Beer Cookery Considered, With an Aperçu on French Flanders
A feature of the beer scene in recent decades is “beer cuisine”. This term is ambiguous as it can mean:
- food which matches beer choices but doesn’t use beer in cooking
- food which does use beer in the cooking and is typically eaten with beer as an accompaniment
- food which uses beer in cooking and has no specific reference to beer as an accompaniment.
Examples of the first are pretzels, sausages, sauerkraut, potato chips, hamburgers, some kinds of cheese.
Examples of the second include the Flemish beef carbonnade, Guinness-and-beef stew, and certain Czech preparations including with pork or carp.
In the third category, Welsh Rabbit (melted cheese and beer), beer batters for fish-and-chips or apple fritters, beer soups such as the American beer-and-cheddar soup or Alsatian and other northern European beer soups.
None of these are airtight, a beer can go well with Welsh Rabbit to be sure, you can use beer in dishes which don’t typically call for it, often to substitute for wine.
Every year one sees new books on all or various aspects of this total area. It’s a creative field where, as in any cooking, both historical precedent and novelty can be employed with good effect. Ultimately there are no rules, and what works for one person may work for another, or not.
In my own case, I am interested mostly in historical collections of regional dishes which use beer in the cooking. I have a fairly substantial list of these by now, from books collected over some decades. It is surprising how many beer dishes (in this sense) exist. You can’t necessarily go by “official” sources as many of the dishes are regional and were collected in books which never had a large sale and are obscure. For example, I believe in Julia Child’s first great French cookery book, there was only one recipe which used beer, for beef carbonnade.
In fact though, there are probably a hundred or more different French beer cookery dishes, most from corners of France where the dishes were part of a folk tradition. There are recipes for fish carbonnade from the seacoast of French Flanders, with veal or turkey in Alsace-Lorraine, for various soups from both these regions, with cheese e.g., to mature Maroilles, with pork hock (jambonneau) or game, and on it goes.
England has a surprisingly large number of dishes which use beer – Welsh Rabbit is probably still best known but there were dishes with game, ham, beef, seafood. America has many dishes using beer with seafood, soups, ice cream (the beer float), cakes and batters.
In the beer cookery books which have burgeoned since the 1950s, sometimes it can be hard to distinguish traditional dishes from ones which the author devised by substituting beer for wine or simply adding it where it typically wouldn’t be used. In a sense it doesn’t matter, what’s good is good, and today anyway in a wired world, regional traditions in the older sense are almost obsolete. It is usually still possible though to distinguish a dish of the older type from a newer, more innovative one.
One of the incontestably authentic Franco-Belgian beer dishes is chicken with beer sauce. There are versions from the Flemish-influenced far north of France, from Alsace-Lorraine, from Champagne and the French Ardennes, and over the border in the Belgian territories which correspond culturally to these other. A book by the French food writer Ninette Lyon gives a recipe for chicken with beer which originates in the 1930’s in Béthune in the north. The book is called Le Tour De France (Gourmand) Des Spécialités Régionales (Marabout, 1985). It’s a superb collection of dishes from France’s huge regional culinary inventory. She gives a sample menu for each region, from soup to nuts.
Mme Lyon’s droll way of writing is not the least pleasure of this book. She writes of coq à la bière (chicken with beer): “Dans le région de Béthune, où se déroule des combats de coqs, on met à la casserole ceux qui ne se sont pas montrés assez agressifs“. (“In the Béthune area, where people hold cock fights, they put into the pot the birds which didn’t prove themselves sufficiently aggressive”). She adds, this being said if you order the dish in Béthune it doesn’t mean you are assured of getting an “animal de combat”. It will be enough that you get a rooster, not a chicken whose weight disqualifies it being called a rooster or cock!
Mme Lyon was the type of writer one doesn’t encounter often today… I corresponded with her over 30 years ago on a couple of topics and she responded with great charm and in perfect English, I might add.
Her recipe for chicken with beer originated in a hotel in Béthune, she says, in the 1930s. Why a period as ostensibly late as that? It may simply be that that is the time the hotel decided to add the dish to their menu, or perhaps it was a new hotel. Another reason may be, that rabbit with beer sauce is another well-known country recipe in the Flemish lands and at some relatively later point the dish was adapted to chicken.
The Béthune recipe involves flouring the bird, browning it in butter and oil, and braising it in a mixture of beer – any kind from the region, she says – and veal stock or other lean bouillon. Mushrooms figure in it, herbs, and a dash of cream is added to a reduction of the sauce to give a texture and further taste. It’s a typical French braising dish such as you find all over the country except people use what is local for the alcohol element. Cider is used in Normandy, Champagne in Champagne, Riesling in Alsace (beer too sometimes), and so on.
Mme Lyon’s suggested menu of le Nord starts with a shot of Dutch-style gin – local also to the French far north, small goyères, the cheese tart made classically with the area’s pungent Maroilles, herring with mustard “en papillote“, a salad of beets, hard-cooked eggs and chicory (the salad leaves), and to finish, a pie of red plums. She advises as accompaniment, a dark beer (bière brune). It sounds good, eh? And it is, and this is from an area not even noted for cuisine amongst the pantheon of the French culinary regions.
Something with beer from Mme Lyon’s northern inventory somewhat more “gourmet” is her “compote” of guinea fowl cooked with dark beer. I think this may be a braise of the bird in beer, served with an apple or fig preserve on the side, I am not exactly sure. She also mentions, pork roasted with beer and onions, which is generally served cold. She records too that Maroilles cheese is often “washed” in its maturation, and beer is frequently used for this purpose, as mentioned earlier.
And there you go, a richness of beer cuisine, from one tiny corner of France.
Note re images: The first image above is in the public domain, and was sourced here. Second image above, of Béthune, France, is believed in public domain and was sourced from this travel site. All feedback welcomed.