(Note: Map is copyright of and reproduced with the kind authority of the travel website www.about-france.com)
THE FRENCH BEER COOKERY TRADITION*
In my last three posts I discussed the beer cookery of Nord-Pas-de-Calais, Alsace, and the Lorraine regions in France. It is useful to spot them on the map above. Below Picardy is Isle de France, in other words Paris and its hinterland.
Immediately noticeable are the regions adjoining including Champagne, Picardy, and the northern section of Normandy. Indeed, Champagne is really two regions, Champagne proper and the Ardenne in the north, the French counterpart to the Belgian Ardennes.
The Ardenne is a forested, largely rural area, a hunting territory famous for game, hams, and pâtés but also beer and breweries. Champagne-Ardenne as a whole had more breweries than Lorraine in the heyday of brewing in these regions (latter 1800s), over 300. It is no surprise therefore to find a Soupe à la Bière de Mézières in the Recueil de la Gastronomie Champenoise et Ardennaise by Annick and Patrick Demouy (Editions S.A.E.P., 1983).
Their version uses blonde beer, onions, butter, and garlic – no cream, eggs, brown sugar, or hard alcohol as in some neighbouring recipes. It is a lean, spare version, as suits a handsome but austere land. The book states to serve it with toasted bread and grated Gruyère
[Attribution: By MOSSOT (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons]
As in many countries where boundaries are fluid and traversed regularly for trade and other reasons, culinary traditions blend imperceptibly. Picardy has a tradition of beer dishes influenced by French Flanders. Ninette Lyon, the learned French food writer of the 1960s-1980s, stated that one encounters a “perfume” of Flanders in Picardy. Rabbit with prunes, leek tart, and things with brown sugar are examples. In all these beer sometimes makes an appearance. Picardy too had an active brewing tradition in the past, one revived in recent years with the craft beer phenomenon.
The coastal region between Boulogne and Dunkerque, the littoral of the Picard and Flemish corner of the northwest, has its own beer dishes. Many are based on fish and crustaceans. In one recipe, haddock, meaning here the fish salted and smoked, is bathed with beer to freshen and spice it. Smoked herring is sometimes treated similarly.
The region in general is a vegetable larder. One recipe blends beer, white wine and the local gin with celery root, cauliflower, onion, shallot and tomato. This is served lukewarm (tiède) and is a kind of northern ratatouille. Boozy, too, but the northerners like it that way. Try their spiked coffee, or bistouille, which can include rum, brandy, or genever gin – or all three!
Brittany has enjoyed in the last decades a brewing renaissance to match its age-old cider tradition. Normandy too, to an extent. Certainly over a wide belt of the north in France a “beer cuisine” exists, not just in the Flemish and Alsatian heartlands that is. In a word, the pays without an indigenous brewing culture are influenced by the dishes from the adjoining “county”.
Paris not least is an example. Beer has been enjoyed there for hundreds of years. Even before the revival of top-fermentation and craft brewing, bars or restaurants focusing on French or foreign beer traditions, say German or British, were found on both sides of the Seine. The Académie de la Bière on boul. Port Royal, founded in the 1950s, is a classic old school Paris beer temple. It was and remains largely a Belgian-style bar but features good French and foreign beers, too. A typical dish there is mussels cooked in beer.
A glance at the rating site Beer Advocate shows that new generation of beer bars and brewpubs in Paris has joined the older school of Belgian-, German-, and English-style bars to represent contemporary brewing trends. This has been stimulated by international craft brewing developments and the implantation of small breweries all over France. They sell I.P.A., wheat beers, saisons, and other styles familiar to craft beer fans everywhere. There are literally thousands of breweries in France now. In the early 1990s, perhaps there were 30.
This report gives an excellent update c.2015 of the progress beer and its culture has made in Paris alone. Given that craft brewing is now a vibrant industry all over France there is every reason to think that beer cuisine will develop local roots in areas it was previously a novelty.
*Last updated March 5, 2020.