Dish a la Chimay

A Daisy Miller and Haute Cuisine

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


The Hotel Saskatchewan was built in 1927 in the boxy, neo-classical style popular in the 1930s and 40s. It was a Regina institution for decades. The “Sask” was a charter member of the Canadian Pacific Railway hotels that dotted the CPR’s trans-continental line and helped link Canada’s regions. The railway-hotel network did much to foster the expansion and growth of Canada. Today the Sask is owned by Temple Hotels, a unit of the Ontario-based, publicly-traded Morguard Investments.

The menu, sourced from the nypl.org digital archive, reflects a diversity of influences. Offerings included B.C. planked salmon; pickerel fillets from northern lakes; Britannic standbys such as liver and bacon, beefsteak, and lamb with chutney; and domestic-style, North American foods: tomato soup, ham steak, potato salad, shortcake. The odd-sounding sauerkraut juice likely owes something to the Central and East European immigration encouraged by the federal Liberal Party after 1900, especially to develop farming.

The odd continental dish appears as well, some from the French repertoire. One is “Stuffed French Mushrooms With Noodles, Chimay”, offered as a main course. Chimay? Those who know beer and gastronomy will immediately think of the noted ale made in Chimay, Belgium by its Trappist monastery, or perhaps the fathers’ cheese from the same cloister. We have an interest in Chimay beer and have written about it in numerous respects. We uncovered its alcohol content in 1877, and all-malt roots in this piece.

While the beer was commercialized early on to support the monastery and its works, we’re speaking in relative terms. Was it well-enough known in the 1930s to feature in international hotel catering? Not at all. Apart from the temporal problem, the idea that a spare monastic diet – and the monks themselves largely abjure the beer, it is sold to support the community – could inspire plush restaurant eating is simply out of the picture.

Chimay in the name had to mean something else, then. Yet, explanations do not come easily. The Hainault in Belgium with its main cities of Mons, Tournai, and Charleroi is not a gastronomic haven, at least not internationally, despite or perhaps because of the famous Spa. The region does not attract the bon ton in a way to create world food classics, that is. Chicken Normandy, peach Melba, veal Marengo (Napoleon), Saratoga chips – yes. What could the hamlet of Chimay, dominated by a mouldering castle and its old European line, have to do with haute bourgeois 1930s cuisine?

I examined the question, and found that almost certainly the CPR’s dish is named for Clara Ward, Princesse de Caraman-Chimay (1873-1916). Ward was born in Detroit, Michigan of a rich industrialist family. She married the Prince of the title at only 16 or 17 (accounts vary). Her background and eventful life are set out in a number of sources including this well-referenced essay.

Only the second American to become a princess, the union with a Belgian prince twice her age did not last. She took up with no less than King Leopold II, a cousin of the Prince, and ended marrying three more times. She had a stage career as well and may have worked as a courtesan, a femme de scandale.

A chocolate cake is named for one of the husbands, Rigó Jancsi, a Hungarian Gypsy violinist. This is a recipe for Jansci cake, contributed by Wayne Harley Brachman to the Food Network. It is plausible and almost certain in our view that the Princess inspired all dishes termed Chimay in the standard culinary repertoire. The pair were known to frequent the fashionable restaurants her position and wealth gave access to. Then as now restaurants proud of the patronage of the rich and famous named dishes after cosseted guests or an event or place connected to them.

There were other Princesses of Chimay before Clara Ward, but they are unlikely to have inspired dishes termed Chimay as these emerge after Ward left America, propelled by her ambitious mother.

“Eggs Chimay”, or oeufs à la Chimay, is another such dish. One or two references, including this 1975 New York Times recipe, terms it “Eggs in the Style of Princess Chimay”. It blends minced egg yolk with a duxelle – mushrooms cooked in butter and minced. The mixture is stuffed in the hollow of the boiled egg white. A Mornay sauce with Parmesan is poured atop, then glazed under the grill. It is an appetizer, generally. Here is another recipe for the eggs dish from the blog Yes Chef, No Chef.

Another classic Chimay dish is Chicken Chimay, which involves the noodles mentioned on the CPR’s 1937 menu. This recipe from Escoffier illustrates what he calls Chimay Pullet or Chimay Poularde, see p. 496.

The CPR’s 1930s dish appears to adapt two classic Chimay dishes to come up with a third. Instead of eggs, mushrooms are stuffed, perhaps with minced chicken, and likely glazed with Mornay. Noodles are served alongside. Needless to say no Chimay or other beer is dashed in here. The term Chimay is used in an entirely different sense, which can lend confusion in 2018 as if you google dishes for chicken or eggs with Chimay newer recipes appear quite unconnected to Eggs Chimay or Chicken Chimay. This is because the Cistercian-made beer has been applied to kitchen uses in the last 30 years due to the popularity of the beer.

But as to traditional Chicken or Eggs Chimay, evidently these were named for Clara Ward, at least no other explanation appears as likely.

Imagine our Daisy Miller turned Euro blueblood on the Paris stage today. She might, in a smart restaurant after the show, see a dish on the menu bearing the name Chimay, be it of the older or newer style. She might even notice the beer on a wine list. Maybe she would order the beer in its distinctive, skittle-shaped bottle instead of wine, with no little pride we can assume: “Les moines de ma principauté le font ne savez-vous pas“.

N.B. There is an interesting Toronto connection to Clara Ward’s career. See this article by Anna Passante who explains that Ward spent most of her youth here.

Note re images: the first and last images were sourced from the NYPL menu archive linked in the text. The second image was sourced from the website for Chimay beer, here. The third image was sourced from this informative web page on Clara Ward. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to their lawful owner, as applicable. Images used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

 

 

 

 

 

1 thought on “Dish a la Chimay

  1. Julia Child catalogued a recipe for eggs Chimay, see here. It’s 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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