(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 beer cookery in Nord-Pas-de-Calais, in Alsace, and Lorraine in France. We can spot them on the map above. Below Picardy is Isle de France, in other words, Paris and its hinterland.
Immediately noticeable are the adjoining provinces of Champagne, Picardy, and the northern section of Normandy. Indeed Champagne is really two regions, Champagne proper and the Ardenne, counterpart in France to the Belgian Ardennes.
The Ardenne is forested and largely rural, a hunting area noted for game, hams, and pâtés but also beer and breweries. Champagne-Ardenne had more breweries than Lorraine in the heyday of brewing in the later 1800s – over 300. It is no surprise therefore to find Soupe à la Bière de Mézières in Recueil de la Gastronomie Champenoise et Ardennaise, 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 yet austere land. The recipe serves 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 for commercial and other reasons, culinary traditions blend imperceptibly. Picardy has beer dishes influenced by French Flanders. Ninette Lyon, the learned French food writer of the 1960s-1980s, states a “perfume” of Flanders characterizes Picardy cooking.
Rabbit with prunes, leek tart, and the ubiquity of brown sugar are examples. In all these, beer is sometimes used. Picardy too had a brewing industry in the past, revived in recent years by the craft beer phenomenon.
The coastal region between Boulogne and Dunkerque, or littoral of Picardy and French Flanders, has its own beer dishes. Many are based on fish and crustaceans. In one recipe, haddock, meaning the fish salted and smoked, is bathed in beer to freshen and spice it. Smoked herring is sometimes treated similarly.
One recipe blends beer, white wine and the local gin with celery root, cauliflower, onion, shallot and tomato. (The French north is a vegetable larder). This is served lukewarm (tiède), a kind of northern ratatouille. Boozy, yes, but northerners like it that way. They spike their coffee, or bistouille, with rum, brandy, or the local genever gin – sometimes all three!
Brittany has enjoyed in recent decades a brewing renaissance to match its age-old cider tradition. Normandy, too, to an extent.
Certainly over a wide belt of the north a “beer cuisine” exists, not just in the Flemish and Alsatian heartlands.
Paris not exempted despite the towering importance of wine. Beer has been enjoyed in Paris for hundreds of years. Even before the revival of top-fermentation and other craft brewing bars or restaurants in the capital could offer a good beer experience. The Académie de la Bière on boul. Port Royal, founded in the 1950s, is a classic, old school Paris beer shrine. It was and remains Belgian-focused but also features good French and foreign beers. A typical dish there is mussels cooked in beer.
A new generation of beer bars and brewpubs in Paris has joined the older school of Belgian, German, and English-style bars. This results from international craft beer influence and the implantation of small breweries all over France. They sell IPA, wheat beer, saison, and other styles familiar to craft beer fans everywhere. There are literally thousands of breweries in France now. In the early 1990s, when I toured the north with writer Michael Jackson, there were perhaps 30.
Given that craft brewing is now vibrant all over France, there is every reason to think that beer cuisine will develop beyond its traditional precincts.
*Last updated March 5, 2020.