Beer in English Cookery – Part I

Britannia_Pier,_Great_Yarmouth_-_May_2012

(Image attribution below)

My title should perhaps be “Beer in British and Irish Cookery”, but I feel less confident to write about Scotland and Ireland and, to a lesser degree, Wales.

I visited Britain about 20 times over a 25 year period, different parts mostly in England. In this time, I ate in a wide variety of restaurants and visited many markets, but also ate at people’s homes.

I also have a decent library of U.K. cookery and food history tomes, and have read fairly widely in the area.

Based on this, it is my view that beer plays a relatively minor role in English cookery. Beer dishes there are, of which Welsh Rabbit is probably best known. As well there is Gloucester cheese and ale, a variation on this theme. Jane Grigson gave a good version, or Jamie Oliver.

Beer sometimes appears in Christmas pudding, in a couple of beef dishes, and (now largely disused) cures of ham. A Yorkshire beef-and-beer dish employs cloves, mace, and other spices that recalls Middle Ages meat cookery. Books by Dorothy Hartley and Elizabeth Ayrton offer good examples.

Sussex Stewed Steak, a braise involving stout (or other beer), port and vinegar, appears in many English cookbooks, sometimes under variant names. Elizabeth David offered the classic recipe in her literate Spices, Salts and Aromatics in the English Kitchen (1970). Venison cooked in molasses or sugar with beer appears in some regional compilations.

An 1838 recipe, from The Family Handbook, states “some people” baste a hare in “old beer”. The same page notes ale can be added to the cooking liquid. In both cases, the suggestion has a ring of the tentative. English hare is usually cooked with port, red wine, or both, not any form of beer.

Maria Rundell counsels a beef heart with sugared and spiced beer. This approach might be thought an established way for the cheaper cuts, but not so, it appears.

Beer is occasionally used for batters, with fish or fruit especially, as across Europe.

Pies and puddings that combine meat with mushroom or oyster, usually beef, seem to eschew beer. Ditto the famous northern hotpots. (Guinness in Irish stew is, I believe, a modern innovation). Water and stock are more usual, and occasionally red wine.

I have not encountered an English counterpart to the Belgian/French carbonade à la Flamande, or their coq à la bière. The spiced and sugared braise of Rundell gets half-way there, perhaps.

A recipe for pork with beer appears in Mary Norwak’s 1970s-era The Best of Country Cooking. A roast of pork is coated in salt and pepper, flour, and powdered ginger, baked, and basted in beer. It is quite good, possibly a family one-off or inspired by a foreign recipe, but not characteristic of English ways, in my opinion.

To my knowledge, there is no beer soup in the English repertoire as handed down, or beer sauce. In former times a morning caudle combined ale, grain of some kind, and egg.  A similar preparation in the Scottish Highlands was oats and whisky mixed, the Atholl Brose.

I cannot find many recipes for fish or poultry with beer in English cooking. An 1856 book, Every-Day Cookery For A Family, has herring baked with small beer and vinegar. Perhaps the technique survives in Yarmouth or other very specific areas.

A few recipes exist for beer with coarse fish, roach, chub, carp say. See an example in Richard Dolby’s 1830 tavern cookbook. Charlotte Mason used small beer for carp sauce in The Lady’s Assistant (1805). Small beer also appears in a sauce for steak, and a braise for hare in the book. Mason seems to have favoured it beyond the detectable norm.

In a late-1950s booklet, Cooking With Dow, Canadian food author Jehane Benoit wrote that sole is cooked with beer in Scotland. I have never seen an instance, but herring with beer seems an analogue.

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Looking to the further past, Renaissance recipes frequently called for ale in cooking. See Richard Unger at pg. 130, here (“a common ingredient in Renaissance kitchens”. The context is western European, in general).

The landmark Forme of Cury, which collected 14th century recipes, included ale in some recipes, e.g. for capon.

I think there are two reasons why beer fell away in the English kitchen. First, it became increasingly hopped from the late 1400s. Earlier, ale, properly so termed, had no hops – perhaps other herbs and spices, but not the bitter hop.

Once hops became generalized in beer, its use in cooking likely withered due to the bitter tang, especially as in former times pronounced bitterness was thought the mark of poison.

In Welsh Rabbit the richness of cheese hides, or perhaps matches, the beery taste. Ditto for Christmas pudding, in which strong beer makes an (infrequent) appearance. But for soup and other cooking where a few ingredients must shine, the bitter cannot be disguised.

All beer is much less bitter than in Victorian times but in gastronomy, once a custom is established, sometimes only heaven and earth can move it.

Finally, wine was – still is – the classic alcohol medium for professional cooking, for which France had set the norms since the 1800s. Beer is almost never used, two or three recipes apart. Escoffier offers one for beef carbonnade, but little in his work mentions beer.

The French recipes of today that employ beer are regional, in the North and East, mainly. These only came to light – or perhaps were devised – in the later 1900s as interest grew in regional cookery.

Numerous works on cooking with beer have been published in Britain since the 1970s. These are salutary, They will help revive a much older tradition.

Our Part II follows.

Note re images used: the first image above is attributed as follows: By Leigh Last (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons. It was sourced here. The second image was sourced from Wikipedia Commons here and appears public domain. Images used for educational and historical purposes. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. All feedback welcomed.

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*Barring special techniques in their use.