Most who are reasonably familiar with beer have heard of the Belgian carbonnades à la flamande, a dish of beef cooked with beer. It is usually made with sliced or cubed beef, but a single piece of rump or shoulder can be used, or brisket, not immersed fully in beer that is. This is really a braise, but the stewed version is more common.
Some recipes use beer only, some combine beer and stock, or beer diluted with water, and so on. Onions are invariably used, and usually vinegar, mustard, sugar and herbs or spices. Dried fruit is occasionally added, e.g., prunes. You can substitute other meats, and some recipes offer a carbonnades of pork, say. The dish seems best with beef, in my experience.
How old is this dish? Very. It appears in 19th century repertories, which means it has to be much older. Indeed recipe collections dating to medieval times show meat was cooked with ale, vinegar, spices, and a sweetening element. If you look at modern recipes for the North African tagines, they are not that different. Salted (sour) lemon substitutes for ale or vinegar, but otherwise the elements are similar: meat, something sweet, maybe dried fruit, spices.
The Spanish used to rule in Flanders and that plus the trading boats would have brought the Moorish elements to marry with beer and beef to make carbonnades.
How old is Belgian beer cookery in general? Not that old, I think.
A gambol through 19th century sources shows relatively few dishes cooked with beer, even where one would expect to find them, e.g., books published in Brussels. As I’ve mentioned, beef carbonnades does appear although sometimes beer is not used at all – stock or vinegar suffices. (I exclude here the lamb-based carbonnades of southwestern France, which seems rather distant from the Flemish specialty of the same name).
What does one find in the way of “beer cuisine” in those 1800s collections of bourgeois fare for housewives and culinary dictionaries? Beer soup. One book devotes a full page to it, to all the variations known from Norway to Russia. The dish is known in Flanders, both Belgian and French, to this day, so clearly this is a survival of an old heritage. Beer soup was a way to use up bread, grated bread is the basis of it. Heated beer is used to make the dried bread palatable and add more flavour. Other additions were sugar, bits of cheese, eggs, fish (herring in Scandinavia), cream, nuts: almost anything.
What else? The English Welsh Rabbit, melted cheese with beer, appears in 19th century French and Belgian recipe books. So do various doughs raised with beer or its yeast, for fritters and other pastry-making. I found one recipe for young carp braised in beer, and for ham “washed” in beer, with red wine or cider specified as an alternative. And that is about it.
I could not find a recipe for rabbit with beer, although today one can read of the beery lapin à la flamande dotted with its prunes in charmingly illustrated books of Belgian and northern French cuisine. An 1890s Belgian book advises to marinate rabbit in vinegar though. Given much Belgian beer then had a sourish edge, it isn’t too much to think rabbit with beer was an ancestral dish. The fact that prunes are often used in the modern recipe underscores this, as dried fruit was another early trading commodity which ended in the pots of northern cooks.
But in terms of how one thinks of Belgium’s cuisine today, this is not all that much, really. In modern books on Belgian cuisine, even those published before the beer revival started in earnest everywhere, there is much more. Marcel Gocar’s book above (1985) has over 40 fish and crustacean dishes cooked with beer; four egg dishes; 18 beef dishes and almost as many each with veal, pork, and lamb; poultry and game dishes of all kinds; 15 vegetable dishes (e.g., with lentils, artichoke, eggplant, asparagus); and 11 desserts including a sorbet, rice pudding, ice cream, and “peaches Gambrinus”.
One of the specialties of modern Flemish cooking is chicken with beer. M. Gocar includes a recipe for it on pg. 162 which he credits to the Hotel Bernard in Béthune, which is in northern France (but part of the same cultural tradition we are discussing). In another book from the 1980s, French culinary writer Ninette Lyon refers to the same recipe and states that the hotel invented the dish in the 1930s. Could chicken never have been cooked with beer in the region before? Rabbit was, probably, so it isn’t really a stretch to think chicken was, sometimes. Still, I could not find a single recipe from the 1800s using chicken and beer. In this 1825 French book on “economical cooking” – thus, not drawing from the haute cuisine – some 35 recipes are listed for chicken. Not one uses beer. Beer is not mentioned once in the entire volume, in fact.
What do people from Belgium, in particular, say about how Belgian beer cuisine started? The introduction to M. Gocar’s La Cuisine A La Bière states that traditionally, beer was part of “family” cuisine and included notably beer soup and carbonnades flamande. No other such family dish is mentioned, although one can infer from various recipes in the book that others did exist. For example, of the Brussels choesels, a dish of offal cooked with the sour lambic, Gocar states the recipe is from a Brussels museum, which implies a genuine heritage.
The introduction states further that, the few family dishes apart, beer cuisine in Belgium was created in the last 25 years. This means, it began about 1960, when chefs started consciously to create the cuisine which the book says is now “the renown of Belgium”. What was perhaps five or six dishes – and even if it was 10 – is now 200, and then some.
Clearly, “beer cuisine” in Belgium, by which I mean dishes cooked with beer, not dishes which are well-accompanied by beer as such, is a fairly recent invention. I would say the same of the beer cuisines of French Flanders and Alsace-Lorraine. This doesn’t make them suspect in any way. Cookery evolves continually and also, things go in and out of fashion. I suspect beer was used more in medieval cookery than in Belle Epoque households because by the 1800s, most beer was purchased from commercial breweries, not made at home. When you have to buy beer, probably the first priority is to drink it…
All this to say, things often aren’t as old as we think. There is no textual reference to Ontario butter tarts before 1909. Bundt cake seems to have started as late as c. 1960. The Quebec poutine apparently took root in Drummondville, Quebec in the 1950s. Buffalo chicken wings date from the 1960s. Et ainsi de suite. But if you like them, that is all the matters. And if you don’t, historical pedigree is neither here nor there. I found one 1811 recipe for chicken with carp (yes), its roes, white wine, anchovy and capers. Best left in history’s wastebasket, if you ask me. Then too, who knows what will be fashionable next year in New York and London…?
Note re images: The first image above is from the amazon.com page for the book shown, sourced here. The second image was sourced from this Rickard’s beer website of Molson Coors. The third image, of Ghent, was sourced from Wikipedia, here. The last image, of Béthune, France, was sourced from site of Nordmag, the French magazine, here. All are believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.