It’s Bock Beer Season!


Rock The Bock

In the days before the craft beer revival, bock beer was important for those who took an out-of-the-ordinary interest in beer. Around springtime, the Canadian breweries, one or two of them anyway, released their version. American breweries did too.

Bock was a stronger style of beer, originally an “ale” (top-fermented) which transmuted into all-malt lager form with the onset of Bavarian bottom-fermentation. It derives by old accounts from the town of Einbeck in northern Germany, and may have been a dark wheat brew. It was shipped widely including to Bavaria where it was admired for its strength and restorative qualities.

Due to its special qualities, there have long been monastic and even royal associations with the beer. The Paulaner Franciscan order apparently devised the extra-strong version called doppelbock.

This 1890s account of bock’s origins has a ring of truth about it and accords with other accounts going back at least to the 1820s. Einbeck, sometimes formerly called Eimbeck, has a brewery that still makes a (bottom-fermented) bock, indeed more than one kind, and they are very highly regarded.


Bock in Germany, the regular kind, was a couple of points stronger than regular lager in the 1800s, around 6% abv. Labatt Breweries 30 years ago had a “Super Bock” in the market at 6.5% abv. I remember it well. It had a nice tawny colour and a more pronounced taste than regular beer. Still, by today’s craft standards, it would be considered fairly inoffensive.

In an unlikely development, a bottle of Super Bock was found in recent years and opened, you can see the video review of the team which drank it, here. I haven’t see the video yet, but I’d imagine the group had fun checking out this oldie.

Strangely, bock in its most traditional form has been overlooked by the craft breweries. You can find everything from Silesian smoked wheat beer to tea-flavoured stout to you name it, but relatively little dark bock of the old spring seasonal type.

Helles bock, a later variant based on a golden lager, doesn’t really flatter the style. This type of bock does appear with more frequency from the vats of craft brewers.

Perhaps they feel the light colour will appeal more to people than the regular dark bock, but I’ve had few that are really good. (Blonde beer in general shouldn’t be too strong I think, whether Whitbread Gold Label, Duvel, U.S. malt liquor, or helles bock, they seem of limited appeal somehow).

Good dark bock shows the qualities one associates with great German beer: clean, mineral-like hop character and rich malty notes, but in bock the latter should predominate.

Schlenkerla’s Urbock from Bamberg in Bavaria, only lightly smoked, is outstanding.


The doppel versions of German brewers are usually very good but tend to be early winter specialties and hard to find in North America. These and numerous other bock beer variants are well-described in this German Beer Institute entry here.

In Ontario, Brick Brewing in Waterloo made an excellent bock for years but I haven’t seen it lately.  Molson-Coors’s Creemore UrBock is first-rate if well-matured to expel the boiled veg note that the Creemore lagers tend to exhibit (IMO). I keep a few cans for months in the fridge, bought in the winter when it is only available. This extra “lagering” usually makes them perfect by the autumn following. Molson used to have its own bock beer (see image appended) at a modest 5% – to my best recollection this was fairly ordinary, and its Creemore brand today is a decided improvement.

I heard that Side Launch Brewing in Collingwood, ON just issued a bock which is good news as anything from that brewery is top quality. I’ve been trying to track it down, so far without luck. Maybe Saturday will be Der Tag.


You still hear the story that bock beer is or was made from the residues at the bottom of the vats, before they were cleaned. It’s not and never was true. Michael Jackson, the great beer author (1942-2007), wrote that various beer legends were embroidered and transposed to result in this tall tale. Fest lager made in March but finished up in October – what was left in the vats – became associated with bock because both were stronger and darker than regular blonde lager. Fest beer was sometimes called March beer since it was brewed then, so the last of the March beer consumed in the fall became associated with the strong dark beer called bock which hit the market in March and April.

The goat association results from the fact that in the Bavarian dialect, Einbeck sounded like ein bock – a goat. Goats famously can kick, so the association with bock beer was a natural and has never disappeared – a harmless story which makes for fun labels.

If you can find a genuine, un-hyphenated bock, locally made or imported, it is a treat. Whether it tastes like the 1300s Einbeck original, we will never know. But it’s great beer either way.

Note re images: The first image above is in the public domain and was sourced here. The second and third were sourced here, and hereThe fourth, in the public domain, here. All are believed available for educational and historical use. All feedback welcomed.

Some Taste Notes Including For A Fine Bourbon


A very fresh can of the Barca stand-by, Estrella Damm, under eight weeks from packaging working back from the best-by date.

While an adjunct brew, it has a full and beery taste – nothing retiring about it. However, it has a noticeable dimethyl sulphide note (DMS) in my opinion, which tends to colour the character of the beer, much as yeast can do when prominent in the finished product.

This is a traditional blonde lager profile – one of them – but not to my liking. I left the glass shown on the counter with a small plate on top and the remainder of the beer still in the can. Tonight I’ll try it again, or maybe even tomorrow night. The DMS may lift off, as has occurred in other similar situations. Otherwise I’ll blend it, probably with a strong stout. Some carbonation will escape of course but surprisingly little if the glass and can aren’t disturbed. Also, losing 30%-40% carbonation is actually an improvement to most beer.

IMG_20160412_174308 (2)

It’s a cliché to say it, but this German Red Ale is one of the best beers I’ve ever had. It has a clean but very flavourful malt richness and sturdy but not dominating (as appropriate) hop character. I think Perle and Magnum hops are used. The label says Altbier style and it is exactly that, made in St-Eustache, Quebec by Brasseurs Illimités.  I had a sticke Altbier once from Dusseldorf, Zum Uerige’s, flown in a wood keg to a fest in Baltimore, MD some years back. Brasseurs Illimités’ version is very similar.


An abbey classic from Belgium, rich-flavoured and faultless in authenticity. It’s made by Moortgat, which holds the licence from the Benedictines of the abbey where the recipe was originated. This is Maredsous 8, 8% abv, the dubbel. I’d guess it is flash-pasteurized for export but am not sure. It’s got that fruity background typical of good Belgian beer but that Belgian yeast gets up my nose. I find if I drink it and don’t “think” about it, it tastes much better. Voilà!


Tasted at a LCBO tasting counter, Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve, 120 proof (60% abv). From the bourbon powerhouse which is Beam Suntory in Clermont, KY. I added enough water to bring it to about 40% abv. What a whiskey! Very full and rich, elegant, everything in the right place. People say some bourbon is like good Cognac, often an exaggeration but in this case fully justified. I don’t mean to say bourbon isn’t as valid a spirit as good brandy. But it is rare in my experience that you can sip a bourbon neat and get perceptions similar to good Cognac such as softness, a velvet quality, and refined taste.

This bottle bears a nine year age statement, the Knob Creek standard unless it has changed lately. Yet, the whiskey in the current single barrel bottlings is a few years older than that. A little birdie told me, plus it tastes more matured than regular Knob Creek. The regular-issue stuff is hardly to be disdained, but this 120 proof version is the bee’s knees. The barrel birthed something real special here, folks.

The trademark yeast/anise flavour of Beam-recipe bourbon is completely absent. Presumably, extra aging and/or barrel selection resulted in a different profile. They should do this for the regular Knob Creek.

Finally, don’t try to drink it neat and be a he-man. High proof bourbon, even at 100 proof let alone 120 proof, was almost never drunk that way in the classic era of bourbon, say 1840s-1990s. It was mixed in cocktails or drunk with ice and water. Sometimes it was drunk neat, but not at 120 proof. More typically this would have been at 80-90 proof, or 40-45% abv.

Getting 120 proof simply means you are getting a better value – more alcohol – it’s not an invitation to drink it straight at that proof. Take a micro-sip just to see what it’s like, if you wish. Otherwise, adjust it so it’s like a standard bottle in proof (80-100). Not only will it taste in your drinks as it should, you are in effect saving 20% or more off the sticker price – itself quite reasonable for a bourbon of this, er, caliber.

Pasteurization And The Next Frontier For Industrial Brewers

Louis_Pasteur,_foto_av_Félix_Nadar_Crisco_editPasteur Had A Good Run, But What’s Next?

When the beer revival started over 30 years ago pasteurization was a big deal, or rather, the absence of it. It was noticed when the new crop of beers wasn’t pasteurized, which was often the case.

Earlier, almost all bottled and canned beer in North America had been pasteurized.

Coors was an exception: it used a fine filtration method that it felt removed most of the active biological matter, especially yeast. But Coors applied end-to-end refrigeration to lessen the risk of undue spoilage.

A couple of other brands, usually advertising a “draft” character, similarly skipped pasteurisation but were carefully filtered; Miller Genuine Draft is a good example.

Draft beer generally had not been not pasteurized because it was sold locally and within a short time frame. It was also kept cold until the beers as served. Today in Canada I am quite certain the mainstream brands are pasteurized whether bottled/canned or draft. In the U.S., you hear different things, but I’d guess the mega-brewery draft beer, except Coors and Miller Genuine Draft, is pasteurized.

The same applies to old-established regionals like Yuengling.

The onset of flash pasteurizing for mass market U.S. draft was encouraged as well by the Sankey keg system. It was invented in the U.K. in the 1950s and  was designed to be filled in connection with flash-pasteurized beer.

As for craft beer made by mega-brewers which now own those brands, practice varies. Some of those beers are now pasteurized, some are not. In Canada for example, I’ve heard that Molson Coors does not pasteurize any form of Creemore Lager. What about, though, Goose Island IPA as brewed in a Labatt plant? I’d think it is pasteurized but am not sure.

Pasteurization takes its name from the French scientist Louis Pasteur. In experiments to promote the better keeping of wine and beer, he concluded that application of relatively low levels of heat (c. 165 F) would stabilize the product and retard souring for longer. The idea wasn’t new, canned food had been treated with heat to preserve its contents by then, and centuries before the Chinese were heating wine to preserve it. But Pasteur had a huge impact on the beer industry.

Early descriptions of the process refer to “steaming” the beer, or even sterilizing it although pasteurization is not sterilization technically (that would involve using a much hotter process which would destroy much of the character and taste of the beer). Pasteurization is not applied to make the beer safe for consumption: alcohol in beer ensures dangerous pathogens are absent. Rather, the process is used to retard undue spoilage, especially souring. An old, unpasteurized beer cannot harm you, in other words, it is different where the process is used in the milk and cream industry. Below, I show an image from the 1930s of a pasteurizer which happens to be from the dairy industry, but the principle is very similar to that used in brewing.

There are two forms of pasteurization, the tunnel method and the flash method. The former is more intensive and the bottles stay in a tunnel for 30 minutes or more and their temperature is elevated within a period calculated to secure a given period of stability. The flash method entails heating the beer to a higher temperature (some sources say lower) but for a much shorter time. This correspondingly obtains a shorter period of stability for the beer. I could give more technical details, for any interested, but this explains the nub of it.

By definition, English-style cask ale is not pasteurized since it is unfiltered after coming out of primary fermentation and remains so until dispense – killing the active yeast in the beer would defeat the purpose. The lack of application of heat and retention of some residual yeast in the beer gives it a delicate edge pasteurized and filtered beer doesn’t have. Many traditional small breweries in Europe never pasteurized, even where they filtered their products clear for the market. Many connoisseurs sought out these beers for their extra character.

Following this example, when the first modern craft beers emerged in North America, most were unpasteurized regardless of packaging method, and the breweries made a point of this. Either the beers were filtered to be clear or left with some residual yeast (in bottle or barrel), but pasteurization was avoided to retain the fullest flavour possible. Therefore, a beer like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale to this day is not pasteurized. Certainly the bottled beer isn’t and I believe the draft, even as exported to Canada, is not. Most craft brewing in Ontario does not pasteurize. Sleeman, now owned by Sapporo of Japan, always did, I understand, but it is an exception.


In the U.S., the iconic Anchor Brewing in San Francisco has pasteurized throughout its revival, as it sought to meld the best of old and new brewing practices. The “best”, in the minds of its management in the late 60s, included pasteurization. Even its draft beer is pasteurized. Anchor uses the flash method for all packaging forms, however. I’ve read that Samuel Adams’ bottled and canned beers are pasteurized – in part this may have been because a lot of it was contracted out to industrial breweries. Its draft, at least as sold in the U.S., is not pasteurized. Some other well-known craft names do pasteurize, but information is hard to come by as this information is usually not volunteered.

Some years ago, I asked Anchor Brewery why it pasteurizes everything when, i) most craft beer is not pasteurized, and ii) one can regularly drink all forms of craft beer made on the other side of North America and it seems usually just fine. The LCBO imports craft beer from British Columbia, say, and many other far-away places. Rarely can I recall buying one that was sour in the bottle without intending to be – maybe once or twice in 30 years. Are modern brewers who pasteurize being too conservative?

You can read Anchor’s reply to me here. In essence, they said that despite modern brewing sanitation methods being used (to avoid wild yeast and other sources of contamination entering the packaged beer), pasteurizing is an insurance policy to lengthen shelf life. They acknowledged that some people feel taste is affected by the process, but offered the opinion, as many brewers I’ve met do, that people cannot tell the difference when tasting blind.

Moosehead Brewery in Canada has a commendably long discussion of pasteurization, here, which is similar in its arguments to Anchor’s. Moosehead states however that flavour can be impacted, particularly hop character, but opines that adjustments can be made at the brewery to compensate.

All brewers seem to agree that pasteurization must be done “correctly”, and e.g., if beer is heated too high, it may lead to a burned caramel taste (which I sometimes taste in all kinds of pasteurized beer) or even premature oxidation – damp paper staling. This can result from the effect of the heat on residual oxygen in the beer. (I have encountered this problem too).

While I have never done a blind test – happy to participate if anyone asks – I am convinced that pasteurization does alter flavour somewhat. Some brewers feel the same, and e.g., the advertising for the “tank” version of Pilsner Urquell you can get in some specialist bars in Europe specifically claims a superior flavour due to absence of pasteurization. Look at this explanation, in regard to such a pub in Ireland.

That explanation states that unpasteurized Pilsner Urquell is good for only three weeks and once tapped should be used up within a week. How does that square with being able to drink perfectly sound craft beers made thousands of miles away which have to be older than three weeks from packaging, in some cases much older? I think again brewers are being conservative. Also, Urquell is 4.4% abv, rather weaker than most craft beer. Higher alcohol probably preserves beer for longer. The other explanation many brewers give is, craft beers often have high levels of hopping or other flavour attributes which disguise any faults resulting from absence of pasteurization. I’m not sure I agree with that, or not entirely.

Yesterday, I discussed the Heineken BrewLock draft dispense system, an improvement in the eyes of its producer on the current method to dispense draft beer. However one views that, one thing the process doesn’t change is pasteurization – BrewLock Heineken is pasteurized as all forms of Heineken lager are, even for The Netherlands market.

A real innovation, and I predict it is the next frontier, is introducing commercial draft beer which is not pasteurized, in particular for well-regarded imports. Doing so will take a leaf from the book of the craft brewers, most of whom do not pasteurize. Tank beer is the wedge – and it is not just Pilsner Urquell which is available in some places in that form, other Czech beers are also including Staropramen and Budvar.

IMO, there is no reason today that beer can’t reach our market from Europe or almost anywhere within four weeks. Some bottled/canned beer already gets here, even in the LCBO’s system, within six to eight weeks from packaging. Modern transportation and logistics systems should be able to accommodate fast transport of unpasteurized beer including in refrigerated form if necessary. Certainly a brewer who does this first will have a leg up because I believe unpasteurized beer is superior if drunk within a reasonable time from packaging. The timeline may vary with the type of beer being made, but experience with a wide range of craft beer shows that it is perfectly drinkable for much longer than four weeks.

Finally, just because the flavour difference may be subtle in many cases, and the average customer can’t articulate why he/she prefers one form to another, doesn’t mean an unpasteurized beer won’t appeal more than one which is not. It will.

Note re images above: Both are in the public domain, and believed available for educational and historical purposes. They were sourced here and here. All feedback welcomed.




Heineken Pops Up in Toronto in a New Guise


I had seen a bus shelter ad on King Street downtown for the new BrewLock Heineken dispense system, and looked into it further. Heineken has been rolling this out for a little while but it’s new in North America. Only one pub has it so far in this area, the Coach and Four, out in Oakville on Lake Ontario. I went there for lunch on Friday (nice place) and tried the beer. It was good but seemed not really different to regular draft Heineken.

Yesterday, after a long (cold) walk around downtown, I happened upon a pop up offering a free glass of the new beer. A Heineken brewer was present to give a demonstration of how BrewLock works. Most lager and craft beers – almost all that aren’t “cask” real ale – are forced to the bar by carbon dioxide, or a blend of CO2 and nitrogen gas. It is forced into the keg from a cylinder and regulator. The gas presses on the beer from the top – hence the old expression, top pressure – and forces it out of the keg to the bar. The beer travels up through a hollow tube in the centre of the keg which reaches almost to the bottom.

The BrewLock system uses compressed air to put pressure on a plastic sack or bladder of beer within a hard plastic (PET) tubular shell. So the air never touches the beer itself. There is a somewhat similar system called KeyKeg where CO2 is pumped into a double-walled container to the same end. Unlike the former Scottish cask ale dispense I discussed some weeks ago where compressed air was injected directly into a cask of beer, the BrewLock, and KeyKeg systems, once again do not put the air and gas into the beer; the pressure is applied simply to collapse a filled bladder to force out its contents.

In these new systems, the beer retains the level of carbonation set by the brewery, whereas with normal CO2 or mixed gas dispense, additional gas(es) enter the beer. The carbonation level is set at the brewery to accommodate this, but in practice, and given the different mixed gas proportion bars use, there is some variation from bar to bar and glass to glass in the fizz level in the glass. (I simply adjust it to what I like by swirling the beer with a swizzler, of course you can’t do that if the gas level is too low. In that case just give the beer back for a replacement).


For the bar owner, the advantages claimed are that the 20 L BrewLock keg is 25% lighter than a 20 L metal keg. Less energy is consumed to transport and perhaps to store the kegs cold, for example. There is less waste too, it is estimated 10-15% of the beer in a normal metal keg is retained as wastage. The BrewLock system expels almost all the beer but for a few drops. There is no reuse of the keg by the supplier, the BrewLock is a one-way system but its components are fully recyclable. I would think this means, though, that a system must exist to permit the recycling. I’m not sure how that works currently in Ontario. I wonder if the keg supplier for example (The Beer Store or an authorized distributor) picks up the expended PET shell and ensures it is recycled.

What does the new system mean for the consumer? I asked the brewer making the demonstration if the taste of the beer was different from the regular draft system. He said the beer itself is the same in either case, but the brewery feels that dispensing it at the set carbonation level desired by Heineken results in the optimal taste. I was wondering if the beer might be a touch under-carbonated but it wasn’t, it had a similar level to a canned or bottled Heineken.

The beer did seem very fresh and tasty. Heineken is an all-malt lager and reasonably hopped. When served in good condition, it is a good beer albeit on the dryish side. I’ve discussed numerous times here that in the past, Heineken and many European lagers had a slight sulphury note (over-boiled egg or struck match). This is a characteristic of much blonde lager brewing due to the type of yeast and pale malts used, but brewery procedures can be adjusted to remove the taste. The BrewLock draft didn’t have the taste at all, a big plus for the beer IMO. I am wondering if BrewLock in some way precludes this characteristic. Either that or, more likely, the brewery is taking pains to rub the taste out at the brewery.


I think the way to look at BrewLock Heineken is that it is like a very fresh bottled beer. It is pasteurized like canned and bottled Heineken are but presumably by the less-intensive flash process. True, regular draft Heineken is all that as well, but when you add gases to the beer you are “changing” it. The idea that it comes to the glass without any admixture at all, be it sterile or otherwise, has a certain appeal.

There was a lot of talk about the need to skim the head. The presenter claimed this hived off excess bitterness which gathers at the top of the foam layer. I don’t put much faith in this really, and in any case I like bitterness in beer. Our bars don’t usually do it anyway and it’s not in general a desirable practice IMO.

There was some interesting technical discussion about how the head forms, the right size, surface tension, etc.

The presenter was charming and funny and people – mostly younger people from the condos in the area – had a good time. I was struck by the fact that of their questions, none were on the craft vector. No one asked until I did if the BrewLock beer is pasteurized (it is), or how long it takes to ship the beer to North America, whether Heineken has other styles in its range, etc. It’s a reminder that craft brewing is still a sub-culture. I’d like to have talked to the brewer more in-depth but it wasn’t possible in a format like that. I am sure he is capable of appreciating many beer styles – most brewers I’ve met are – and would make an interesting person to talk shop with.

From a business standpoint it was excellent marketing by Heineken. I am sure it cost a pretty penny but will surely be worth it. It was well-organized with good hosting and control, and nice hors d’oeuvre too. The large brewers know how to do this very well and I admire it at that level.




Beer in English Cookery – Part III

Passenger_pigeon_shootLet’s look more closely at William Fowler’s use of beer in recipes in his Countryman’s Cooking (1965). He uses it first for his dish of stewed pigeon.

He makes many observations of interest to those seeking wood pigeon for food. First, he says the fowl is an example of a luxury food which happens to be cheap, hence the insouciant attitude, at best, of those who eat it. Those who avoid it are pleased to call it vermin, which he explains is most unfair except when flocks of Continental birds “ravage green-crops in the winter”. (If you didn’t think that’s a joke, tarry a bit to glean the Fowlerian sense of humour).

He notes that a pigeon is easy to dress, its feathers come out with no trouble, to the point dogs don’t like to fetch them as the feathers stick in their nose. Fowler ponders the old saw that eating pigeon each day for a week will kill you, but seems persuaded it is an old wives tale.

His recipe is to put the pigeon pieces in a marinade of “draught beer, with added sliced, raw onion and such herbs as you prefer. I prefer bay leaves”. He has some specialist advice on the beer. Use, he says, “mild, bitter, or old ale”, but make sure it is draught as with “bottled beer … the effect is not the same”. I think the fact that draught beer – cask ale in his time, surely – was unpasteurized and had residual yeast explains his view. Bottled beer then was almost always pasteurized and had no live yeast. Today, most craft beer is not pasteurized, draft, bottled or canned, and usually has some residual yeast. Probably any craft beer would serve the function of Fowler’s draught beer, therefore.

All this is soaked overnight. The meat is then removed from the marinade, floured, sautéed, and casseroled. The marinade goes back in, and if it doesn’t come to the top of the meat, add water until it does. The cooking takes upwards of an hour to an hour and half. The meat is then taken out and the sauce enriched with egg yolk if it needs thickening. He suggest adding a glass of port to the sauce if one likes the touch of sweetness added.

To go with it: creamed potato, and then broad beans, Scarlet runners (?) or Brussels sprouts, as these are served dry and thus suitable with a dish already sauced.

He says red wine serves well for the marinade and sauce but he prefers to use beer and drink the wine – claret, he specifies – with the dish. Rook and “waders” (curlew, oyster catchers, and such) can be treated just as the pigeon.

Fowler also advises beer, as an alternative to cider or any wine, with a casserole of rabbit or mutton, and in beef olives, an ancient dish which has attracted Jamie Oliver’s attention. I mentioned earlier Fowler is a proponent of using beer in steak and kidney pie.

This is I believe the tally of his recipes in which beer can appear. Of his stewed or casseroled dishes which do not call for beer, his “Tatie Pot” is an example. It is a version of northern Hot Pot – Fowler lived in the northwest of England – and only water is specified. The first part of the Tatie Pot recipe reads as follows:

Take one medium-sized sheep (preferably someone else’s), and reduce it to handy-size pieces. Peel the sack of spuds that a local farmer gave you after you had been wondering, out loud, who had torn Edith Entwhistle’s frock off at the last hop.

John_Smith's_Brewery,_TadcasterFowler’s jugged hare specifies a pint of draught cider – no other liquid is suggested. He has a second stewed hare dish, which calls for all-lemon juice in the braise. This makes for a sour taste indeed but he says it will appeal to those who don’t like the taste of hare. As for roast hare, he says, don’t go there, it’s too stringy that way.

For Fowler’s casseroles and stews in which neither beer nor cider is specified, he suggests red wine, white wine, or just water. For eel, he specifies dry white wine as having the right quality to remove the excess richness from the fish – no reference to beer, or for any of his fish dishes. There is no counterpart in Fowler’s book to the beer and fish cookery of northern France and Belgium.

And so here, beer has a reasonable place in English cookery in its bucolic branch. And yet, in the 1970s, Elizabeth Ayrton was capable of writing a book 500 pages long on traditional dishes of the English people and not mentioning beer a single time. (I think she did mention “small beer” once in connection with a raising a pastry of some kind, which hardly counts). With the exception of a north country beef and beer recipe and I think one for Welsh Rabbit (the cheese dish), Dorothy Hartley did the same thing in her classic 1950s Food In England.

Many other books of traditional English cooking, contemporary and Victorian, similarly don’t mention beer, or barely. The bourgeois cooking of England, post-Georgian I mean, certainly almost never used it, but even the country cooking is non-committal, one might say.

Thus, we can conclude that beer cookery is not a national practice, or even a well-anchored specialist practice. Nonetheless, it has a place in English tradition, and William Fowler’s book is a good illustration of its uses where wanted, but also its limits.

Note re images used: The first image shown, of hunting the passenger pigeon, is in the public domain, and was sourced here.  It is believed available for educational and historical use. The second image shown is attributed as follows: By Tim Green (Flickr: John Smith’s Brewery, Tadcaster) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons. It was sourced here. All feedback welcomed.






Beer in English Cookery – Part II

a74391e2fa531eaea59caf231e0aef7dCookery writing tends to attract a heterogenous crowd. Oxford grads, lawyers, retired military, young mothers, ad executives, and diplomats are just a few of the broad range who have turned their hand to this.

Not the least idiosyncratic was William M. W. Fowler, an R.A.F. officer who flew the Wellington early in WW II. He was shot down and imprisoned for years in a stalag. After the war he engaged in a variety of enterprises, none too successful it seems, and lived economically in the country.

Not having a great deal of money, he was exposed to the reality of country living, which meant (in the 40s-60s) acquiring a familiarity with foraging and hunting to ensure sufficient food. This naturally lead to acquiring kitchen skills, rather more than the average man of his day, I would hazard.

I have no need to summarize his colourful career, which included a complicated romantic life, as Elizabeth Grice did it so well in 2007, in The Telegraph, here.

I bought A Countryman’s Cooking many years before its second life (see Grice’s account). Immediately I knew it was a classic. It is good to see that the book finally reached a broader audience. First, it is very funny, rollicking and completely informal while being accurate about food itself, recipes and related details.

As someone who knew his way around pubs, one might expect that beer would enter some of William Fowler’s recipes. Indeed it did. He liked to use it in steak and kidney pie, but mentions other dishes too. While, as I have argued earlier, the general run of recipes for good old steak pie do not call for beer, there is nothing wrong with using it. Fowler said you could put in mild or bitter, but he thought bitter was better. “More familiar with it, I suppose”, he noted.

At the time, English pubs collected the overflow of beer in dishes below the handpump and were permitted to re-use it. It was sanitized in some way and cycled back into the barrels, although the more conscientious of them probably threw it out.

Fowler said publicans would sometimes give him these slops for cooking and it was as good as using any other beer. He drew the line at using slops that were sour, although had he known about Belgian-style ale and beef, that would have worked fine too.


All this sounds a stretch but it isn’t. The brew gets boiled again in the cooking and after all it is malt and hops. The long simmering will alter its character anyway. I have made beef and beer (the dish) a hundred ways with a hundred different kinds of beer, often mixing them or using up ends after a party. Each dish is basically indistinguishable from the others unless you use a pronounced spice like ginger, a strong herb such as tarragon, or have a heavy hand with the sugar. Even then the underlying flavour is usually the same – a nutty, mildly sweet taste.

I doff my hat to all those who have experimented with different beer types in cooking, perhaps subtle differences can be noted, but in practice I don’t find it worthwhile. To be sure, if you use Coors Light in Fowler’s steak and kidney recipe it will taste somewhat different than if you put in a barrel-aged Imperial Stout. On the other hand, if you use half barley wine and half water, I doubt many people could say which dish used either.

While it’s a different topic, I don’t believe it really matters which beer you pair with a beer dish (or any food), either. Preferences are all to the good here – at any rate they do no harm – but it’s one of those relative things, more a product of cultural conditioning than anything else. I say the same for wine pairings with food.

But if you want to be entertained and learn some interesting facts about rural life in Britain before the modern welfare state and global village fused, get William Fowler’s book. In his section on cooking rabbit, Fowler states that before the war, rabbit was the main meat of the countryman and found its way in all manner of preparations. This proves, or rather is additional evidence, that rural life for the bulk of people in Europe involved a narrow range of eatables.


Fowler said that sometimes, the idea of finding your own food had negative returns, and gives the example of asking his batman (in training before the war in Norfolk) to fetch him a local coarse fish, a roach. The batman was a countryman born and bred and knew this was a bad idea, but dutifully served his officer. Fowler found the fish uneatable, like cotton wool with pins in it.

The romanticized country larder of what used to be called the colour supplements, and coffee table tomes, and today splashed over the internet, is largely a 20th century invention, but a benign one to be sure.

While the book deals extensively with wild food, there is much of interest on all kinds of cooking. Plus you get the anecdotes that make the book entertaining, notably his gambits to make pastry, which involved inviting female admirers over and the gin bottle, etc. His description of bacon and eggs gains added authenticity when one ponders his comment that it was the only breakfast he could keep down while flying on long operations.

Today, beef and beer dishes, including in the English way, are to be found at a touch of the keyboard. Jamie Oliver has a few, one with ale and beef, one with Guinness and beef, and one with lamb shanks. Delia Smith has a good one for beef and beer. These are so easy to find I needn’t give the links, just do a basic search. I didn’t check, but I’d guess Gordon Ramsay does a good turn in this area as well.

Whatever the specific history of it, contemporary books on using beer in cooking can certainly give you ideas. Lucy Saunders (an American) has done some excellent work here. She has been described as the dean of food and beer writers. Today’s beer world is all-linked up anyway. When I speak of modern beer cookery, it doesn’t really make sense to distinguish English from American… In terms however of English writers on the topic, Mark Dredge has done good work in the area, and Melissa Cole.

My suggestion to anyone who reaches for the beer to dash into a cooking pot is, remember the necessary correctives, as it were, for beer in cooking. They are, vinegar, cream, sugar, mustard, and sometimes a combination. Another useful tip is that dishes which stand long cooking offer the best results with beer, the excess bitterness subsides and the constituents meld with the food to form something unique.

Note re images: The images shown are believed in the public domain or available for educational and historical use. They were sourced herehere and here. All feedback welcome.


Beer in English Cookery – Part I


The title should perhaps be “Beer in British and Irish Cookery” but I feel less confident to write about Scotland and Ireland than England and, well, Wales. First, I visited England about 20 times over a 25 year period, travelling in different parts although by no means “everywhere”. In this time, I ate in a wide variety of restaurants and visited many markets, but also ate with people at home. Second, I have a decent library of mostly English recipe and food history books, and have read widely in the area.

Based on this, I can say, or it is my opinion, that the English have a relatively minor interest in cooking with beer. Dishes there are, of which Welsh Rabbit is perhaps still best known. Jane Grigson has reported a Gloucester cheese and ale dish, as well. Check out Jamie Oliver’s version.

Apart from this, ale or other beer is sometimes used in Christmas pudding, in a couple of beef dishes, and as an element in some cures of ham. A Yorkshire beef and beer dish employs cloves, mace and other Middle Ages-sounding spices. The recipe can be found in the writings of Dorothy Hartley, Elizabeth Ayrton and other well-known authors on English food.

In addition, Sussex Stewed Steak, a braised dish involving port or another fortified wine, and stout or other beer, appears in many repertoires, sometimes under variant names. Elizabeth David gives a classic recipe in her Spices, Salts and Aromatics in the English Kitchen (1970).

A dish of venison, molasses and beer appears in some regional compilations. And beer is used in fish or other batters sometimes, as across Europe. One 1800s recipe advises to baste a hare in old beer. Yet most jugged hare recipes I’ve seen use port or red wine, not beer.  Another recipe, from Maria Rundell, counsels to stew beef heart in beer that is sugared and spiced. One would think this last would be an example of an established way with beef in general. This seems not so judging by the available literature, not to mention contemporary practice.


When you look at recipes for beef and kidney pie or pudding, or beef and mushroom and other variations (oyster), beer almost never appears. In the famous hotpots too, only rarely. (The use of Guinness in Irish stew is, I believe, a modern innovation). In the sources I’ve read, it is water, stock, occasionally red wine or port, often a combination. There is no real counterpart to the Belgian/Northern French carbonnades de boeuf à la Flamande. Nothing on the order of coq à la bière. 

I can think of one English recipe with pork involving beer. It was from Mary Norwak in her The Best of Country Cooking. One coats a roast of pork in salt and pepper, flour, and powdered ginger. Then, you bake it in the oven and continually baste it with beer. It is very good, but is possibly a modern riff on some traditional ingredients.

There is no beer soup, no beer sauce, in England’s traditional food of today. In former centuries, a caudle which combined ale, grains of some kind, and eggs was eaten in the morning, but this fell away with modern times.  A similar preparation characterized the Highlands in Scotland, a kind of frumenty with oats and whisky mixed, called Atholl Brose.

Sometimes a gravy was made with an element of small beer (into the 1800s), but this was again a minor part of the English sauce repertoire.

I cannot find many recipes for fish and beer, or poultry and beer, in the English canon. I am not saying there aren’t any. I have somewhere a regional recipe series, it was small booklets, where beer does appear occasionally, in one, mixed with wine I think, for poultry. This 1856 book, Every-Day Cookery For A Family, mentioned herring baked with a mix of small beer and vinegar. Perhaps the recipe has survived in Yarmouth or similar areas.  A handful of recipes can be traced for coarse fish (roach, chub, carp again) – see Richard Dolby’s 1830 classic tavern cookbook – which seem not to have survived into the 1900s.

I have referred earlier to a late-1950s booklet by Canadian writer Jehane Benoit on cooking with beer. She states that sole is cooked with beer in Scotland. I have never found direct evidence of this, but the Victorian herring-and-beer dish does connect beer to fish cookery off the North Sea in Britain. Maybe some people used sole, or other sea fish, as a substitute for the more vigorous herring.


In terms of the general pattern though, what explains it when it is known that Renaissance recipes frequently advised the use of ale in cooking? See e.g., Dr. Richard Unger, at pg. 130, here. I think there are two reasons. As beer became increasingly hopped, the taste wasn’t wanted in food. Welsh Rabbit is different because the richness of cheese hides, or rather matches, the beer taste. Ditto in Christmas pudding. But in soup and most other cooking, there is nowhere to hide. Particularly when all beers were more hopped than now, this was probably a factor in the decline of beer cookery in Britain.

Second, since the 1800s at least, most cookery writers are women. Most probably did not drink beer, or drink it regularly, so it didn’t appear in their inventories. Perhaps lingering temperance sentiment affected this too. Finally, class prejudice about beer may have played a role.

I am not ignoring the many books written in Britain since the 1970s on cooking with beer. These are valid on their own terms but as on the Continent, have expanded the traditional range of dishes which use beer. I am speaking in this post of recipes received into the mid-1900s.

In Belgium, northern France, Germany, the Czech Republic and other countries in Europe, the ties between cuisine and beer, both older and newer, are stronger, or so I have gleaned after reading and talking to people about it for a long time.

Note re images used: the first image above is attributed as follows: By Leigh Last (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons. It was sourced here. The second and third images were sourced here and here and are believed in the public domain or available for educational and historic purposes. All feedback welcomed.


Fish and Beer Cookery in Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie, France – Part III


Fish And Beer Dishes of the French North Country

The book above, La Cuisine du Nord et de Picardie, was published in 1981 and is one of the standard references on the cuisine of the French Nord. It has no credited author. Loïc Martin, a well-known restaurateur and northern cuisine proponent in the region, wrote the preface only, it appears. La Voix Du Nord publishes the main newspaper in the Nord and I’d guess its staff worked on the book.

In a note on beer at the end of the volume, the book states that blonde and brown beers are “industrially” produced – this was just before the beer revival started in France. It notes that beer is traditional for use in beer soups, carbonades, crêpes, chicken in beer sauce, beer soup, and “préparations de poissons” (fish dishes) – an accurate summary, in my opinion. The last group is the focus of this post.

The book does not pretend to gastronomic originality or innovation, Martin in the preface states (my translation) that the cuisine remains “solid and cheerful, in the image of our ancestors, the Gauls, connoisseurs of ‘cervoise’, our first beer”. He states though that the cuisine has “evolved”, which is a clue I think that some deviation from tradition has occurred, but not significantly.

etals_a_poissons_1)In my previous two posts, I described the French north country – Flanders, Artois, Picardie –  in general terms. It has a varied terrain favouring cereals and vegetable production. A strip of sea coast and fresh water rivers and marshes supply abundant fish. I pointed out as well that regional cuisine in France as a whole is mostly a phenomenon of the last 100 years. To be sure, a few distinctive, traditional dishes existed in the regions before the 1900s. Beer soup, beef carbonades, and some fish preparations with beer are examples in the Nord.

But there seems little doubt that under pressure of gastronomic tourism and other factors, in the north no less than other French regions, numerous dishes are now considered regional which have no long history.

Let’s examine then the beer and fish dishes of the book pictured above, La Cuisine du Nord et de Picardie. Before I do, I point out that these dishes, indeed most of the dishes in the book, are essentially similar to those you find in other books of the period on this cuisine. Moreover, if you google “cuisine du Nord” and “France”, you will find many resources, including more recent books, which describe the cuisine in similar terms again. I say this to show there is no warrant to consider the recipes in the book under discussion passé – au contraire.

One luminous book in English, a resource on French regional food in general, should be mentioned: Anne Willan’s French Regional Cooking (1981). This landmark book is beautifully written and illustrated. It has the scholarly touch one would expect of the Cambridge-educated author but is lively and engaging at the same time.

Ms. Willan founded the well-known cookery school in Paris, La Varenne, and has authored many books. Her chapter on the French north is very informative, and includes Champagne and Ardenne for this purpose. She describes well the conditions of husbandry and agriculture, as well as culture and history, which shaped the characteristic products of the northern pays. Her rendition of coq à la bière is faultless and she makes useful comments to contrast it with a similar treatment of chicken in Alsace. Finally, she gives a list of traditional dishes and products at the end of each chapter to supplement the recipes. This gives a fuller sense of the richness of each region’s larder than would result from the necessarily limited number of recipes given.


In La Cuisine du Nord et de Picardie, one finds the following fish or shellfish dishes in which beer makes an appearance.

  1. Eel, where the fish is braised in two glasses of “strong beer”, nutmeg, herbs, croutons, flour and egg yolk. A silky but emphatic bitter/herbal sauce results to complement the rich taste of eel. Eel formerly was very popular in many parts of Europe, and (by the way) along the St. Lawrence River in Quebec, but less so today.
  2. Anglerfish (monkfish), braised with butter, herbs, cream, beer, onion, eggs, carrots, shallot, and sorrel. Monkfish is considered a good eating fish, but under sole and turbot in quality.
  3. Coquilles  saint-jacques (scallops) Boulogne-style. The meat is removed from the shells and cooked with butter, flour, “blonde beer”, mushrooms, breadcrumb, nutmeg, and gruyère cheese.
  4. Haddock. But as the French would say, Attention. Haddock here means smoked haddock, which is an intense and salty-flavoured, preserved form of haddock. The fish first is allowed to simmer in water and partially poach, which removes some of the salt and strong taste. Then, the cooking is completed with beer and a puree of tomatoes and herbs, and is served with sliced gherkins.
  5. Monkfish Dunkerque-style.  In English, baudroie and lotte both mean monkfish, aka anglerfish. In no. 2 above, baudroie is specified, in this no. 5 recipe, lotte. Lotte can sometimes mean a freshwater fish, barbot, but in this case I am sure an ocean fish is meant. Dunkerque is on the ocean, famously as many know – that is where the British Expeditionary Force in France was evacuated in 1940 to fight another day. Perhaps monkfish was meant in both cases. Alternatively, different species of monkfish may have been meant – there are over 200. This Dunkirk recipe combines tomato puree, herbs and beer to cook the fish. Tomato combined with beer is a frequent medium to cook fish on the French side of the Channel.
  6. Mackerel with mussels, Boulogne-style. Blonde beer, parsley, butter, mushroom, flour, onion, egg, and parsley make the sauce for this interesting combination.

Humpback_anglerfishThere are 22 fish and seafood recipes in the book. Of these, less than one-third employ beer in the recipe. The 16 which don’t use beer use red wine, white wine, vinegar, a combination, or no alcohol. The recipes which use the highest quality fish, such as sole, turbot and lobster, do not use beer. Of the numerous mussel recipes, only one uses beer and it has mackerel in it, too.

To me, this suggests that the authors of the book were judicious in deciding which recipes should feature beer. If they were creating a new cuisine from local materials, one might expect to see them put beer in the sole or turbot, and trout or lobster. They didn’t. This suggests they were careful only to feature recipes with beer that had a long tradition. In general, the fish they used with beer was second quality, except perhaps for the scallops. Perhaps that recipe is an innovation, then. Or perhaps it really is a long-established recipe of Boulogne.

But in general, the idea that beer has always been used for “coarse” fish and wine reserved for the best quality has a logic about it. This is not because beer is second quality to wine, but because the vigorous taste of beer seems to match an oily or strong-tasting fish better than wine would, or at least, equably.

In checking for 19th century references on fish cooked with beer, I could find very few. Carp with beer was mentioned in numerous French books throughout the 1800s,  here is an example from a French recipe translated into English. Sometimes the dish was noted as being German or Czech (Bohemian). I found one English recipe where fresh herring was simmered in a mixture of small beer (weak beer) and vinegar. One can assume that herring, a major catch formerly off the northern coast of France and still popular there, was sometimes cooked with beer in Flanders and Picardy, too.

The use of beer to cook smoked haddock seems to me in a general tradition of cooking oily or strong-tasting fish with beer, ditto the mackerel and perhaps the mussels. Eel, as I said in an earlier post, is analogous in culinary terms to carp – not the same fish, but sourced often in similar waters and similarly rich. So that too seems to stay with the French motif, is dans le même ordre d’idées.

All in all, I think La Cuisine du Nord et de Picardie rendered typical products of its terroir – beer and fish – in a very creditable way. It didn’t put beer in most of the recipes, and it didn’t use it for the top echelon of fish where it has no history of use.

Now, if other books on the cooking of the Nord have done just that, is that bad? Mais non. The proof is in the pudding, so to speak. But I like the approach of the authors of the 1981 book. It fits with the history pretty much as I understand it and in this sense, its six beer and fish dishes are in no way an invented cuisine.

There is much else in this book of interest. I recommend it to anyone interested in the French north country and its distinctive food traditions.

Note re images used: the images above were sourced, respectively, here, here, here, and here. All are believed in public domain or available for use for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.




The Famous Regional Cuisines of France Started in About 1920


Blogs and the illustrated food magazines, not to mention countless books of food publishing, have certain postulates. One is that regional cuisines exist in many countries, not least France. By dint of using local ingredients fashioned by area residents, local foods reveal age-old connections with land, heritage, and history; in a word they express authenticity.

It comes as shock to many, not least Beer Et Seq, to learn that well-documented studies have concluded that French regional cuisine, for its part, largely dates from the 1920s. Cultural and social historians have studied the subject carefully, and there can be no doubt of the justice of their main points.

The authorities are well discussed and elaborated in a 2007 academic paper, “We Are Where We Eat: A History of Twentieth-Century Gastronomic Tourism in France” by April M. Xin. All interested in regional food traditions might read the study, which is clearly written and cogently argued. Ms. Xin concludes that French regional cuisines are essentially a construct of the early 20th century and derive from a complex social-historical background.

Essentially, the Third Republic, established in the wake of the Franco-Prussian War, decided to promote an appreciation of the French regions as a way to rebuild national pride. National confidence and élan had been shaken by the debâcle of 1870 including the loss of Alsace-Lorraine. In lieu of military and diplomatic supremacy, France would henceforth vaunt the provinces as a unifying principle.

Formerly, the back country areas were considered retrograde in comparison to the supremely metropolitan Paris, centre of French civilization and refinement. Under the revised conception the virtues and values of the old rural seats would be the spokes of the national wheel so to speak. Paris was the hub, but would work in tandem with the provinces to move a unified France forward.

This valuing of locality was intended to reduce an historic regional rivalry and stress the common unity of French citizens. In a striking image discussed by Xin, France became the “paternal” ancestor of the post-1870 citizen, while the citizen’s region or pays was the “maternal” one. This neatly paired the modernity and prestige represented by Paris with the emotive and nurturing quality of the ancestral pays. Together, they formed the French family, a foundation on which the Third Republic would thrive.

The invitation to elevate rural heritage prompted citizens to want to travel to the regions. This was now facilitated by better rail and especially motorized transport. Improved accommodations and power supply meant such travel became more attractive. Travelling meant staying there – and eating there. What better way to appreciate the regional than to eat distinctively local food?

But what if there wasn’t any, or any to speak of? The traditional sustenance of the French regions before the Revolution and well into the 19th century was basic and monotonous. It was based on a blackish, mixed-grain bread, le pain bis, or stodgy, flour-based galettes or crêpes. This starchy stuff was enhanced by an ever-boiling soup containing local vegetables and meat when available, a rare event for most of the populace.

Any available fruit, fresh or preserved, was put on the table. So was any type of wine or other drink which might come the household’s way. Such was the basic diet of the great majority of French citizens well into the 1800s, most of whom still lived in the country.

This traditional provender was not the type of food to entice the gastronomic tourist – those familiar with reliable Paris restaurants. Notably, it rarely offered meat, butter, or multiple courses, and nothing other than a rare cake as a civilized dessert.

More interesting food needed to be devised to stock the regional larder the tourists expected. To achieve this (the argument goes) standbys of the professional Paris kitchen were simplified and added to local menus, or the reverse occurred: meat, butter and sugar were added to bare-bones regional dishes, now of some appeal to the new gastro-tourists.

Via this process including reviews in the gastronomic press and newly-issued regional food books, the post-WW I period “discovered” regional cuisine. It was found, usually and not surprisingly, in local restaurants and hotels. Yet these hospitality centres mostly did not exist in the 1800s and needed to be created, to provide running water and adequate toilet facilities, for one thing.

The comfortable, well-provisioned auberge of rapt attention today was an adaptation of rudimentary, or yet too-luxurious, facilities, The rude country shelter or the grand hotel with professional cuisine – neither met the needs of questing bourgeois travellers rattling across town and dale in sturdy new motorcars.

The legitimacy of the newly-discovered culinary heritage was sometimes debated. Still, by the mid-1900s the idea that each region of France had a traditional cuisine, based on distinctive local ingredients and practices, became an article of faith. It was useful to contrast with the Paris-Isle de France flambeau of food excellence with haute cuisine at the apex.

And so this new rural eating heritage became the mother, and the haughty professional cooking of Paris, the father, of the modern French culinary family. So it remains today despite some changes to the old plan, with nouvelle cuisine adding to the mix from the early 1970s, and today fusion and other influences of globality.

The Guide Michelin started in 1900 but only covered restaurants from about 1920. The Guide assumed an increasingly important role in fostering the new gastronomic tourism. So did the well-known, multi-volume work on French regional cooking by Curnonsky, the pen name of Maurice Sailland, one of the great gastronomes of the 1900s. But again, many of the succulent dishes now lauded were of doubtful antiquity. Of those that had a clear heritage, they were often festive or special-occasion food – rarely eaten by the typical paysan.

Xin cites the example of the Normandy “classic”, chicken with cream and Calvados. It’s a dish that by now has been described in hundreds of books and other accounts as a venerable regional staple. While cream and Calvados are certainly Normandy products, it appears the dish originated in Paris in the 1800s under the influence of haute cuisine. 

Xin explains that sole à la Normande was an 1800s Paris offering of some complexity, using white wine not apple-based cider. Gastronomes touring Normandy in the 1920s assumed the Paris dish was based on something originally simpler using the local speciality of cider as medium. Yet, evidence sole was traditionally cooked with cider in Normandy seems thin on the ground.*

Reading Xin has made me understand why I couldn’t find most French or Belgian beer cuisine “classics” in 1800s literature.

While her main deductions and arguments are undoubtedly correct, I think the situation was probably more nuanced, depending too on the region. For example, as I will show, a dish of carp and beer was indeed known in France in the mid-1800s.

From there, it is not too much to assume that some people substituted another fat fish available from freshwater, or finally a coarse sea fish, where useful. So, contemporary recipes using these different fish to make the dish can be viewed as a development, of a piece with the original conception. This is not the same as simply inventing a regional cuisine from whole cloth, not that that is illegitimate, but that is not the point for present purposes.

Perhaps the truth lies somewhere in the middle, or indeed is weighted toward the “invented” end as Ms. Xin’s study is fairly persuasive.

My next posting, now the third post of a series, will describe beer-and-fish dishes currently known in the Nord Pas-de-Calais. Whatever their origin, they certainly make for some good eating, after all the duty of any recipe.

But the next time you page through a handsome coffee table tome listing appetizers, main courses, and desserts from a dozen or more French regions, consider that much of the repertoire emerged in the last 100 years. The books paint an alluring tableau, one that captivated first France, then Britain and much of the world. But like a lot of things, things are not quite what they seem when a little investigation is paid.


*Postscript added April 8, 2016. Alexandre Dumas, in his famed culinary dictionary (1873) describes a dish of sole from Trouville. This is obviously the modern Trouville-sur-Mer in Normandy. And it is made with cider, see here. Still, that the general fare of peasant and labourer in Normandy was for the most part bread and soup seems undoubted. Indeed, the eminent London-based, French-born restaurateur and food writer Marcel Boulestin (d. 1943) states exactly that on pg. 34 of his Classic French Recipes (1971, a selection from his 1930s works).

Nonetheless, I acknowledge that particular dishes associated today with a French region often will have a certain lineage. I can’t rule out that even by 1873 a Paris-devised, sole-and-white wine dish had inspired a Norman “original” based on cider, especially as Trouville was a resort for the fashionable, but to hold to the general theory of Ms. Xin it is not necessary to believe that.  Maybe sole with cider held sway traditionally in a coastal section of Normandy, while today it is considered a provincial culinary birthright tout court.

Boulestin’s book, according to the credible-sounding blurb on the back cover, depicted the French bourgeois eating of Paris and prosperous towns but also included some “authentic local dishes handed down from generation to generation”. I am ready to believe that sole with cider was one such dish, at least in a part of Normandy. In the French north, carbonnades of beef (beef and beer) seems to have been another. This did not mean the bulk of people in these regions ate them ever or very often, but the dishes may have existed for a long time.

Note re image: The image shown is from Pinterest, sourced here, and is believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

Fish and Beer Cookery in Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie, France – Part I

800px-Rempart_de_la_ville_de_Montreuil-sur-Mer (1)

This Part I will deal with the French Nord (north) generally. In a second part, I will discuss the distinctive fish and beer cuisine of this region.

One of the least known, from a foreign standpoint, French regions is Nord-Pas-de-Calais. This was, until very recently, the administrative name for the northern corner of the country directly across the Channel from Dover, England. It excluded Picardie, just to the south and which formed its own region. However, from a cultural and historical standpoint, Picardie shared much in common with Nord-Pas-de-Calais. Earlier this year, these regions were combined under the name Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie.

The English knew these areas mainly as a destination for day trips to Calais or Boulogne on the coast, or weekends in larger centres such as Lille and Amiens. War tourism has always brought visitors to the Somme Valley in particular, but also Vimy Ridge and other parts of the north – “Flanders Fields” – where the First World War in particular left deep physical and other marks.

With these exceptions, the region was and is not considered a typical tourist destination for the British, Americans or other non-French. Many English-language guidebooks to France simply omit reference to the north, which is as unjust as it is undeniable. Tourists prefer generally to visit other parts of France, especially in the centre and south where the weather is better and the culture and cuisine more French as they conceive it.  Some small changes have been noted in this pattern recently, which is a positive sign, as this Lonely Planet article suggests.


The French themselves have tended to overlook the far north too for tourism and cuisine. The image tends to be of a provincial backwater, with mining and other industry too often blighting the landscape, and an uninspired cuisine based on french fries, beer, and steak. This is a vast simplification. The hit movie Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis (Welcome to the Sticks) went a certain way towards reducing these perceptions. Still, the Ch’tis, as the northerners are often called after a trait of their pronunciation, and their north tend to be considered nowheresville.

Before the administrative designations were devised, France was a loose collection of almost countless “pays“, or provinces. The historic regions of the north were Picardie, Artois, Flanders, and Hainaut. These subdivided further, into e.g., Pas-de-Calais (the coastal region also called Côte d’Opale), the Boulonnais (the green tract just east of Boulogne), Mont-des-Cats (the mildly hilly area east of Lille on the Belgian frontier), the Avesnois and Thiérache (charming, bucolic areas just west of Champagne-Ardenne), the Somme of Picardie, famous for war history, and numerous others.


Much of this area was under Flemish rule at one time with numerous other lands (Burgundy, Austria, Spain) vying for power there until the French consolidated control in the 1500s and 1600s. The Gallic culture and Picard language, a romance tongue connected to French, tended to prevail in Picardie, Artois and Hainaut. But Flanders was culturally Flemish and indeed still is, in part: I heard Flemish spoken by French farmers around Mont-des-Cats on a visit to the area over 20 years ago. While parts of the north were more Gallic, in time a mixed French and Flemish character emerged, particularly the further north you went toward the border with Belgium. Today, all these areas are “le Nord“, and manifest broad similarities in their food and drink certainly.

The north is a rich agricultural area and cereal culture gave rise to brewing. Hops, to flavour the beer, were also grown. Grapes do not grow well in the north, but some cider is made and the old drink of mead, or honey wine, survives as well. Hard liquors exist too, notably genièvre, a form of the old Dutch gin. Vegetables are raised with high volume and skill, many in the hortillonnages system. Parts of the north were famous for coal mining, and also textile manufacturing, an outgrowth of the earlier lace and weaving trades in the area. Chantilly is a town in the north…


The old-industrial base started to wither with the adoption of cleaner forms of energy and the relocation of textile production off-shore. The area suffered for a long time from disproportionate unemployment and social problems, as did analogous areas over the border in Belgium. New industries, mostly in services  – call centres are the stereotypical example – have replaced the old ones, but the area is still in transition.

Despite the wars, much of the old Flemish and Picard architecture survived, or were rebuilt. It is remarkable how Flemish or Dutch some parts still look.  The city centre of Lille is the premier example, but numerous towns in French Flanders have a Flemish aspect. Some churches of renown somehow escaped destruction, the cathedrals at Amiens and Laon are examples.

In earlier posts, I have discussed a number of beer dishes characteristic of this north country. While the historical record, at least in the 1800s, doesn’t suggest there was a rich history of beer cuisine, countless books published since 1960 contain a long list of beer cuisine dishes. As I have explained with regard to Belgium, there is reason to think much of this was invented by creative chefs to contrast with, and possibly even rival, the ancient wine cookery of France. But I think some parts of this repertoire were in fact of considerable age, and had been overlooked or weren’t known to those who compiled recipe books and food dictionaries in the 1800s.

I think this is probably the case with the fish and beer dishes of the French north, and the same would go for similar recipes in Belgian collections. Part II will deal of this aspect.

Note re images: the first image above, of Montreuil-sur-Mer, is in the public domain and was sourced here. The other images, believed in public domain, were sourced herehere and hereAll are believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.