Beer Bubbles up in the Spanish Psyche

About Puchero, Iberia’s Beer, and Memory

I was in Barcelona a few years ago and investigated the beer scene. Reports since that time indicate it has flourished greatly, but even then there were two or three craft breweries and of course the products of the large corporate breweries. The problem was, I never could visit the craft places: during the day when touring on foot they were never open, and after dinner we didn’t seek further entertainment – the day was long enough.

I bought some Spanish craft bottles in a local shop and thought they were good.

For the most part Estrella Damm, the home town beer, did the job when beer was wanted. Damm was founded by a peripatetic Alsatian, August Damm, in 1876, and continues to this day. Moritz, a venerable brand that lapsed but was restored to the market a dozen years ago, was an option although not nearly as good as Estrella, in my view.

It seems (according Damm’s website) that the Estrella has a rice addition, but it’s a Munich Helles style, maybe a bit lighter. I bought it in Toronto once or twice, and need to give it a further try.

I read somewhere that Damm has issued or will a IPA, called Complot IPA, but can’t find much on it. Maybe it will be available at the Estrella Damm Gastronomic Congress being held May 15 in Toronto, see this post for details. A famous Spanish chef will be cooking dishes with or to accompany Damm’s beers: all the makings of a good evening.

Some may think the gastronomy of a society that is thousands of years old can’t really incorporate beer when beer’s writ only runs from the mid-1800s.

This is like saying Ontario chefs shouldn’t try to pair food and Ontario wine since Ontario wine, especially the quality end of it, is hardly 30 years old.

Once beer implants it takes its place in the culinary scene, and let the chips fall where they may – and not just potato chips. Beer is as Chinese a drink today as anything else in China and performs wonderfully with most Chinese cuisines, at least in my experience. Its implantation dates from the turn of the 19th century.

At the same time it is undeniable beer has a long taproot in Iberia, one that withered for many centuries but is lately renewed. Early Celtic settlements brewed beer. When the Romans came and implanted a vinous culture, the older cereal-based beverages declined and practically disappeared. I say practically because, I don’t rule out that isolated settlements continued to brew, perhaps at home or on a farm.

An academic in Colorado, U.S.A., John Carlyon, has performed valuable research investigating this much older beverage history, you can read about it here. But even before this work the history was broadly understood in learned circles.

The Oxford man and Victorian travel writer Richard Ford lived in Spain for three years and studied the land deeply. He noted in one of his collections, see p 144, that beer had become “small” in Spain, exemplified by a mixture of lemonade and beer drunk iced.

But he noted that in a much earlier period both beer and ale – he cites different Latinate terms for each – were commonly consumed. The trouble started, he said, when the Romans poked fun at local beer drinkers, as they had in Gaul.

Can it be that the success of beer’s reintroduction, and recent craft efflorescence, are due at least in part to an ancient folk memory, even subconscious? Did a genomic pleasure-centre in Spanish brains, formed millennia earlier when beer was mother’s milk, re-awake when fresh cereal beverage coursed through the system?

A romantic will say yes – maybe even a psychologist. It is satisfying to think so, anyway.

In 1958 the Canadian chef and cookery writer Jehane Benoit wrote a book for Dow Brewery on dishes cooked with beer. She gives a recipe for the old Spanish puchero, a kind of soup-stew, that uses beer.

This dish was remarked on by travel writers in Spain in the 1800s although I could find no statement that beer was an ingredient. So how did Mme Benoit know the beer version was traditional?

In the introduction, she states a cereal drink was made in most areas where grain was cultivated. She adds:

The earliest written record of this ancient and honorable beverage appears on a Mesopotamian clay tablet of several thousand years before the Christian era and shows it was used in cooking as well as a beverage. The recipes you will find in this book have been tested by me and tasted by many who were always pleasantly surprised; no wonder, since the recipes are for the most part traditional and belong to the everyday family cooking of many lands, Germany, Spain, China, England, France, Belgium, Italy and even America.

She was a highly-respected author, well-educated with advanced training in food science. I don’t think she would misstate the situation for commercial purposes. But if she gilded the lily on beer dishes from non-beer lands, it doesn’t matter really. Recipes have their final merits on the plate, if it works, it works.

On page three of her book, which you can read in full online, her recipe appears for the puchero. She spells it punchero, which may be an alternate spelling, or a misspelling. The dish as she presents it rather resembles an eccentric carbonnades flamande. 

This makes sense when one recalls the Spanish once ruled Flanders and a long interchange of people and ideas ensued. That is why the Belgians make a version of caveach, say (spellings vary).

So maybe early puchero did use beer, perhaps in a few isolated settlements that still brewed, long enough anyway to send the dish to what is now Belgium and French Flanders – and maybe Mme Benoit in Montreal, Canada knew all this.

Anyway, let’s see if beer works in the dish. I’ll make it in a short while and give my impressions.

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1 thought on “Beer Bubbles up in the Spanish Psyche

  1. I should add, it appears a number of Central American and South American countries make the dish, a legacy of Spanish colonization centuries ago. Maybe in some of these countries beer is used in the dish, or perhaps the pre-European corn-based beer, chicha, is used, I did not check this. Mme Benoit identifies the dish as Spanish but perhaps used a new world Latin country version that incorporated beer, that is possible.

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