OF CABBAGES FIT FOR A KING
The area around Lille, in the far north of France (Nord-Pas-de-Calais), has a way with red cabbage that is particularly good. Even there of course it has variants, but the recipe in its purest form is contained in the 1990 book pictured, Flandre Cuisine Recettes et Traditions, edited by Michel Loosen and published by Foyer Culturel de l’Houtland.
The Foyer is a group based in Steenvoorde which promotes the cultural heritage of French Flanders. The book is amongst many published by this group covering a broad range of historical and other topics of culture or heritage.
The book is unique in my experience in that it contains not just many valuable recipes of this border region of France where a dialect of Flemish is still spoken, but also drawings, proverbs, songs, depictions of costumes, and other elements of folklore.
It is in French except for certain proverbs and songs, but even then most are translated into French. Many proverbs have a rueful, quotidian quality: “H’n is gevallen met zyn gat in de butter – Il est tombé assis dans le beurre“. Thus, he fell into the butter right-side up: he was lucky. 🙂
The book can be purchased online and I encourage those interested in this little-known part of France to buy it to get a real sense of what life was like traditionally there, perhaps still is. Here is one source to obtain it.
The recipe in the book is very simple. It is red cabbage, onions, butter, beer, brown sugar, salt, pepper – that’s it. Variants in other books and online sometimes include apple, or juniper berry, or nutmeg or that kind of spice. Sometimes vinegar is advised with the beer, or on its own. Red currant jelly is sometimes suggested too, in lieu of the sugar. Some sweetening is necessary to the dish, it is by nature a sweet and sour preparation and is a survival of medieval times when this combination was well-liked.
I have found that the recipe shown is the best one – the flavours emerge purely but well-melded. The dish needs long cooking, three hours is advised. Cabbage is one of those things you must cook for a short time or a very long time, but with beer or other alcohol, the long method is necessary IMO.
The recipe is so straightforward that even with basic French anyone can easily follow it, but if anyone asks I will give some English directions.
French Flanders has numerous ways with cabbage both red and white, some use red wine, some white, some use stock or water or a combination. The beer-and-red cabbage one seems particularly associated with Lille, the chief city of the region, hence the name Chou-Rouge A La Lilloise, or Red Cabbage Lille-style.
Although I have said here you can use any beer in cooking, with this dish I find a flavourful blonde beer is best. Any good, all-malt lager would work well. But in a pinch, use anything you have, certainly, it will never be bad.