“The Use of Beer in Cooking is a Very Ancient Custom…”
[From Cooking With Dow, Jehane Benoit, 1958]
As I’ve mentioned earlier, beer cuisine can mean two things: beer as an ingredient in food, or pairing foods with beer whether or not beer is used in the cooking.
Both are legitimate areas to investigate although the pairing part can be contrived in modern writing. In the old days, beer usually went with a specific group of foods, generally salty ones like ham, herring, potato chips, oysters, cheese, hot dogs, sandwiches. It was also understood that beer featured in the cookery of some regional cuisines, generally from northern Europe.
Today, sophisticated suggestions are made to pair beer with food where styles or even brands of beer are suggested. These often make sense but my view really is, if you like the beers a lot and the food a lot, there is no reason not to pair them. Orval Trappist with mint ice cream, why not? Imperial stout with chicken tetrazzini – sure.
Cooking with beer is the more interesting area. It has an old history. It’s easy to find medieval recipes using ale, for example. The malty or herbal taste of beer adds flavour to foods just as wine adds its specific quality although both are different.
Cooking with beer breaks down into two ways to look at it: collecting recipes someone originated earlier and were felt worthy to record and pass down to the generations, and a purely personal, creative beer cookery where you come up with your own combinations and ideas. These interrelate too of course – e.g., say you find a Belgian carbonnades recipe (beef and beer stew) and decide to make it using lamb instead of beef.
The creative approach is perfectly valid, and after all that is how any cuisine got going, at one time. Not the best example, but someone somewhere stuck a can of beer in a chicken cavity once, probably as a joke in that case, and it became a classic.
My own interest is to read and sometimes cook recipes someone has written down and which belong to a national or regional tradition. These have at least some permanence, or acceptability, about them, which I find appealing.
When I read recently that Jehane Benoit, the great Canadian food authority of the 20th century, had written a book on beer cookery, I determined to get it and it now forms part of a collection I have of beer cookery books.
Mme Benoit (how she was always termed in her lifetime, so I will use the same honorific) was a superb chef, there wasn’t much about food she didn’t know and she was a rare example of both culinary master and trained food scientist. I knew I wouldn’t be disappointed in the book even though it is more a pamphlet, called Cooking With Dow, which dates from 1958.
Dow was a brewery in Quebec Province which had a crashing fall from grace about 10 years later, I have written about this recently on this blog. In 1958 though, years before cobalt salts were used in Canadian beer to assist its foaming, Dow was a full-flavoured, well-regarded sparkling ale. Thus, not the modern IPA-type beer, more like a full-flavoured blonde lager with (probably) some fruity notes from top-fermentation. Dow Brewery had hired Mme Benoit as a spokesperson, and Cooking With Dow was one result.
The book offers good interest and has recipes from many different countries, not all of which are typically associated with beer. Still, Mme Benoit in the introduction states the recipes are, “for the most part traditional and belong to the everyday cooking of many lands: Germany, Spain, China, England, France, Belgium, Italy and even America”.
Some may doubt this assertion, e.g., did people really add beer to the Spanish/Latin American punchero soup? (The name is usually spelled, puchero). Or to a Sicilian cabbage soup? I searched online for similar combinations and in fact found dishes similar to what Mme Benoit described. Beer has been known for 1000 years in parts of southern Europe albeit its commercial impact is of more recent note. Mme Benoit was too good and knowledgeable a food authority for me to doubt her on this. Also, by writing “for the most part”, she was clearly telling us just a few of the recipes were her own, probably the vegetarian group.
And so we find Quebec partridge with beer, a combination probably inherited from the Quebecois’ French ancestors since similar dishes are known in Picardy and elsewhere in the north; and Normandy pork chops, Austrian backhendl, kidneys Danish-style, Hungarian red cabbage, and ginger snaps, each made with beer. And on it went, over 100 recipes.
As for what beer to use, Mme Benoit had only one suggestion. Dow Ale! She has a short note on the brand at the back which shows the beer fancier she probably was as, when advising to keep the beer at 40-45 F, she states some prefer it “room temperature”. (That was called “tablette” in Quebec – off the shelf). It is easy to see that in the early 1900s, to which her memory extended, many liked beer that way, when it was all-malt and well-hopped. Quebec is cold too much of the year, so that fits in there also.
We have rich beers like that again today and you might try beer that way, or only half-chilled.
I’ve written about beer cookery off and on for a bit, but haven’t spoken as yet what the taste is like. It is hard to describe, something of the beer flavour endures in the dish but it is modified by the almost invariable use of spices, sugar, mustard or vinegar. Most people wouldn’t guess certainly beer is used, except perhaps in beer soup. It’s a unique flavour, and matches some meats well – beef best, in my view, and pork next to that. But its use extends well beyond that area and Madame has recipes for fish, desserts, eggs, vegetables, and beverages (compounded drinks).
As to what kind of beer to use, after many years’ experimentation, my feeling is, it almost doesn’t matter, somewhat as for wine. The beer cooks down and loses much of its individual quality, leaving something in common to all of them. Many years ago, a restaurant I knew on Mount Pleasant Avenue in Toronto was run by a chef from Roubaix, France. Roubaix, on the northern fringe of France, is in a classic beer area. I asked him to make me a coq à la bière his way, a well-known dish up in French beer country. It came in a white porcelain tureen, used tarragon and cream like I had read about and had piping hot french fries on the side, also as I had read about. (Which poet said the locomotives’ wheels in le Nord run on the oil for fried potatoes…).
This was the best chicken with beer dish I ever had. I asked what beer he used and he said, Labatt Blue. There you go.
Image above is Tram Lille Place Du Théatre, February, 1982, by Smiley.toerist (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.