Cookery writing tends to attract a heterogenous crowd. Oxford grads, lawyers, retired military, young mothers, ad executives, and diplomats are just a few of the broad 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 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, he was exposed to the reality of country living, which meant (in the 40s-60s) acquiring a familiarity with foraging and hunting to ensure sufficient food. This naturally lead to acquiring kitchen skills, rather more than the average man of his day, I would hazard.
I have no need to summarize his colourful career, which included a complicated romantic life, as Elizabeth Grice did it so well in 2007, in The Telegraph, 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 reached a broader audience. First, it is very funny, rollicking and completely informal while being accurate about food itself, recipes and related details.
As someone who knew his way around pubs, one might expect that beer would enter some of William Fowler’s recipes. Indeed it did. He liked to use it in steak and kidney pie, but mentions other dishes too. While, as I have argued earlier, the general run of recipes for good old steak pie do not call for beer, there is nothing wrong with using it. Fowler said you could put in mild or bitter, but he thought bitter was better. “More familiar with it, I suppose”, he noted.
At the time, English pubs collected the overflow of beer in dishes below the handpump and were permitted to re-use it. It was sanitized in some way and cycled back into the barrels, although the more conscientious of them probably threw it out.
Fowler said publicans would sometimes give him these slops for cooking and it was as good as using any other beer. He drew the line at using slops that were sour, although had he known about Belgian-style ale and beef, that would have worked fine too.
All this sounds a stretch but it isn’t. The brew gets boiled again in the cooking and after all it is malt and hops. The long simmering will alter its character anyway. I have made beef and beer (the dish) a hundred ways with a hundred different kinds of beer, often mixing them or using up ends after a party. Each dish is basically indistinguishable from the others unless you use a pronounced spice like ginger, a strong herb such as tarragon, or have a heavy hand with the sugar. Even then the underlying flavour is usually the same – a nutty, mildly sweet taste.
I doff my hat to all those who have experimented with different beer types in cooking, perhaps subtle differences can be noted, but in practice I don’t find it worthwhile. To be sure, if you use Coors Light in Fowler’s steak and kidney recipe it will taste somewhat different than if you put in a barrel-aged Imperial Stout. On the other hand, if you use half barley wine and half water, I doubt many people could say which dish used either.
While it’s a different topic, I don’t believe it really matters which beer you pair with a beer dish (or any food), either. Preferences are all to the good here – at any rate they do no harm – but it’s one of those relative things, more a product of cultural conditioning than anything else. I say the same for wine pairings with food.
But if you want to be entertained and learn some interesting facts about rural life in Britain before the modern welfare state and global village fused, get William Fowler’s book. In his section on cooking rabbit, Fowler states that before the war, rabbit was the main meat of the countryman and found its way in all manner of preparations. This proves, or rather is additional evidence, that rural life for the bulk of people in Europe involved a narrow range of eatables.
Fowler said that sometimes, the idea of finding your own food had negative returns, and gives the example of asking his batman (in training before the war in Norfolk) to fetch him a local coarse fish, a roach. The batman was a countryman born and bred and knew this was a bad idea, but dutifully served his officer. Fowler found the fish uneatable, like cotton wool with pins in it.
The romanticized country larder of what used to be called the colour supplements, and coffee table tomes, and today splashed over the internet, is largely a 20th century invention, but a benign one to be sure.
While the book deals extensively with wild food, there is much of interest on all kinds of cooking. Plus you get the anecdotes that make the book entertaining, notably his gambits to make pastry, which involved inviting female admirers over and the gin bottle, etc. His description of bacon and eggs gains added authenticity when one ponders his comment that it was the only breakfast he could keep down while flying on long operations.
Today, beef and beer dishes, including in the English way, are to be found at a touch of the keyboard. Jamie Oliver has a few, one with ale and beef, one with Guinness and beef, and one with lamb shanks. Delia Smith has a good one for beef and beer. These are so easy to find I needn’t give the links, just do a basic search. I didn’t check, but I’d guess Gordon Ramsay does a good turn in this area as well.
Whatever the specific history of it, contemporary books on using beer in cooking can certainly give you ideas. Lucy Saunders (an American) has done some excellent work here. She has been described as the dean of food and beer writers. Today’s beer world is all-linked up anyway. When I speak of modern beer cookery, it doesn’t really make sense to distinguish English from American… In terms however of English writers on the topic, Mark Dredge has done good work in the area, and Melissa Cole.
My suggestion to anyone who reaches for the beer to dash into a cooking pot is, remember the necessary correctives, as it were, for beer in cooking. They are, vinegar, cream, sugar, mustard, and sometimes a combination. Another useful tip is that dishes which stand long cooking offer the best results with beer, the excess bitterness subsides and the constituents meld with the food to form something unique.