Fish And Beer Dishes of the French North Country
The book above, La Cuisine du Nord et de Picardie, was published in 1981 and is one of the standard references on the cuisine of the French Nord. It has no credited author. Loïc Martin, a well-known restaurateur and northern cuisine proponent in the region, wrote the preface only, it appears. La Voix Du Nord publishes the main newspaper in the Nord and I’d guess its staff worked on the book.
In a note on beer at the end of the volume, the book states that blonde and brown beers are “industrially” produced – this was just before the beer revival started in France. It notes that beer is traditional for use in beer soups, carbonades, crêpes, chicken in beer sauce, beer soup, and “préparations de poissons” (fish dishes) – an accurate summary, in my opinion. The last group is the focus of this post.
The book does not pretend to gastronomic originality or innovation, Martin in the preface states (my translation) that the cuisine remains “solid and cheerful, in the image of our ancestors, the Gauls, connoisseurs of ‘cervoise’, our first beer”. He states though that the cuisine has “evolved”, which is a clue I think that some deviation from tradition has occurred, but not significantly.
In my previous two posts, I described the French north country – Flanders, Artois, Picardie – in general terms. It has a varied terrain favouring cereals and vegetable production. A strip of sea coast and fresh water rivers and marshes supply abundant fish. I pointed out as well that regional cuisine in France as a whole is mostly a phenomenon of the last 100 years. To be sure, a few distinctive, traditional dishes existed in the regions before the 1900s. Beer soup, beef carbonades, and some fish preparations with beer are examples in the Nord.
But there seems little doubt that under pressure of gastronomic tourism and other factors, in the north no less than other French regions, numerous dishes are now considered regional which have no long history.
Let’s examine then the beer and fish dishes of the book pictured above, La Cuisine du Nord et de Picardie. Before I do, I point out that these dishes, indeed most of the dishes in the book, are essentially similar to those you find in other books of the period on this cuisine. Moreover, if you google “cuisine du Nord” and “France”, you will find many resources, including more recent books, which describe the cuisine in similar terms again. I say this to show there is no warrant to consider the recipes in the book under discussion passé – au contraire.
One luminous book in English, a resource on French regional food in general, should be mentioned: Anne Willan’s French Regional Cooking (1981). This landmark book is beautifully written and illustrated. It has the scholarly touch one would expect of the Cambridge-educated author but is lively and engaging at the same time.
Ms. Willan founded the well-known cookery school in Paris, La Varenne, and has authored many books. Her chapter on the French north is very informative, and includes Champagne and Ardenne for this purpose. She describes well the conditions of husbandry and agriculture, as well as culture and history, which shaped the characteristic products of the northern pays. Her rendition of coq à la bière is faultless and she makes useful comments to contrast it with a similar treatment of chicken in Alsace. Finally, she gives a list of traditional dishes and products at the end of each chapter to supplement the recipes. This gives a fuller sense of the richness of each region’s larder than would result from the necessarily limited number of recipes given.
In La Cuisine du Nord et de Picardie, one finds the following fish or shellfish dishes in which beer makes an appearance.
- Eel, where the fish is braised in two glasses of “strong beer”, nutmeg, herbs, croutons, flour and egg yolk. A silky but emphatic bitter/herbal sauce results to complement the rich taste of eel. Eel formerly was very popular in many parts of Europe, and (by the way) along the St. Lawrence River in Quebec, but less so today.
- Anglerfish (monkfish), braised with butter, herbs, cream, beer, onion, eggs, carrots, shallot, and sorrel. Monkfish is considered a good eating fish, but under sole and turbot in quality.
- Coquilles saint-jacques (scallops) Boulogne-style. The meat is removed from the shells and cooked with butter, flour, “blonde beer”, mushrooms, breadcrumb, nutmeg, and gruyère cheese.
- Haddock. But as the French would say, Attention. Haddock here means smoked haddock, which is an intense and salty-flavoured, preserved form of haddock. The fish first is allowed to simmer in water and partially poach, which removes some of the salt and strong taste. Then, the cooking is completed with beer and a puree of tomatoes and herbs, and is served with sliced gherkins.
- Monkfish Dunkerque-style. In English, baudroie and lotte both mean monkfish, aka anglerfish. In no. 2 above, baudroie is specified, in this no. 5 recipe, lotte. Lotte can sometimes mean a freshwater fish, barbot, but in this case I am sure an ocean fish is meant. Dunkerque is on the ocean, famously as many know – that is where the British Expeditionary Force in France was evacuated in 1940 to fight another day. Perhaps monkfish was meant in both cases. Alternatively, different species of monkfish may have been meant – there are over 200. This Dunkirk recipe combines tomato puree, herbs and beer to cook the fish. Tomato combined with beer is a frequent medium to cook fish on the French side of the Channel.
- Mackerel with mussels, Boulogne-style. Blonde beer, parsley, butter, mushroom, flour, onion, egg, and parsley make the sauce for this interesting combination.
There are 22 fish and seafood recipes in the book. Of these, less than one-third employ beer in the recipe. The 16 which don’t use beer use red wine, white wine, vinegar, a combination, or no alcohol. The recipes which use the highest quality fish, such as sole, turbot and lobster, do not use beer. Of the numerous mussel recipes, only one uses beer and it has mackerel in it, too.
To me, this suggests that the authors of the book were judicious in deciding which recipes should feature beer. If they were creating a new cuisine from local materials, one might expect to see them put beer in the sole or turbot, and trout or lobster. They didn’t. This suggests they were careful only to feature recipes with beer that had a long tradition. In general, the fish they used with beer was second quality, except perhaps for the scallops. Perhaps that recipe is an innovation, then. Or perhaps it really is a long-established recipe of Boulogne.
But in general, the idea that beer has always been used for “coarse” fish and wine reserved for the best quality has a logic about it. This is not because beer is second quality to wine, but because the vigorous taste of beer seems to match an oily or strong-tasting fish better than wine would, or at least, equably.
In checking for 19th century references on fish cooked with beer, I could find very few. Carp with beer was mentioned in numerous French books throughout the 1800s, here is an example from a French recipe translated into English. Sometimes the dish was noted as being German or Czech (Bohemian). I found one English recipe where fresh herring was simmered in a mixture of small beer (weak beer) and vinegar. One can assume that herring, a major catch formerly off the northern coast of France and still popular there, was sometimes cooked with beer in Flanders and Picardy, too.
The use of beer to cook smoked haddock seems to me in a general tradition of cooking oily or strong-tasting fish with beer, ditto the mackerel and perhaps the mussels. Eel, as I said in an earlier post, is analogous in culinary terms to carp – not the same fish, but sourced often in similar waters and similarly rich. So that too seems to stay with the French motif, is dans le même ordre d’idées.
All in all, I think La Cuisine du Nord et de Picardie rendered typical products of its terroir – beer and fish – in a very creditable way. It didn’t put beer in most of the recipes, and it didn’t use it for the top echelon of fish where it has no history of use.
Now, if other books on the cooking of the Nord have done just that, is that bad? Mais non. The proof is in the pudding, so to speak. But I like the approach of the authors of the 1981 book. It fits with the history pretty much as I understand it and in this sense, its six beer and fish dishes are in no way an invented cuisine.
There is much else in this book of interest. I recommend it to anyone interested in the French north country and its distinctive food traditions.
Note re images used: the images above were sourced, respectively, here, here, here, and here. All are believed in public domain or available for use for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.