“The Use of Beer in Cooking is a Very Ancient Custom…”
[From Cooking With Dow, Jehane Benoit, 1958]
“Beer cuisine” can mean two things: beer as an ingredient in recipes, and beers selected to match with dishes at table.
Both are legitimate areas of gastronomy. Before the craft beer era, in North America beer was thought suitable to pair with a limited number of foods. Salty meats like ham, cured or smoked fish, potato chips, oysters, cheese, and sandwiches were typical.
Today, nuanced advice is given to pair specific types, or brands, of beer with food. Sometimes it makes sense but my view is, if you like the beer a lot and the food a lot, there is no reason not to pair them. Trappist Ale alongside mint ice cream, sure. Imperial stout with chicken Tetrazzini, why not? It’s all good.
The “what with what” debate for wine comes to mind, the strictures increasingly relaxed in recent decades.
Cooking with beer is the more interesting area in my view, with an old history. It’s easy to find 14th century recipes using ale, see The Forme of Cury. The malty or herbal taste of beer adds flavour just as wine adds a quality although the effect of each is quite different.
Cooking with beer has two aspects: recipes of tradition, and contemporary, creative cookery where new combinations and ideas are constantly evolved. Both are valid and can interrelate. A Belgian carbonade de boeuf (beef and beer stew), traditional as it is, can be made with the newer, American-type IPA.
Beer can chicken, novelty as it is (or was), didn’t exist before the 1990s, probably.
My own interest is mainly the handed-down group. These at least have some permanence, which I find appealing. The great Canadian food writer Jehane Benoit wrote a small tome on beer cookery, Cooking With Dow.
Mme Benoit, as she was called in her heyday, was a superb chef and cookery teacher. She was that rare example of deft cook and trained food scientist. She wrote Cooking With Dow in 1958, when Dow beer was a major brand in Quebec.
The book resulted from her publicity role with the brewery. Dow later had a crashing fall from grace due to an additives scandal; it probably consigned Benoit’s book to minor status. A pity as it contains many nuggets and useful pointers.
The book offers recipes from many countries, not all with a lengthy beer heritage. Mme Benoit states that the recipes are:
… for the most part traditional and belong to the everyday cooking of many lands: Germany, Spain, China, England, France, Belgium, Italy and even America.
Did people really add beer to Spanish/Latin American punchero, though? The dish, a soup, is usually spelled puchero.
I sought examples online and actually found a number similar to Mrs. Benoit’s preparation; she did not gild the lily. Beer has been known for at least a millennium in parts of southern Europe albeit systematic or commercial brewing is more recent.
Mme Benoit wrote that wherever grain was raised a form of beer likely was made. It makes sense, and there is some historical basis for the statement. Some writers of Ancient Greece mention beer. After all too beer was in common use thousands of years ago in warm Egypt.
The book does make clear though that some recipes are her creation. These likely included the vegetarian group, as, typically ahead of her time, she ran a vegetarian restaurant in Montreal in the 1930s.
She has a recipe for Quebec partridge with beer. It probably descends from France as similar dishes are known in Picardy and the Ardenne. Beer features in her Normandy pork chops, Austrian backhendl, Danish kidneys, Hungarian red cabbage, and ginger snaps. There are over 100 recipes, from, well, soup to nuts.
As to which beer for the recipes Mme Benoit had only one suggestion: Dow Ale! Justement.
Dow was probably as good a choice as any. Somewhat as for wine, brand and quality are secondary in cookery, as a rule anyway.
Years ago a restaurant on Mount Pleasant Avenue in Toronto was run by a chef from Roubaix, France. Roubaix, on the northern fringe of the Hexagon, is a classic beer region, a heritage shared with Belgium over the way. Beer enters its way into numerous dishes of this trans-frontier region.
Monsieur made for us a coq à la bière, an established dish in his home Region.* It came thinly covered in cream, flecked with fresh tarragon, in a white porcelain tureen, as described in my French books. Piping hot french fries alongside, also a specialty of the North, completed the picture. I think a plate of asparagus preceded, or something similar.
To say it was good would understate …
I had made the dish at home numerous times using boutique beers, but his easily bettered mine. Asked what beer he used, he said, “Labatt Blue”, a standard mass market lager.
So there you go.
*A similar preparation with rabbit is made, sometimes with prunes.