Aperçu On The Beer Cookery Of Alsace
I’ll continue my discussion of cooking with beer by examining some of the traditional dishes in Alsace in France. This tradition should be regarded as quasi-German since Alsace has changed sovereignty several times over the centuries, and originally had a Germanic character it has never quite lost. I will deal with beer cookery in the adjoining province, Lorraine, separately.
In a popular but detailed study of Alsatian brewing, La Bière En Alsace by Jean-Claude Colin and Jean-Dany Potel-Jehl (Coprur, 1989), the authors state that beer and gastronomy have no history in Alsace apart from pretzels and “charcuterie“, or delicatessen meats. They state that a group of chefs decided to remedy this situation and that books were recently published showing beer could be used creatively in cooking.
Colin and Potel-Jehl list about 20 dishes of this type. Some are clearly creations of a new cuisine, such as lobster with beer and parsley sauce; amongst other things, lobster is hardly native to the region. Another example is a composed butter made with chopped lettuce and hop flowers, for use as a spread. Yet another is probably escargots with beer, chanterelle mushrooms and crème fraiche. Escargots themselves are typically Alsatian, and so is cream-and-beer – the combination is used in the region’s chicken-and-beer dish – but using the sauce with escargots seems more a recent idea.
On the other hand, a number of the recipes are clearly redolent of the old farmhouse more than the gleaming kitchens of multi-starred restaurants. Beer soup, for example, frankly called “Soupe paysanne à la bière“. Or fried carp where the batter incorporates beer. Rabbit with beer, and also fresh ham hock cooked with cherry beer, are further examples. In this last one, cherry, vs. ordinary, beer seems the only new element and really that is not so novel: one can imagine that the good housewives of old Alsace might throw cherries or plums in a dish like this, the area is famous for orchard fruits.
On a visit to a beer museum in nearby Lorraine in the late 1980s, I had the same dish cooked with Jenlain beer or La Choulette (not the cherry version!), in Stenay, a former garrison town. It was very similar to the one in La Bière En Alsace, and similar dishes exist in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais and indeed in Quebec in my own country. The rabbit with beer is a standby in Lille and surrounding areas and into Belgium. Versions exist also in England and other countries.
I think likely the chefs who provided the recipes for La Bière En Alsace drew on ancestral or local knowledge of beer in cooking, but also devised new recipes to broaden the ingredients and present a wider range of dishes.
Copyrighted between 1977 and 1985, three slim volumes appeared called Gastronomie Alsacienne, published by Editions S.A.E.P. Despite the grand-sounding term gastronomy – at least to English ears it is – these books, according to the introduction in the first volume, contain dishes drawn from “a long family tradition”. In the third volume, it is explained that its recipes were taken from old collections in the back of the drawer or from the memories of older relations of the authors. The books therefore stress that authentic regional dishes are offered, not new creations, and everything in their composition suggests this is so. The same applies to the photography of the dishes, all presented in a rustic setting with appropriate tableware.
Beer figures in a few recipes in these books. Apart from the expected beer soup, there is also a dish of veal, beer and juniper, coq à la bière, which is somewhat different than the one from French Flanders, and “beignets” – doughnuts – prepared with beer yeast. (One can imagine too that unprocessed local beer was often used as such in these fritters). In another Alsatian cookery book, it is mentioned that the skin of a turkey was rubbed with dark beer to assist the browning and caramelization of the bird when roasting. (Try it – it’s a brilliant idea). In yet further sources, recipes are offered for perch cooked in an aromatized “steam of beer”, and for stuffed cabbage braised in beer.
One or two of these may be the more recent creations of inspired chefs but most have the ring of old regional food.
Net net, while one would not claim beer is a star performer in the traditional cookery of Alsace, it has a definite place in the region’s culinary history, in my opinion. And to that heritage, trained chefs in the last generation have added further dishes, inspired both by local tradition and their own imagination.
Note re image used: The image above is believed in the public domain, and was sourced here. All feedback welcomed.