the air never touches the beer itself. There is a somewhat similar system called KeyKeg where CO2 is pumped into a double-walled container to the same end. Unlike the former Scottish cask ale dispense I discussed some weeks ago where compressed air was injected directly into a cask of beer, the BrewLock, and KeyKeg systems, once again do not put the air and gas into the beer; the pressure is applied simply to collapse a filled bladder to force out its contents.

In these new systems, the beer retains the level of carbonation set by the brewery, whereas with normal CO2 or mixed gas dispense, additional gas(es) enter the beer. The carbonation level is set at the brewery to accommodate this, but in practice, and given the different mixed gas proportion bars use, there is some variation from bar to bar and glass to glass in the fizz level in the glass. (I simply adjust it to what I like by swirling the beer with a swizzler, of course you can’t do that if the gas level is too low. In that case just give the beer back for a replacement).

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For the bar owner, the advantages claimed are that the 20 L BrewLock keg is 25% lighter than a 20 L metal keg. Less energy is consumed to transport and perhaps to store the kegs cold, for example. There is less waste too, it is estimated 10-15% of the beer in a normal metal keg is retained as wastage. The BrewLock system expels almost all the beer but for a few drops. There is no reuse of the keg by the supplier, the BrewLock is a one-way system but its components are fully recyclable. I would think this means, though, that a system must exist to permit the recycling. I’m not sure how that works currently in Ontario. I wonder if the keg supplier for example (The Beer Store or an authorized distributor) picks up the expended PET shell and ensures it is recycled.

What does the new system mean for the consumer? I asked the brewer making the demonstration if the taste of the beer was different from the regular draft system. He said the beer itself is the same in either case, but the brewery feels that dispensing it at the set carbonation level desired by Heineken results in the optimal taste. I was wondering if the beer might be a touch under-carbonated but it wasn’t, it had a similar level to a canned or bottled Heineken.

The beer did seem very fresh and tasty. Heineken is an all-malt lager and reasonably hopped. When served in good condition, it is a good beer albeit on the dryish side. I’ve discussed numerous times here that in the past, Heineken and many European lagers had a slight sulphury note (over-boiled egg or struck match). This is a characteristic of much blonde lager brewing due to the type of yeast and pale malts used, but brewery procedures can be adjusted to remove the taste. The BrewLock draft didn’t have the taste at all, a big plus for the beer IMO. I am wondering if BrewLock in some way precludes this characteristic. Either that or, more likely, the brewery is taking pains to rub the taste out at the brewery.

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I think the way to look at BrewLock Heineken is that it is like a very fresh bottled beer. It is pasteurized like canned and bottled Heineken are but presumably by the less-intensive flash process. True, regular draft Heineken is all that as well, but when you add gases to the beer you are “changing” it. The idea that it comes to the glass without any admixture at all, be it sterile or otherwise, has a certain appeal.

There was a lot of talk about the need to skim the head. The presenter claimed this hived off excess bitterness which gathers at the top of the foam layer. I don’t put much faith in this really, and in any case I like bitterness in beer. Our bars don’t usually do it anyway and it’s not in general a desirable practice IMO.

There was some interesting technical discussion about how the head forms, the right size, surface tension, etc.

The presenter was charming and funny and people – mostly younger people from the condos in the area – had a good time. I was struck by the fact that of their questions, none were on the craft vector. No one asked until I did if the BrewLock beer is pasteurized (it is), or how long it takes to ship the beer to North America, whether Heineken has other styles in its range, etc. It’s a reminder that craft brewing is still a sub-culture. I’d like to have talked to the brewer more in-depth but it wasn’t possible in a format like that. I am sure he is capable of appreciating many beer styles – most brewers I’ve met are – and would make an interesting person to talk shop with.

From a business standpoint it was excellent marketing by Heineken. I am sure it cost a pretty penny but will surely be worth it. It was well-organized with good hosting and control, and nice hors d’oeuvre too. The large brewers know how to do this very well and I admire it at that level.

 

 

 

Beer in English Cookery – Part III

Passenger_pigeon_shootLet’s look more closely at William Fowler’s use of beer in recipes in his Countryman’s Cooking (1965). He uses it first for his dish of stewed pigeon.

He makes many observations of interest to those seeking wood pigeon for food. First, he says the fowl is an example of a luxury food which happens to be cheap, hence the insouciant attitude, at best, of those who eat it. Those who avoid it are pleased to call it vermin, which he explains is most unfair except when flocks of Continental birds “ravage green-crops in the winter”. (If you didn’t think that’s a joke, tarry a bit to glean the Fowlerian sense of humour).

He notes that a pigeon is easy to dress, its feathers come out with no trouble, to the point dogs don’t like to fetch them as the feathers stick in their nose. Fowler ponders the old saw that eating pigeon each day for a week will kill you, but seems persuaded it is an old wives tale.

His recipe is to put the pigeon pieces in a marinade of “draught beer, with added sliced, raw onion and such herbs as you prefer. I prefer bay leaves”. He has some specialist advice on the beer. Use, he says, “mild, bitter, or old ale”, but make sure it is draught as with “bottled beer … the effect is not the same”. I think the fact that draught beer – cask ale in his time, surely – was unpasteurized and had residual yeast explains his view. Bottled beer then was almost always pasteurized and had no live yeast. Today, most craft beer is not pasteurized, draft, bottled or canned, and usually has some residual yeast. Probably any craft beer would serve the function of Fowler’s draught beer, therefore.

All this is soaked overnight. The meat is then removed from the marinade, floured, sautéed, and casseroled. The marinade goes back in, and if it doesn’t come to the top of the meat, add water until it does. The cooking takes upwards of an hour to an hour and half. The meat is then taken out and the sauce enriched with egg yolk if it needs thickening. He suggest adding a glass of port to the sauce if one likes the touch of sweetness added.

To go with it: creamed potato, and then broad beans, Scarlet runners (?) or Brussels sprouts, as these are served dry and thus suitable with a dish already sauced.

He says red wine serves well for the marinade and sauce but he prefers to use beer and drink the wine – claret, he specifies – with the dish. Rook and “waders” (curlew, oyster catchers, and such) can be treated just as the pigeon.

Fowler also advises beer, as an alternative to cider or any wine, with a casserole of rabbit or mutton, and in beef olives, an ancient dish which has attracted Jamie Oliver’s attention. I mentioned earlier Fowler is a proponent of using beer in steak and kidney pie.

This is I believe the tally of his recipes in which beer can appear. Of his stewed or casseroled dishes which do not call for beer, his “Tatie Pot” is an example. It is a version of northern Hot Pot – Fowler lived in the northwest of England – and only water is specified. The first part of the Tatie Pot recipe reads as follows:

Take one medium-sized sheep (preferably someone else’s), and reduce it to handy-size pieces. Peel the sack of spuds that a local farmer gave you after you had been wondering, out loud, who had torn Edith Entwhistle’s frock off at the last hop.

John_Smith's_Brewery,_TadcasterFowler’s jugged hare specifies a pint of draught cider – no other liquid is suggested. He has a second stewed hare dish, which calls for all-lemon juice in the braise. This makes for a sour taste indeed but he says it will appeal to those who don’t like the taste of hare. As for roast hare, he says, don’t go there, it’s too stringy that way.

For Fowler’s casseroles and stews in which neither beer nor cider is specified, he suggests red wine, white wine, or just water. For eel, he specifies dry white wine as having the right quality to remove the excess richness from the fish – no reference to beer, or for any of his fish dishes. There is no counterpart in Fowler’s book to the beer and fish cookery of northern France and Belgium.

And so here, beer has a reasonable place in English cookery in its bucolic branch. And yet, in the 1970s, Elizabeth Ayrton was capable of writing a book 500 pages long on traditional dishes of the English people and not mentioning beer a single time. (I think she did mention “small beer” once in connection with a raising a pastry of some kind, which hardly counts). With the exception of a north country beef and beer recipe and I think one for Welsh Rabbit (the cheese dish), Dorothy Hartley did the same thing in her classic 1950s Food In England.

Many other books of traditional English cooking, contemporary and Victorian, similarly don’t mention beer, or barely. The bourgeois cooking of England, post-Georgian I mean, certainly almost never used it, but even the country cooking is non-committal, one might say.

Thus, we can conclude that beer cookery is not a national practice, or even a well-anchored specialist practice. Nonetheless, it has a place in English tradition, and William Fowler’s book is a good illustration of its uses where wanted, but also its limits.

Note re images used: The first image shown, of hunting the passenger pigeon, is in the public domain, and was sourced here.  It is believed available for educational and historical use. The second image shown is attributed as follows: By Tim Green (Flickr: John Smith’s Brewery, Tadcaster) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons. It was sourced here. All feedback welcomed.

 

 

 

 

 

Beer in English Cookery – Part II

a74391e2fa531eaea59caf231e0aef7dCookery writing tends to attract a heterogenous crowd. Oxford grads, lawyers, retired military, young mothers, ad executives, and diplomats are just a few of the broad range who have turned their hand to this.

Not the least idiosyncratic was William M. W. Fowler, an R.A.F. officer who flew the Wellington early in WW II. He was shot down and imprisoned for years in a stalag. After the war he engaged in a variety of enterprises, none too successful it seems, and lived economically in the country.

Not having a great deal of money, he was exposed to the reality of country living, which meant (in the 40s-60s) acquiring a familiarity with foraging and hunting to ensure sufficient food. This naturally lead to acquiring kitchen skills, rather more than the average man of his day, I would hazard.

I have no need to summarize his colourful career, which included a complicated romantic life, as Elizabeth Grice did it so well in 2007, in The Telegraph, here.

I bought A Countryman’s Cooking many years before its second life (see Grice’s account). Immediately I knew it was a classic. It is good to see that the book finally reached a broader audience. First, it is very funny, rollicking and completely informal while being accurate about food itself, recipes and related details.

As someone who knew his way around pubs, one might expect that beer would enter some of William Fowler’s recipes. Indeed it did. He liked to use it in steak and kidney pie, but mentions other dishes too. While, as I have argued earlier, the general run of recipes for good old steak pie do not call for beer, there is nothing wrong with using it. Fowler said you could put in mild or bitter, but he thought bitter was better. “More familiar with it, I suppose”, he noted.

At the time, English pubs collected the overflow of beer in dishes below the handpump and were permitted to re-use it. It was sanitized in some way and cycled back into the barrels, although the more conscientious of them probably threw it out.

Fowler said publicans would sometimes give him these slops for cooking and it was as good as using any other beer. He drew the line at using slops that were sour, although had he known about Belgian-style ale and beef, that would have worked fine too.

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All this sounds a stretch but it isn’t. The brew gets boiled again in the cooking and after all it is malt and hops. The long simmering will alter its character anyway. I have made beef and beer (the dish) a hundred ways with a hundred different kinds of beer, often mixing them or using up ends after a party. Each dish is basically indistinguishable from the others unless you use a pronounced spice like ginger, a strong herb such as tarragon, or have a heavy hand with the sugar. Even then the underlying flavour is usually the same – a nutty, mildly sweet taste.

I doff my hat to all those who have experimented with different beer types in cooking, perhaps subtle differences can be noted, but in practice I don’t find it worthwhile. To be sure, if you use Coors Light in Fowler’s steak and kidney recipe it will taste somewhat different than if you put in a barrel-aged Imperial Stout. On the other hand, if you use half barley wine and half water, I doubt many people could say which dish used either.

While it’s a different topic, I don’t believe it really matters which beer you pair with a beer dish (or any food), either. Preferences are all to the good here – at any rate they do no harm – but it’s one of those relative things, more a product of cultural conditioning than anything else. I say the same for wine pairings with food.

But if you want to be entertained and learn some interesting facts about rural life in Britain before the modern welfare state and global village fused, get William Fowler’s book. In his section on cooking rabbit, Fowler states that before the war, rabbit was the main meat of the countryman and found its way in all manner of preparations. This proves, or rather is additional evidence, that rural life for the bulk of people in Europe involved a narrow range of eatables.

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Fowler said that sometimes, the idea of finding your own food had negative returns, and gives the example of asking his batman (in training before the war in Norfolk) to fetch him a local coarse fish, a roach. The batman was a countryman born and bred and knew this was a bad idea, but dutifully served his officer. Fowler found the fish uneatable, like cotton wool with pins in it.

The romanticized country larder of what used to be called the colour supplements, and coffee table tomes, and today splashed over the internet, is largely a 20th century invention, but a benign one to be sure.

While the book deals extensively with wild food, there is much of interest on all kinds of cooking. Plus you get the anecdotes that make the book entertaining, notably his gambits to make pastry, which involved inviting female admirers over and the gin bottle, etc. His description of bacon and eggs gains added authenticity when one ponders his comment that it was the only breakfast he could keep down while flying on long operations.

Today, beef and beer dishes, including in the English way, are to be found at a touch of the keyboard. Jamie Oliver has a few, one with ale and beef, one with Guinness and beef, and one with lamb shanks. Delia Smith has a good one for beef and beer. These are so easy to find I needn’t give the links, just do a basic search. I didn’t check, but I’d guess Gordon Ramsay does a good turn in this area as well.

Whatever the specific history of it, contemporary books on using beer in cooking can certainly give you ideas. Lucy Saunders (an American) has done some excellent work here. She has been described as the dean of food and beer writers. Today’s beer world is all-linked up anyway. When I speak of modern beer cookery, it doesn’t really make sense to distinguish English from American… In terms however of English writers on the topic, Mark Dredge has done good work in the area, and Melissa Cole.

My suggestion to anyone who reaches for the beer to dash into a cooking pot is, remember the necessary correctives, as it were, for beer in cooking. They are, vinegar, cream, sugar, mustard, and sometimes a combination. Another useful tip is that dishes which stand long cooking offer the best results with beer, the excess bitterness subsides and the constituents meld with the food to form something unique.

Note re images: The images shown are believed in the public domain or available for educational and historical use. They were sourced herehere and here. All feedback welcome.

 

Beer in English Cookery – Part I

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The title should perhaps be “Beer in British and Irish Cookery” but I feel less confident to write about Scotland and Ireland than England and, well, Wales. First, I visited England about 20 times over a 25 year period, travelling in different parts although by no means “everywhere”. In this time, I ate in a wide variety of restaurants and visited many markets, but also ate with people at home. Second, I have a decent library of mostly English recipe and food history books, and have read widely in the area.

Based on this, I can say, or it is my opinion, that the English have a relatively minor interest in cooking with beer. Dishes there are, of which Welsh Rabbit is perhaps still best known. Jane Grigson has reported a Gloucester cheese and ale dish, as well. Check out Jamie Oliver’s version.

Apart from this, ale or other beer is sometimes used in Christmas pudding, in a couple of beef dishes, and as an element in some cures of ham. A Yorkshire beef and beer dish employs cloves, mace and other Middle Ages-sounding spices. The recipe can be found in the writings of Dorothy Hartley, Elizabeth Ayrton and other well-known authors on English food.

In addition, Sussex Stewed Steak, a braised dish involving port or another fortified wine, and stout or other beer, appears in many repertoires, sometimes under variant names. Elizabeth David gives a classic recipe in her Spices, Salts and Aromatics in the English Kitchen (1970).

A dish of venison, molasses and beer appears in some regional compilations. And beer is used in fish or other batters sometimes, as across Europe. One 1800s recipe advises to baste a hare in old beer. Yet most jugged hare recipes I’ve seen use port or red wine, not beer.  Another recipe, from Maria Rundell, counsels to stew beef heart in beer that is sugared and spiced. One would think this last would be an example of an established way with beef in general. This seems not so judging by the available literature, not to mention contemporary practice.

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When you look at recipes for beef and kidney pie or pudding, or beef and mushroom and other variations (oyster), beer almost never appears. In the famous hotpots too, only rarely. (The use of Guinness in Irish stew is, I believe, a modern innovation). In the sources I’ve read, it is water, stock, occasionally red wine or port, often a combination. There is no real counterpart to the Belgian/Northern French carbonnades de boeuf à la Flamande. Nothing on the order of coq à la bière. 

I can think of one English recipe with pork involving beer. It was from Mary Norwak in her The Best of Country Cooking. One coats a roast of pork in salt and pepper, flour, and powdered ginger. Then, you bake it in the oven and continually baste it with beer. It is very good, but is possibly a modern riff on some traditional ingredients.

There is no beer soup, no beer sauce, in England’s traditional food of today. In former centuries, a caudle which combined ale, grains of some kind, and eggs was eaten in the morning, but this fell away with modern times.  A similar preparation characterized the Highlands in Scotland, a kind of frumenty with oats and whisky mixed, called Atholl Brose.

Sometimes a gravy was made with an element of small beer (into the 1800s), but this was again a minor part of the English sauce repertoire.

I cannot find many recipes for fish and beer, or poultry and beer, in the English canon. I am not saying there aren’t any. I have somewhere a regional recipe series, it was small booklets, where beer does appear occasionally, in one, mixed with wine I think, for poultry. This 1856 book, Every-Day Cookery For A Family, mentioned herring baked with a mix of small beer and vinegar. Perhaps the recipe has survived in Yarmouth or similar areas.  A handful of recipes can be traced for coarse fish (roach, chub, carp again) – see Richard Dolby’s 1830 classic tavern cookbook – which seem not to have survived into the 1900s.

I have referred earlier to a late-1950s booklet by Canadian writer Jehane Benoit on cooking with beer. She states that sole is cooked with beer in Scotland. I have never found direct evidence of this, but the Victorian herring-and-beer dish does connect beer to fish cookery off the North Sea in Britain. Maybe some people used sole, or other sea fish, as a substitute for the more vigorous herring.

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In terms of the general pattern though, what explains it when it is known that Renaissance recipes frequently advised the use of ale in cooking? See e.g., Dr. Richard Unger, at pg. 130, here. I think there are two reasons. As beer became increasingly hopped, the taste wasn’t wanted in food. Welsh Rabbit is different because the richness of cheese hides, or rather matches, the beer taste. Ditto in Christmas pudding. But in soup and most other cooking, there is nowhere to hide. Particularly when all beers were more hopped than now, this was probably a factor in the decline of beer cookery in Britain.

Second, since the 1800s at least, most cookery writers are women. Most probably did not drink beer, or drink it regularly, so it didn’t appear in their inventories. Perhaps lingering temperance sentiment affected this too. Finally, class prejudice about beer may have played a role.

I am not ignoring the many books written in Britain since the 1970s on cooking with beer. These are valid on their own terms but as on the Continent, have expanded the traditional range of dishes which use beer. I am speaking in this post of recipes received into the mid-1900s.

In Belgium, northern France, Germany, the Czech Republic and other countries in Europe, the ties between cuisine and beer, both older and newer, are stronger, or so I have gleaned after reading and talking to people about it for a long time.

Note re images used: the first image above is attributed as follows: By Leigh Last (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons. It was sourced here. The second and third images were sourced here and here and are believed in the public domain or available for educational and historic purposes. All feedback welcomed.

 

Fish and Beer Cookery in Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie, France – Part III

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Fish And Beer Dishes of the French North Country

The book above, La Cuisine du Nord et de Picardie, was published in 1981 and is one of the standard references on the cuisine of the French Nord. It has no credited author. Loïc Martin, a well-known restaurateur and northern cuisine proponent in the region, wrote the preface only, it appears. La Voix Du Nord publishes the main newspaper in the Nord and I’d guess its staff worked on the book.

In a note on beer at the end of the volume, the book states that blonde and brown beers are “industrially” produced – this was just before the beer revival started in France. It notes that beer is traditional for use in beer soups, carbonades, crêpes, chicken in beer sauce, beer soup, and “préparations de poissons” (fish dishes) – an accurate summary, in my opinion. The last group is the focus of this post.

The book does not pretend to gastronomic originality or innovation, Martin in the preface states (my translation) that the cuisine remains “solid and cheerful, in the image of our ancestors, the Gauls, connoisseurs of ‘cervoise’, our first beer”. He states though that the cuisine has “evolved”, which is a clue I think that some deviation from tradition has occurred, but not significantly.

etals_a_poissons_1)In my previous two posts, I described the French north country – Flanders, Artois, Picardie –  in general terms. It has a varied terrain favouring cereals and vegetable production. A strip of sea coast and fresh water rivers and marshes supply abundant fish. I pointed out as well that regional cuisine in France as a whole is mostly a phenomenon of the last 100 years. To be sure, a few distinctive, traditional dishes existed in the regions before the 1900s. Beer soup, beef carbonades, and some fish preparations with beer are examples in the Nord.

But there seems little doubt that under pressure of gastronomic tourism and other factors, in the north no less than other French regions, numerous dishes are now considered regional which have no long history.

Let’s examine then the beer and fish dishes of the book pictured above, La Cuisine du Nord et de Picardie. Before I do, I point out that these dishes, indeed most of the dishes in the book, are essentially similar to those you find in other books of the period on this cuisine. Moreover, if you google “cuisine du Nord” and “France”, you will find many resources, including more recent books, which describe the cuisine in similar terms again. I say this to show there is no warrant to consider the recipes in the book under discussion passé – au contraire.

One luminous book in English, a resource on French regional food in general, should be mentioned: Anne Willan’s French Regional Cooking (1981). This landmark book is beautifully written and illustrated. It has the scholarly touch one would expect of the Cambridge-educated author but is lively and engaging at the same time.

Ms. Willan founded the well-known cookery school in Paris, La Varenne, and has authored many books. Her chapter on the French north is very informative, and includes Champagne and Ardenne for this purpose. She describes well the conditions of husbandry and agriculture, as well as culture and history, which shaped the characteristic products of the northern pays. Her rendition of coq à la bière is faultless and she makes useful comments to contrast it with a similar treatment of chicken in Alsace. Finally, she gives a list of traditional dishes and products at the end of each chapter to supplement the recipes. This gives a fuller sense of the richness of each region’s larder than would result from the necessarily limited number of recipes given.

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In La Cuisine du Nord et de Picardie, one finds the following fish or shellfish dishes in which beer makes an appearance.

  1. Eel, where the fish is braised in two glasses of “strong beer”, nutmeg, herbs, croutons, flour and egg yolk. A silky but emphatic bitter/herbal sauce results to complement the rich taste of eel. Eel formerly was very popular in many parts of Europe, and (by the way) along the St. Lawrence River in Quebec, but less so today.
  2. Anglerfish (monkfish), braised with butter, herbs, cream, beer, onion, eggs, carrots, shallot, and sorrel. Monkfish is considered a good eating fish, but under sole and turbot in quality.
  3. Coquilles  saint-jacques (scallops) Boulogne-style. The meat is removed from the shells and cooked with butter, flour, “blonde beer”, mushrooms, breadcrumb, nutmeg, and gruyère cheese.
  4. Haddock. But as the French would say, Attention. Haddock here means smoked haddock, which is an intense and salty-flavoured, preserved form of haddock. The fish first is allowed to simmer in water and partially poach, which removes some of the salt and strong taste. Then, the cooking is completed with beer and a puree of tomatoes and herbs, and is served with sliced gherkins.
  5. Monkfish Dunkerque-style.  In English, baudroie and lotte both mean monkfish, aka anglerfish. In no. 2 above, baudroie is specified, in this no. 5 recipe, lotte. Lotte can sometimes mean a freshwater fish, barbot, but in this case I am sure an ocean fish is meant. Dunkerque is on the ocean, famously as many know – that is where the British Expeditionary Force in France was evacuated in 1940 to fight another day. Perhaps monkfish was meant in both cases. Alternatively, different species of monkfish may have been meant – there are over 200. This Dunkirk recipe combines tomato puree, herbs and beer to cook the fish. Tomato combined with beer is a frequent medium to cook fish on the French side of the Channel.
  6. Mackerel with mussels, Boulogne-style. Blonde beer, parsley, butter, mushroom, flour, onion, egg, and parsley make the sauce for this interesting combination.

Humpback_anglerfishThere are 22 fish and seafood recipes in the book. Of these, less than one-third employ beer in the recipe. The 16 which don’t use beer use red wine, white wine, vinegar, a combination, or no alcohol. The recipes which use the highest quality fish, such as sole, turbot and lobster, do not use beer. Of the numerous mussel recipes, only one uses beer and it has mackerel in it, too.

To me, this suggests that the authors of the book were judicious in deciding which recipes should feature beer. If they were creating a new cuisine from local materials, one might expect to see them put beer in the sole or turbot, and trout or lobster. They didn’t. This suggests they were careful only to feature recipes with beer that had a long tradition. In general, the fish they used with beer was second quality, except perhaps for the scallops. Perhaps that recipe is an innovation, then. Or perhaps it really is a long-established recipe of Boulogne.

But in general, the idea that beer has always been used for “coarse” fish and wine reserved for the best quality has a logic about it. This is not because beer is second quality to wine, but because the vigorous taste of beer seems to match an oily or strong-tasting fish better than wine would, or at least, equably.

In checking for 19th century references on fish cooked with beer, I could find very few. Carp with beer was mentioned in numerous French books throughout the 1800s,  here is an example from a French recipe translated into English. Sometimes the dish was noted as being German or Czech (Bohemian). I found one English recipe where fresh herring was simmered in a mixture of small beer (weak beer) and vinegar. One can assume that herring, a major catch formerly off the northern coast of France and still popular there, was sometimes cooked with beer in Flanders and Picardy, too.

The use of beer to cook smoked haddock seems to me in a general tradition of cooking oily or strong-tasting fish with beer, ditto the mackerel and perhaps the mussels. Eel, as I said in an earlier post, is analogous in culinary terms to carp – not the same fish, but sourced often in similar waters and similarly rich. So that too seems to stay with the French motif, is dans le même ordre d’idées.

All in all, I think La Cuisine du Nord et de Picardie rendered typical products of its terroir – beer and fish – in a very creditable way. It didn’t put beer in most of the recipes, and it didn’t use it for the top echelon of fish where it has no history of use.

Now, if other books on the cooking of the Nord have done just that, is that bad? Mais non. The proof is in the pudding, so to speak. But I like the approach of the authors of the 1981 book. It fits with the history pretty much as I understand it and in this sense, its six beer and fish dishes are in no way an invented cuisine.

There is much else in this book of interest. I recommend it to anyone interested in the French north country and its distinctive food traditions.

Note re images used: the images above were sourced, respectively, here, here, here, and here. All are believed in public domain or available for use for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.