“The Use of Beer in Cooking is a Very Ancient Custom…”
[From Cooking With Dow, Jehane Benoit, 1958]
Beer cuisine can mean two things, beer as an ingredient in food, or paired with food whether or not used in the cooking.
Both are legitimate objects of gastronomy although the pairing aspect can be somewhat exaggerated in today’s writing. In the old days, beer was thought to accompany well a limited group of foods, salty ones like ham, smoked herring and similar fish, potato chips, oysters, cheese, hot dogs, or sandwiches. It was also understood that beer featured in some national or regional cuisines, generally from northern Europe.
Today, sophisticated advice is offered to pair specific styles, or even brands of beer, with food. Sometimes it makes sense but my view is, if you like the beer a lot and the food a lot, there is no reason not to pair them. Orval Trappist Ale with mint ice cream. Why not? Imperial stout with chicken tetrazzini – sure. Molson Canadian with foie gras? Okay.
Cooking with beer is the more interesting area, with 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 the end result will differ noticeably from each on its own.
Cooking with beer breaks down into two aspects: recipes passed down by tradition, and a personal, creative beer cookery where new combinations and ideas are reflected. They can interrelate, e.g., a Belgian carbonnades (beef and beer stew) can be made with lamb instead of beef.
The creative approach is perfectly valid, after all that is how any distinct cuisine started. Not the best example, but someone somewhere stuck a can of beer in a chicken cavity once, probably as a joke, baked it, and created a fad that endures.
My own interest is recipes that are established in a national or regional cuisine. These have at least some permanence, or acceptability about them, a value I find appealing. When I read recently that Jehane Benoit, the great Canadian food authority, wrote a book on beer cookery, I obtained a copy without delay.
Mme or Mrs. 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. She was a rare example of a culinary master and trained food scientist. I knew the book would please even though it is more a pamphlet, called Cooking With Dow. It dates from 1958 when Dow was a major brand in Quebec province.
The Dow brand had a crashing fall from grace about 10 years later due to an additives scandal, I wrote about it here recently. In 1958 though, years before cobalt salts were used in beer to assist foaming, Dow was a full-flavoured, well-regarded sparkling ale. Dow Brewery in Montreal had hired Mme Benoit as a spokesperson, and Cooking With Dow was one result.
The book contains recipes from many different countries, not all associated with the beer heritage. Yet Mme Benoit states in the introduction 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 for similar combinations, and in fact found dishes similar to what Mme Benoit described; she did not gild the lily. Beer has been known for 1000 years in parts of southern Europe albeit commercial production is more recent. Its appearance in some local foods has therefore a rationale. Also, by stating “for the most part”, she made clear a few recipes were her own, probably the vegetarian group. (She ran a vegetarian restaurant in Montreal in the 1930s – typically ahead of her time).
And so she offers Quebec partridge with beer, probably inherited from the Quebecois’ French ancestors (there are similar dishes are in Picardy and elsewhere in the Nord) and Normandy pork chops, Austrian backhendl, Danish kidneys, Hungarian red cabbage, and ginger snaps – each made with beer. The book has over 100 recipes, from the proverbial soup to nuts. As for which beer, Mme Benoit had only one suggestion, Dow ale!
As stated earlier, when cooked with food the flavour of beer alters. Something of the beer flavour, often the bitterness, endures but it is modified by spices, sugar, mustard, vinegar, onions, or other components in a dish. Most people wouldn’t guess that beer is used in a beer dish, except perhaps in beer soup. Beer matches meats well – beef best, in my view, and pork next to that. But the use extends well beyond the carnivorous, and Mrs. Benoit offers examples for fish, desserts, eggs, vegetables, and beverages (compounded drinks).
While it is understandable that Mme Benoit used only Dow in her recipes, my feeling is it almost doesn’t matter what type is used, similar to wine. The beer cooks down and loses much of its individual quality, yet leaves something in common with any type used. Many years ago a restaurant on Mount Pleasant Avenue in Toronto was run by a chef from Roubaix, France. Roubaix, on the northern fringe of France, is a classic beer region, it shares the heritage with Belgium over the border. He made a coq à la bière at my request, a well-known dish in French beer country. It came in a white porcelain tureen, with tarragon and cream just as I had read in books, and piping hot french fries.
I had made it before in my kitchen sometimes using fancy beers, but this was the best chicken and beer dish I ever had. Asked what beer he used, he replied Labatt Blue. Voilà.
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.