Lorraine, An Old Beer Region, Cooks With Beer Too
Lorraine is often bracketed with Alsace in the geopolitical name, Alsace-Lorraine. In fact, Alsace and Lorraine have different traditions and histories. Lorraine, especially outside the Moselle portion annexed with Alsace by Germany in 1871, had a notable admixture of old Latin elements, and Romance dialects survive together with Germanic ones. At bottom, Franco and German influences have intermingled in the area for centuries, with an appreciation for malted beverages being one result.
Lorraine and its cross have different associations: industrial (steel, textiles, lumber); touristic (Vosges mountains, the spas); military (latterly, Verdun and much else associated to the First War); cultural; and the number and influence of cities such as Metz, Nancy, Epinal, Thionville.
This sketch is concerned with its brewing tradition and even then in an attenuated sense, as manifest in its cuisine.
Like Alsace, Lorraine is an old brewing region. There were many breweries at one time, but consolidation reduced the old-established ones to just a handful. The survivors today are part of trans-national companies, including one of the greats of Lorraine brewing, the Champigneulles brewery. Champigneulles, however, is not in a mega-group. A German concern comprising three breweries owns it, and the French wing operates much as it always did.
Champigneulles, the brand, was a byword for fine French beer in the postwar decades. The name has been restored to the brewery’s labels after a long gap, a welcome step by management. The website describes the main brands produced today and they sound very good.
A number of craft breweries have arrived to add welcome variety to the remaining old school. Those interested in the beer traditions of Lorraine would profit from visiting the fine museum in Stenay, an old citadel town. The museum is housed in a venerable structure used variously in the past as a supplies storehouse and maltings.
Lorraine’s beer cookery is rather hidden as it were. One may consult a number of reputable sources of its regional cuisine, and find no reference at all to any beer dish. Still, it cannot be denied that a beer cuisine exists quietly. A source of incontestable veracity is the historical survey of Lorraine brewing, Bières de Meuse et de Lorraine by the late beer historian, Philippe Voluer (Editions de L’Est, 1991).
While far from the foremost of M. Voluer’s many publications on French brewing, the book’s culinary chapter sheds particular light on an obscure corner of Lorraine cuisine. The chapter insists on the authenticity of its offerings, to the point M. Voluer felt obliged to note of the Lorraine beer soup that it appears not to predate the First World War. Indeed he did not shrink from suggesting that German occupation may have brought the dish to the region. And so it may be…
There is a recipe for hop shoots cooked in water, advised to accompany an omelette or to be covered with béchamel and baked for a few minutes in the oven. Such is the local interest in this obscure vegetable that we are told a mustard sauce is de rigueur.
Fish of the Lorraine rivers – pike, say or carp – is cooked traditionally in blonde beer with shallots, garlic, thyme, bay and fennel. The book notes that in the 1800s, locals used a spiced beer for this and it advises a Belgian white beer to similar effect. There is beef cooked with beer, onions, carrots, green herbs. The famous sauerkraut of Alsace is almost as popular in Lorraine and the book says beer was always used in some versions, rendering the dish less acidic (than wine, that is). Once again, chicken with beer pops up, in a recipe similar to that of Nord-Pas-de-Calais, but carrots appear here, which I don’t recall in the other recipes.
A recipe in a different book advises a mixture of water and beer for the pan of a roasting goose. I mentioned in my previous post, on Alsace beer cuisine, that Lorraine cooks also use beer to baste turkey.
Returning to Bières de Meuse et de Lorraine, its “carnival” beignet is enriched not just with beer but orange or lemon zest, cream, butter and eau de vie. This batter is also used to encase slices of apple which are, to boot, given a preliminary soaking in plum eau de vie. A crepe recipe is given with not less than a bottle of beer used. With all this use of beer in pastry, I could not locate a recipe for quiche lorraine – the queen surely of Lorraine gastronomy – with beer in the recipe. Not even modern chefs resolutely on the road to personal creativity seem willing to take that one on.
Does beer go with quiche on the side, to accompany it? The Pocket Beer Guide 2015 by Stephen Beaumont and Tim Webb advises a dark beer, including the alt style, as suitable for this. I like this recommendation. Best to keep beer out of the quiche pan, though.
Somme toute, a nice little inventory of regional beer dishes: beer cuisine is a tributary of the river that is Lorraine gastronomy but is no less valid for that.
The likelihood too, as for Alsace, is that beer cuisine was the province of countless ménagères, whose foods were handed down through the generations in the maternal line. This is not the kind of cookery, in other words, automatically included by those who compile repertories of provincial cuisine. Indeed, recording regional foods is rather new anyway, having gotten its start in France after WW I.
Before that, haute cuisine was the type which got into books, a very valid but also very different tradition. Regional food was the kind your mom made and her mom, it was more an oral tradition than anything else. Given that beer is the most popular (versus elite) of the alcohol drinks, its use in cooking would be last in line to write down, not the first. Still, traces have been laid down for posterity, of which you see some evidence here.