Dish a la Chimay

The Birthplace of a Famous Beer Resonates, With a Twist

At the height of the Depression in Canada in 1937 a Canadian Pacific Railway hotel in distant Regina, Saskatchewan offered the following menu:


The hotel, built in 1927 in the boxy, neo-classical style popular in the 1930s and 40s, was a Regina institution for decades. It was a charter member of the Canadian Pacific Railway hotel chain that dotted the trans-continental line to help link Canada’s regions. The railway and hotels did much to assist Canada’s early expansion and growth.

Today the hotel is owned by Temple Hotels, controlled by Ontario-based, publicly-traded Morguard Investments.

The menu (the link is via the NYPL digital menu archive) is a very creditable fusion of diverse influences. These include B.C. planked salmon or pickerel fillets from northern lakes, Britannic standbys such as liver and bacon, beefsteak, and lamb with chutney, and U.S./Canadian foods such as tomato soup, ham steak, potato salad, and shortcake. The sauerkraut juice may owe something to the Central and East European immigration that the federal Liberal Party encouraged from about 1900, especially to develop western farming.

The odd continental dish appears as well, some in the French repertoire. One is “Stuffed French Mushrooms With Noodles, Chimay”, offered as a main course.

Chimay?

Those who study beer and gastronomy will immediately think of the Trappist beer of Chimay, Belgium, or perhaps the cheese made under auspices of Chimay abbey. We have an interest in Chimay’s beer and have written about it here in numerous respects. We uncovered its alcohol content as it was 1877 and revealed that Chimay was all-malt in 1969, for example.

While the beer was commercialized early – we’re speaking relatively here – was it well-enough known in the 1930s to enter into a dish of international catering? Not at all. Apart from the temporal problem the idea that the sparest of monastic diets inspired a plush restaurant dish is out of the question.

Chimay must have meant something else, then, and did. Yet explanations do not come easily. The Hainault region in Belgium is not a gastronomic haven (despite or perhaps because of the famous Spa), not a haunt of luxe hotels that developed dishes soon to become staples on the international food circuit.

Chicken Normandy, peach Melba, veal Marengo (connected to Napoleon), Saratoga chips, all make sense. What could rural Chimay, dominated by an ancient castle inhabited by an old line of European aristocracy, have to do with haute bourgeois eating in hardscrabble 1930s Regina?

I have researched the question and cannot find a crystal-clear answer, but almost certainly the dish is named for Clara Ward, Princesse de Caraman-Chimay (1873-1916). She was born in Detroit, Michigan from an industrialist family and married the Prince of said title at only 16 or 17 (accounts vary). Her background and eventful life are set out in this referenced Wikipedia essay.

Only the second American to become a princess, the union with the twice-her-age Prince did not last. She took up with King Leopold II, a cousin of the Prince, and ended marrying three more times. She had a stage career as well and possibly worked as a courtesan, a femme de scandale.

A chocolate cake is named for one of her husbands, Rigó Jancsi, a Hungarian Gypsy violinist, so it is entirely plausible that the Princess inspired the dishes styled Chimay in standard culinary references. The pair evidently frequented the fashionable restaurants her position and wealth gave access to. See this recipe for the cake from the Food Network, courtesy Wayne Harley Brachman.

There were Princesses of Chimay earlier, but they seem unlikely to have named the dishes as I cannot trace them before the 20th century.

The main dish encountered is “eggs Chimay”, or oeufs à la Chimay. One or two references, including a 1975 New York Times recipe, call it “Eggs in the Style of Princess Chimay”, so Clara Ward’s connection again is plausible and almost certain. You can find many recipes online, it’s a dish of standard Continental cuisine. I didn’t check but it’s probably in Julia Child, for example.

The rich concoction blends minced egg yolk with a duxelle, that is, mushrooms cooked in butter and minced. The mixture is then stuffed in the hollow of the boiled egg white. A Mornay sauce with Parmesan is poured over and glazed under the grill. It is an appetizer, generally.

Another Chimay dish in the French canon is chicken Chimay, which involves the noodles mentioned on the CPR’s 1937 menu.

Here is a recipe for the eggs dish from the Yes Chef, No Chef blog, and this one, from Escoffier, illustrates the chicken-and-noodles dish. He calls it (in English) Pullet Chimay (see p. 496). Needless to say, no beer here, Chimay is used in an entirely different sense, which lends confusion. If you search dishes for chicken or eggs + Chimay more recent recipes appear, quite unconnected to the two above and calling for the beer to be added.

The CPR’s dish appears to adapt the two classic Chimay dishes to come up with something different: mushrooms are stuffed instead of eggs, perhaps with minced chicken, probably glazed with Mornay, and noodles served alongside.

The chicken form must have been named for the princess too, at any rate, no other explanation appears as likely.

Other than the Chimay name, our epicurean, Michigan-born princess and her namesake dishes have nothing we may connect to Chimay’s monks or their beer – to the contrary in every way.  Ironically though, Chimay beer became in time of gastronomic repute, as did Trappist beer in general. And it’s used in cooking too quite frequently today. Especially in Belgium, historically a lively beer culture, the best chefs take pride in using beer in some recipes, not least the ale of Chimay and other brewing monasteries.

If our blue blood vamp was on the Paris stage today, swanning through chic restaurants with current husband in tow or an extra-marital friend, she might well run into a dish cooked with the beer of her locality. Maybe she would even taste the beer alongside with a glint of pride. “Les moines de ma principauté le font ne savez-vous pas”.

Do you hear just a bit of the nasal twang of The Mitten, though? I do. Or maybe it was her years in Toronto…*

 

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*See this article by Anna Passante who explains Ward spent most of her youth there.

 

 

 

 

 

1 thought on “Dish a la Chimay

  1. Julia Child did in fact catalogue a recipe for eggs Chimay, see here. Its from her book, Julia’s Kitchen Wisdom. She calls the recipe “very French”, a testament to its heavy quota of cream, butter and cheese. She states it is a good luncheon or supper dish. A subtle Americanization is at work here in our view as the dish in Europe was an appetizer, which meant for (as viewed today) impossibly rich dinners. The CPR too adapted a similar dish for main course purposes.

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