Aperçu on Beer Cookery in Alsace
I continue my discussion of cooking with beer by examining some traditional dishes in Alsace, France. The tradition should be regarded as quasi-German. Alsace has changed sovereignty several times over the centuries, and never quite lost a German flavour. I will deal with beer cookery in the adjoining Lorraine province later.
In the excellent La Bière En Alsace by Jean-Claude Colin and Jean-Dany Potel-Jehl (Coprur, 1989), the authors state that traditionally, beer and gastronomy have no history in Alsace, apart from pretzels and charcuterie (delicatessen). They state a group of chefs decided to remedy this situation and books were published showing how beer can be used in local cooking.
The authors list about 20 dishes of this type. Some clearly are recent creations, e.g. lobster with beer and parsley sauce – among other things lobster is hardly native to the region. Another is a composed butter incorporating chopped lettuce and hop flowers, used for a spread.
Their escargots cooked with beer, chanterelles and crème fraiche is an interesting case. Escargot is typically Alsatian. So is cream with beer – the combination appears in the region’s coq à la bière – but with escargots the sauce is a more recent idea, to my knowledge.
On the other hand, some recipes evoke the battered old farmhouse more than a multi-starred restaurant kitchen. Beer soup, for example, whose name in the book tells the tale: “Soupe paysanne à la bière“.
The authors’ beer-battered fried carp, rabbit with beer, and ham hock cooked in cherry-beer, seem too on the traditional side of the ledger. While cherry beer is relatively new in France (the last 30-40 years) one can imagine some households added surplus cherries or plums to a beer medium. The Alsace region is notable for orchard fruit, after all.
In adjoining Lorraine in the late 1980s I had the same ham hocks cooked with La Choulette beer, not the cherry version though. It was in Stenay, the former garrison town. The dish was similar to the one in La Bière En Alsace. The restaurant was a local auberge that seemed traditional to the max.
I think, therefore, some recipes in La Bière En Alsace reflect ancestral practices, but the majority are new evolutions to present beer well in the kitchen.
For another aperçu on beer in Alsatian cookery, three slim books published between 1977 and 1985 offer good interest, entitled Gastronomie Alsacienne (Editions S.A.E.P.) These books, per the introduction, feature dishes from “a long family tradition”.
Here, therefore, the heritage of the dishes is stressed. The photography underlines this, showing the dishes in bucolic settings with tableware appropriate to a comfortable farmhouse.
Beer figures in a few recipes. There is the expected beer soup; a dish of veal, beer and juniper; coq à la bière, somewhat different from the one from French Flanders; and “beignets“, or doughnuts, prepared with beer yeast.
I have seen Alsatian recipes in other sources that use beer. In one, the skin of a turkey is rubbed with dark beer to promote browning and caramelization. In another, perch is cooked in an aromatized “steam of beer”. There is also a stuffed cabbage braised in beer.
Most of this has the ring of old regional food. Hence, while I would not claim beer as a star performer, it seems part of an older culinary tradition in Alsace.
Ceaseless change since the 19th century, when hundreds of breweries dotted these provinces, including rural depopulation, has perhaps obscured the heritage to a degree.
But without question, trained chefs in the last generation have added to the inventory, inspired in many cases by their own creativity – always the motive force of good cookery.
Note re image: image above is believed to be in the public domain, and was sourced here. Used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.