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.




Beef Carbonnades 1895 Brussels-style

4142The Belle Epoque Does Carbonnades

I am going to summarize the carbonnades de boeuf à la Flamande recipe (beef cooked with beer) from pg. 148 of Jean de Gouy’s 1895 La cuisine et la patisserie bourgeoises en Belgique et à l’étranger. De Gouy was a notable chef in Brussels who co-founded a culinary review and cooked for Belgian aristocracy.

The recipe is rather different than most current carbonnades recipes, mainly because there is no sweetening element in it. Most modern recipes call for brown sugar or a syrup of some kind.

Also, de Gouy advises to use “faro ou lambic” for the beer, both of which, especially the lambic, are rather sour. On top of all this, he advises a good spoonful of vinegar! The Brussels taste then, as evident from its famous beer styles, was definitely inclined to the sour side. If the meat used was rather fat, one could see why such a strong sour taste might be wanted, but we have read in North America that grass-fed European beef was always very lean.

The recipe says, take a kilogram, or 2.2 lbs., of chuck steak (basse côtes découvertes), i.e., in one piece. Cut it in two centimetre slices, then cut each slice two or three times, sideways that is to make smaller pieces. Flatten each lightly. Sauté “three or four” finely sliced onions so they are blonde or translucent (not brown). Remove them, then in the fat – type not specified, I would use lard, saindoux –  sauté meat slices. Of course, add more fat if needed for this purpose. Remove meat. Add two “c. à b.” (tablespoons?) flour to pan and cook gently for five minutes, then add a half-litre of water to make a sauce. Simmer this a bit, not too much but until you have a thin consistent sauce. Pass it through a chinois, this is called here also a China cap or ricer, on the onions and then place the beef in. The liquid should just cover the mixture.

(One thing I find unclear in the recipe is if you place the onions through the strainer with the sauce. You can do this if you want a smooth sauce without fibrous bits, it would be onion-flavoured but without the tissues of the onion in it.  I think this is probably what was meant. You could try it either way, I find in the cooking the onion tends to disintegrate anyway).

Next, add a “strong” bouquet garni, a fresh herb mixture of course (but use good dried herbs if necessary, that’s fine), then add a “spoonful” of vinegar.  I’d say two or three ounces. As always salt and pepper to your taste. Cover, cook one hour, degrease carefully, remove the bouquet, then add a quarter litre of “faro or lambic”, and cook “until finished”. This would, here, take normally another half hour or an hour, but it depends on the meat, just let it cook slowly until tender. Either do it on top of the oven or inside at a low setting, the recipe doesn’t specify. I like to do it in the oven, the result always seems better.

As for any carbonnades, it is good to let it cool and slowly reheat it when needed. It tends to concentrate the flavour that way too.

The classic accompaniment is french fries, which seems odd to us in North America, but the Belgians are masters of frites cookery and somehow the combination works well. I like Brussels sprouts, lightly cooked cabbage, or endive – chicons in Belgium – with it. There is a great recipe from Lille for chopped red cabbage and beer which is easy to find on the Internet, or I’ll give it if anyone asks.

That’s it, very simple.

Note re image above: The image, of c. 1900 Brussels, is believed in the public domain and available for educational and historical purposes, it was sourced here. All feedback welcomed.


Beer Cookery in Belgium: age-old?


Most who are reasonably familiar with beer have heard of the Belgian carbonnades à la flamande, a dish of beef cooked with beer. It is usually made with sliced or cubed beef, but a single piece of rump or shoulder can be used, or brisket, not immersed fully in beer that is. This is really a braise, but the stewed version is more common.

Some recipes use beer only, some combine beer and stock, or beer diluted with water, and so on. Onions are invariably used, and usually vinegar, mustard, sugar and herbs or spices. Dried fruit is occasionally added, e.g., prunes. You can substitute other meats, and some recipes offer a carbonnades of pork, say. The dish seems best with beef, in my experience.

How old is this dish? Very. It appears in 19th century repertories, which means it has to be much older. Indeed recipe collections dating to medieval times show meat was cooked with ale, vinegar, spices, and a sweetening element. If you look at modern recipes for the North African tagines, they are not that different. Salted (sour) lemon substitutes for ale or vinegar, but otherwise the elements are similar: meat, something sweet, maybe dried fruit, spices.

The Spanish used to rule in Flanders and that plus the trading boats would have brought the Moorish elements to marry with beer and beef to make carbonnades.

How old is Belgian beer cookery in general?  Not that old, I think.

A gambol through 19th century sources shows relatively few dishes cooked with beer, even where one would expect to find them, e.g., books published in Brussels. As I’ve mentioned, beef carbonnades does appear although sometimes beer is not used at all – stock or vinegar suffices. (I exclude here the lamb-based carbonnades of southwestern France, which seems rather distant from the Flemish specialty of the same name).

What does one find in the way of “beer cuisine” in those 1800s collections of bourgeois fare for housewives and culinary dictionaries? Beer soup. One book devotes a full page to it, to all the variations known from Norway to Russia. The dish is known in Flanders, both Belgian and French, to this day, so clearly this is a survival of an old heritage. Beer soup was a way to use up bread, grated bread is the basis of it. Heated beer is used to make the dried bread palatable and add more flavour. Other additions were sugar, bits of cheese, eggs, fish (herring in Scandinavia), cream, nuts: almost anything.


What else? The English Welsh Rabbit, melted cheese with beer, appears in 19th century French and Belgian recipe books. So do various doughs raised with beer or its yeast, for fritters and other pastry-making. I found one recipe for young carp braised in beer, and for ham “washed” in beer, with red wine or cider specified as an alternative. And that is about it.

I could not find a recipe for rabbit with beer, although today one can read of the beery lapin à la flamande dotted with its prunes in charmingly illustrated books of Belgian and northern French cuisine. An 1890s Belgian book advises to marinate rabbit in vinegar though. Given much Belgian beer then had a sourish edge, it isn’t too much to think rabbit with beer was an ancestral dish. The fact that prunes are often used in the modern recipe underscores this, as dried fruit was another early trading commodity which ended in the pots of northern cooks.

But in terms of how one thinks of Belgium’s cuisine today, this is not all that much, really. In modern books on Belgian cuisine, even those published before the beer revival started in earnest everywhere, there is much more. Marcel Gocar’s book above (1985) has over 40 fish and crustacean dishes cooked with beer; four egg dishes; 18 beef dishes and almost as many each with veal, pork, and lamb; poultry and game dishes of all kinds; 15 vegetable dishes (e.g., with lentils, artichoke, eggplant, asparagus); and 11 desserts including a sorbet, rice pudding, ice cream, and “peaches Gambrinus”.


One of the specialties of modern Flemish cooking is chicken with beer. M. Gocar includes a recipe for it on pg. 162 which he credits to the Hotel Bernard in Béthune, which is in northern France (but part of the same cultural tradition we are discussing). In another book from the 1980s, French culinary writer Ninette Lyon refers to the same recipe and states that the hotel invented the dish in the 1930s. Could chicken never have been cooked with beer in the region before? Rabbit was, probably, so it isn’t really a stretch to think chicken was, sometimes. Still, I could not find a single recipe from the 1800s using chicken and beer. In this 1825 French book on “economical cooking” – thus, not drawing from the haute cuisine – some 35 recipes are listed for chicken. Not one uses beer. Beer is not mentioned once in the entire volume, in fact.

What do people from Belgium, in particular, say about how Belgian beer cuisine started? The introduction to M. Gocar’s La Cuisine A La Bière states that traditionally, beer was part of “family” cuisine and included notably beer soup and carbonnades flamande. No other such family dish is mentioned, although one can infer from various recipes in the book that others did exist. For example, of the Brussels choesels, a dish of offal cooked with the sour lambic, Gocar states the recipe is from a Brussels museum, which implies a genuine heritage.

The introduction states further that, the few family dishes apart, beer cuisine in Belgium was created in the last 25 years. This means, it began about 1960, when chefs started consciously to create the cuisine which the book says is now “the renown of Belgium”. What was perhaps five or six dishes – and even if it was 10 – is now 200, and then some.


Clearly, “beer cuisine” in Belgium, by which I mean dishes cooked with beer, not dishes which are well-accompanied by beer as such, is a fairly recent invention. I would say the same of the beer cuisines of French Flanders and Alsace-Lorraine. This doesn’t make them suspect in any way. Cookery evolves continually and also, things go in and out of fashion. I suspect beer was used more in medieval cookery than in Belle Epoque households because by the 1800s, most beer was purchased from commercial breweries, not made at home.  When you have to buy beer, probably the first priority is to drink it…

All this to say, things often aren’t as old as we think. There is no textual reference to Ontario butter tarts before 1909. Bundt cake seems to have started as late as c. 1960. The Quebec poutine apparently took root in Drummondville, Quebec in the 1950s. Buffalo chicken wings date from the 1960s. Et ainsi de suite. But if you like them, that is all the matters. And if you don’t, historical pedigree is neither here nor there. I found one 1811 recipe for chicken with carp (yes), its roes, white wine, anchovy and capers. Best left in history’s wastebasket, if you ask me. Then too, who knows what will be fashionable next year in New York and London…?

Note re images: The first image above is from the page for the book shown, sourced here. The second image was sourced from this Rickard’s beer website of Molson Coors. The third image, of Ghent, was sourced from Wikipedia, here. The last image, of Béthune, France, was sourced from site of Nordmag, the French magazine, here. All are believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.





Mash-up Time

1280px-Sri_Lankan_OP_Tea_CaseLast August I wrote about blending beers at home, and said I would revisit the subject. In that post, I gave an example of blending a beer with a slightly sour element. This was to emulate beers of the pre-industrial era when top-fermented beer, the simplest and original way to ferment a mash, often had a sourish edge. Lactic or acetic flavours entered beer from a variety of sources: organisms resident in wooden processing vessels; multi-strain yeasts which had a wild yeast component; inoculation of the wort solely from airborne yeasts; and lack of consistent or reliable cooling mechanisms.

In time, people got the taste for such drinks, which explains the survival, albeit vestigially, of styles such as Berlin wheat beer and saison or lambic from Belgium.

However, in general people didn’t like sour beer. Lager-brewing offered a way out, in that the long cold-conditioning of beer, originally in Alpine caves in Bavaria, kept the beer from souring. Top-fermentation did survive, but with the benefit of refrigeration, and finally pasteurization, to prevent souring.

Sour beer has returned as a fashion of the craft brewing revival. This is salutary as it adds palate and historical interest, but I doubt a sour beer will ever become a big seller – the withering of all sour styles in Europe seems to show this. Berlin wheat beer barely survives in its home city, for example.

But is it “wrong” to blend different beers? Not at all. First, blending has always been done by brewers in-house, either for consistency, or to remedy defects in particular batches, or to present a pleasing balance of palate (sour and sweet, say, or bitter and mild). Customers in England in particular frequently mixed beers in the bar. Three threads was a mixture of stronger and weaker beers. A “half and half”, for any mixture of beers, goes back at least to the 1700s and probably earlier.

But more fundamentally, is this a “desirable” way to drink beer? Certainly. What is beer but malt, hops, water, yeast (sometimes other grains or flavourings)? A brewer often combines pale malt and a darker, sweeter malt to get a certain taste. You can combine a pale and darker beer to similar result. A lager and a black stout, say. The yeast background of each may be different, but this doesn’t matter. Yeasts used to be mixed strains anyway, as I’ve said above. Brewers combine different hops. You are doing the same by blending different beers. It can be two or five, although in practice you will want to keep to two or three for this purpose.

Any beer is a blend to begin with, and by using such a beer as a component of your bespoke blend, you are just furthering the process. Many consumers like to blend commercially available teas and coffees to make their own version. Just the other day, John behind the coffee counter at Longo’s food store in Leaside, Toronto told me numerous customers specify combinations they want from his excellent (and well-priced) selection of estate and blended coffees. Although I don’t feel the need to try this myself – John’s Guatemala coffee is perfect for me as is! – I fully get the concept because of my experience with beer blending.

I needn’t, I’m sure, refer to the history of blending in the whisky area other than to say it is a mainstay of the business and something, again, anyone can do once a basic understanding of the different types is achieved.

I wouldn’t blend a beer that was strongly damp paper-oxidised or infected, but you can even out tastes in blending that aren’t “off” technically but don’t please you on their own. Sometimes you can just get a better, more complex flavour. Yesterday, I combined two half-filled cans, left in the fridge from the day before, of Cameron’s Ambear Red Ale and Cameron’s Cream Ale. The combination was better than each on its own, IMO. One can do this with as much logic with beers from different breweries and different countries. It’s just a further combining, or re-combining, of basic elements that are similar: malt, hops, yeast. All that matters is the final taste.

I am not a fan of the dry, Irish stout style where the roasted barley is overbearing and you get a raw, burnt grain taste with little malt sweetness. Blending this 1:2 with a rich, all-malt porter or stout, a 7-8% stout, say, produces a c. 6% stout that is usually extremely good. The other day, I blended just with seltzer water. I added it to a Duggan No. 9 IPA to drop the bitterness a bit and set the abv to 5% (from 6.2%). The result was a fine and very balanced (for me) American pale ale style.

Blending beer – or wine, all same logic – is really like a form of cooking, just as brewing is more directly. Try it, the world won’t come to an end. A not inconsiderable advantage: you avoid forcing down beer you don’t really like, not to say having to discard it.

Note re image: the image of fine teas from Sri Lanka, typically used in blending tea, is in the public domain and was sourced here.







Transpontine Pale Ales

It’s A Family Affair…

whitesPaul Bailey has an excellent article on the famous English beer, Worthington White Shield, a bottle-conditioned (unfiltered) pale ale with roots in the earliest days of Burton-on-Trent pale ale brewing. Shout-out to Boak and Bailey for drawing attention to it.

White Shield was imported here in the last couple of years and I agree with Paul’s take on the beer. It’s a good taste, but not that emphatic in flavour. I never had the pre-’82 version, which sounds more authentic. I started buying White Shield in the 90s, when it was fairly bland, had minimal sediment, and a light banana note. I think it is actually better today.  It could use more hops I think, but the basic flavour is good.

The best White Shield I ever had was on cask in Soho, London about 5 years ago. Almost a different beer, everything “bigger”, maybe this one was closest to bottled White Shield pre-1982.

As Paul noted, Worthington White Shield is a property of Molson Coors. Molson Coors in Canada recently issued a recreation of a pale ale made in 1908 by the Molson Brewery in Montreal. The beer is John H.R. Molson & Bros. 1908 Historic Pale Ale.  I reviewed it some weeks ago and gave it a thumbs up. I am wondering now if Molson brewers in Canada tapped expertise of colleagues in Burton given the latters’ experience brewing an unfiltered pale ale for bottling. I’d think it likely given the high quality of the 1908 and the fact that Molson brewers here hadn’t brewed unfiltered beers for generations.

The two beers are not that dissimilar: the Canadian one is stronger and has more of a citric element from a North American hop (I’d guess), but otherwise they are in the same ballpark.

IMG_20160326_161433After letting a bottle of the 1908 sit for six weeks in the fridge, it poured almost completely clear as the yeast has dropped mostly to the base. Even less than two months out from purchase, I noted a difference in flavour. The citric element was stronger, and the floral English element reduced. It wasn’t that different from a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale actually, except lighter-tasting. If you put a small shot of vodka in a SNPA and poured in some seltzer, that would equate pretty closely to the 1908. The 1908 is evidently an India-style pale ale and the leaner, more alcohol flavour makes perfect sense.

Most IPA today is probably more what was called mild ale in the 1800s. The true IPAs of history were well-fermented out, and in contrast were dry drinks. Canadian brewers until before WW I followed this tradition for beers in that style. White Shield is similar in authenticity – a dry, restrained palate – but its hop rate needs boosting IMO and in this sense the 1908 is the superior beer.





A Tasting Miscellany

Some beverage reviews, to break up the historical discussions.








Cool Lager Draft

This was out in West Toronto, at a fine Greek restaurant. Sometimes a fresh, well-made adjunct draft is what you want. Its weight and flavour go perfectly with the foods and this was the case with this brew. It has good brewing attributes as well, e.g., the Hallertau hop character is evident, mineral-like, clean and sharp.








Captivator DoppelBock

A letter-perfect strong bock beer, made out in B.C. by Tree. The Perle hops underpin a rich malty character that spells Bavaria. Proof, were it needed, that terroir is mostly a charming conceit.








Cameron’s Ambear Red Ale

Another well-made beer but with a light character, as for Cool Lager. In this case, a mild caramel malt note is evident with a good flavour of American hops, but it’s all ratcheted down.  If the Doppelbock above is 10 on the intensity scale and a Rickard’s Red (Molson Coors product) is three, the Ambear Red is five.

The point is, the taste is good, which a lot of people don’t understand in this context. They think anything with powerful flavour is good, anything with light flavour bad. This is a misapprehension which, apart from possible business consequences, strays from gastronomic logic. Many foods have a light taste or a complex but subtle one but are prized in gastronomy. So it should be with beer.








Gillman’s Blended Scotch-style Whiskies

This is a personal blend which is the result probably of 50-60 whiskies, possibly even hundreds as small amounts of older minglings, going back years, are part of the matrix. It isn’t done willy-nilly (more or less), but to get a certain character. The various elements interlock and re-combine in a way that often presents a surprising unity of palate. Remember, it’s all from grains, all alcohol, all mostly Scotch whiskies: you can’t really go wrong here, and an occasional nudge of the helm puts it into the deluxe range.

Scotch-style means, most of the whiskies are Scottish malts or blends, but some are not. There is some Irish whisky in there, Powers was a recent addition. There is a bit of rye and bourbon as well, but the mash bill for Irish whisky used to use very small amounts of non-barley grains, typically, rye, maize and/or oats (less than 5% of the mash). In effect I’ve duplicated that part of auld country whisky-making.

I did, too, some time back, add a skosh of Amontillado sherry, to emulate sherry cask aging.

Let’s just say no whisky fan would turn it away. Nae danger, laddies.












Variations on The Established Ways to Dispense Top-Fermented Beer


In my recent postings, I have reviewed the history of compressed air dispense, and referred frequently to pressurized dispense via CO2 or mixed gas (CO2 + nitrogen), as well as pulling beer by suction handpump, a system which started around 1800.

There have always been variations on these systems. For compressed air, equipment improved in the early 1900s permitted different pressure settings for different types of beer. CO2 dispense has been used to tap beer filtered and carbonated at the brewery, but also unfiltered beer, beer that would be “real ale” but for the addition of CO2 to force it through the lines to the glass.

In the 1970s, “top-pressure” was often used to describe the last method. Where the pressure was held to about 5 psi, although still not meeting CAMRA’s definition of real ale, the beer was felt to offer excellent quality by many drinkers. This is made clear in the short but learned Beers of Britain, a mid-70s booklet describing pubs in different regions, by Conal Gregory and Warren Knock. But as the authors noted, in practice the pressure level often exceeded 5 psi with the result too much gas got into the beer and “altered its character” – the baseline being that of well-pulled cask ale.

In time (in England), this mix of real ale and Continental methods to dispense beer went by the boards in favour of keg beer full stop. This was beer that was filtered at the brewery and often force-carbonated and pasteurized. So that you had either that form of beer, Guinness, say, or one of the many ales dispensed in that way (John Smith, Kilkenny, Tetley, etc.), or, hand-pulled cask ale which remained unfiltered unless by the permissible finings and to which no CO2 or other gas was added.

IMG_20160320_165438Then the American trend to dispense keg beer in unfiltered form came in. This is a return, in English terms, to the “mixed” form of 1970s top-pressure, but sans the finings.

A handpump can be used to draw brewery-conditioned beer too, a practice disliked by real ale fans as it disguises the nature of the beer drawn.

Even real ale pure laine hasn’t remained static. Some is “decanted”, poured off its lees into another vessel, so as to be clear or almost, which saves on wastage and avoids the step of waiting for the beer to clear in the cellar. It’s like normal cask beer poured into your pint glass, except in a larger container. The shelf-life is short, but this suits some serving conditions.

Some cask ale is centrifuged at the brewery and sent out almost clear with a small amount of yeast, which ensures it is real ale, probably. I understand Fuller in London is a proponent of this system.

Then there is real ale  – except CAMRA doesn’t agree – where, instead of air being vented in the cask to replace beer going up to the bar, CO2 gas is drawn in from a cylinder. This gas is intended as a light blanket to sit on the beer and protect it from premature oxidation or souring. This is the aspirator system. The gas doesn’t push the beer out from the cask – the vacuum of the handpull does that – it simply has the protective function mentioned. Some drinkers don’t like the effect on the beer, but the cask breather system as it’s also known has many adherents. I understand the C’est What bar on Front Street in Toronto uses it for its bank of real ale handpumps. I can’t say I ever noticed a particular effect of the aspiration, but I haven’t done comparative side-by-side tastings. Also, beer not sold quickly enough will sour ultimately too with cask breather, at most it buys some time.

Most real ale fans know too of the “sparkler”, a perforated small metal ball through which the beer is forced after leaving the swan neck of the handpump. Its purpose is to agitate and aerate the beer and create a foaming head. The sparkler goes back to the 1940s at least, it was mentioned in the 1949 article on compressed air dispense to which I referred a couple of posts ago. I don’t like the texture it gives to beer, it alters it in some way, just as I think nitro-dispense does. Still, with a very hoppy beer, current IPA, say, the dampening might not hurt, or even assist somewhat, the taste.

How much can the customer do to affect what goes in his glass, apart from the brand? Not that much. You need to ask questions of the pub and experience will show which ones get it right the most often. One thing a customer can control, though, is excess carbonation in the glass. Just shake it out, by swirling the glass after the first two swallows or using a swizzle stick. Or just pour back and forth with another glass until the level is what you like. I constantly read reviews where people say: it’s too fizzy. Few think to adjust the carbonation level to their particular preference.

Finally, gravity dispense – drawing beer by a hand-turned valve on the cask – is still seen. Some bars put a small cask on the counter on a Friday night, say. Some English pubs, especially rural ones, still follow an ancestral practice of serving beer this way. When well-kept, this is an excellent way to serve beer, but in practice, it is too easy to abuse gravity-dispense – either it is too flat, too cloudy, or not the right temperature.

Also, bar staff often simply tip the keg up to drain the last leavings into the hapless drinker’s glass, a practice deeply objectionable, yet I see it frequently.

Day in day out, most beer seems to get served in a way acceptable to the patrons. But in practice, there is still lots of room for improvement.

Note re first image above: it was sourced at this pub guide site and is believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.