Cookery writing tends to attract a heterogenous crowd. Oxford grads, lawyers, retired military, young mothers, ad executives, and diplomats – just a few of the 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 Bomber 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, the reality of country living then required a familiarity with foraging and hunting to ensure sufficient food. This naturally lead to learning kitchen skills, rather more than the average man of his day, probably.
His colourful career, which included a complicated romantic life, was well summarized by Elizabeth Grice in 2007, in The Telegraph, see 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 twigged with a broader audience, got its due. First, it is funny, rollicking and completely informal in tone while being accurate on the ingredients and recipes. He was no Escoffier but handled the fundamentals well.
By his own account he knew his way around pubs, hence one would expect beer might enter some of his recipes. And it did. He liked to use it in steak and kidney pie, but other dishes too. While by my canvassing, the steak pie family doesn’t generally use beer, it is not amiss to add some to the gravy. Fowler states you could use mild or bitter ale, but thought bitter, the better choice. Why? “More familiar with it, I suppose”. A typical quip in the book.
At the time some English pubs collected the overflow of taps and were permitted to re-serve it: it was sanitized in some way and cycled back through the barrels. The more conscientious (perhaps) of the pubs threw out these leavings.
Fowler writes that publicans would sometimes give him this spent beer for cooking, and it was as good as any other he used. He drew the line at slops that were sour, although had he known about some Belgian types of beer, certainly used in their cooking, he might have gone with that, too.
Sure enough, even flat or stale beer is boiled in the cooking and can’t do any harm, after all it is malt and hops, in the beginning and at the end. Long simmering alters the character of all beer in cooking anyway. I have made Flemish beef with beer with a hundred different beers, often mixing them or using up ends after a party.
Each dish is basically indistinguishable from the others. The underlying flavour is always the same – a nutty, mildly sweet taste. There may be some difference at the extremes: Coors Light vs. an Imperial Stout, say, but not as much (IMO) as one might think.
While it’s a different topic, I don’t believe it matters much which beer you pair with a dish, either. Preferences contra do no harm, but it’s more a product of cultural conditioning than anything else, in my opinion again. I say the same for most wine pairings with food.
In his section on rabbit Fowler states that before the war, rabbit was the main meat of country people and found its way in all manner of preparations. This proves, or rather is additional evidence, that life for most rural people back then meant much less choice than the populace has today.
Fowler states that sometimes, the idea of finding your own food had negative results. He gives the example of asking his batman, when training before the war in Norfolk, to fetch him a local fish, a roach. The batman was a countryman born and bred and knew this was a bad idea, but dutifully served his officer the coarse fish. Fowler found it uneatable, like cotton wool with pins in it, he writes.
While the book deals extensively with wild food, there is much of interest for other cooking as well. Plus, the anecdotes that make the book entertaining, e.g. his gambits to make pastry, which involved female admirers and the gin bottle, etc. His description of cooking bacon and eggs gains authenticity when one ponders his remark that it was the only breakfast he could keep down when flying on long operations.
Today, beef with beer dishes, including the English way Fowler mentions, can be found at a touch of the keyboard. Jamie Oliver has a few, one is ale and beef, another, Guinness and beef. He does beer with lamb shanks, too. Delia Smith has a good one for beef and beer. I didn’t check but I’d guess Gordon Ramsay does a good turn in the area as well.
Whatever the specific history of beer in the kitchen, modern books on beer cookery can offer great ideas. Lucy Saunders, an American, has done some excellent work here. She has been described as the dean of food and beer writers. In terms of British writers on the topic, Mark Dredge has done good work too, and Melissa Cole, and there are many others, on both sides of the Atlantic.
My suggestion to anyone who reaches for the beer to dash it into the cooking pot: remember the necessary correlatives, correctives if you will, viz. beer in cookery. They are: vinegar, cream, sugar or syrup, and mustard, alone or in combination. Another tip is that dishes which require long cooking tend to do best with beer. The excess bitterness of the hops subsides, and the beery constituents meld with the food to form something unique.
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