Gambrinus in the Cookpot

“The Use of Beer in Cooking is a Very Ancient Custom…”

[From Cooking With Dow by Jehane Benoit, 1958]

Beer cuisine can mean two things: beer as an ingredient in recipes, and beers selected to match well with food at table.

Both are legitimate sections of gastronomy. Before the craft beer era beer was thought suitable to pair with a limited group of foods. These included salty meats like ham, cured or smoked fish, potato chips, oysters, cheese, and sandwiches.

Today, nuanced advice is offered to pair specific types or 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. Trappist Ale alongside mint ice cream, sure. Imperial stout with chicken Tetrazzini, why not. It’s all good if one likes the taste of each.

The “what with what” of wine comes to mind, its strictures increasingly relaxed in recent decades.

Cooking with beer is the more interesting area in my view, and has an old history. It’s easy to find 14th century recipes using ale, for example, see The Forme of Cury. The malty or herbal taste of beer adds flavour just as wine adds a quality although the result differs in each case.

Cooking with beer breaks down into two aspects: recipes handed down by tradition, and a contemporary, creative cookery where new combinations and ideas are evolved. Both are valid and can interrelate. A Belgian carbonnades de boeuf (beef and beer stew) can be made with the newer, American-type IPA, or substituting another meat for the beef.

And someone somewhere in the last 30 years stuck a can of beer up a chicken once, probably as a joke, and roasted it. Novelty it may be, but the fad endures.

My own interest is recipes handed down in a national or regional cuisine. These at least have some permanence, which I find appealing. When I read recently that the great Canadian food author Jehane Benoit wrote on beer cookery, I obtained the book without delay.

Mme or Mrs. Benoit, as she was called in her heyday, was a superb chef and cookery teacher. She was that rare example of deft cook and trained food scientist. She wrote Cooking With Dow in 1958, when Dow Ale was a major brand in Quebec Province.

The book resulted from her spokesman role with the brewery. (Dow later had a crashing fall from grace due to an additives scandal, which perhaps consigned the book to minor status).

The book offers recipes from many different countries, not all associated with a beer heritage. Mme Benoit states in the introduction that 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; did people really add beer to the Spanish/Latin American punchero, for example? The dish is a soup, usually spelled, puchero.

I sought examples online of such usage, and actually found a number similar to Mrs. Benoit’s description; she did not gild the lily. Beer has been known for at least a millennium in parts of southern Europe albeit commercial production is more recent. Mrs. Benoit wrote that wherever grain was raised a form of beer likely was made. It makes sense, and there is some historical basis for the statement.

Some Ancient Greek writers mention beer, and after all beer was in common use thousands of years ago in warm Egypt.

Her introduction does make clear though that some recipes are hers. These likely included the vegetarian group, as she operated a vegetarian restaurant in Montreal in the 1930s, typically ahead of her time.

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She gives a recipe for Quebec partridge with beer. This probably descends from France as there are similar dishes in Picardy and the Ardenne. Beer features in her Normandy pork chops, Austrian backhendl, Danish kidneys, Hungarian red cabbage, and ginger snaps. The book has over 100 recipes, from the proverbial soup to nuts.

As to which beer in the food, Mme Benoit had only one suggestion: Dow Ale!

Dow was probably as good a choice as any for her dishes. Somewhat as with wine brand is secondary, although specific recipes may qualify this.

Years ago a restaurant on Mount Pleasant Avenue in Toronto was run by a chef from Roubaix, in France. Roubaix, on the northern fringe of France, is a classic beer region, it shares this with Belgium nearby. Beer finds its way into numerous dishes of the frontier.

He made for us coq à la bière, a well-known dish in the northern tip of France.* It was covered with cream and tarragon in a white porcelain tureen, as described in my French books. Piping hot french fries came alongside, also a specialty of the North.

I had made the dish in my kitchen using boutique beers, but his easily bettered mine. Asked what beer he used, he replied, Labatt Blue, a standard mass market lager. Voilà.

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*A similar preparation with rabbit is known.