Amy and I spent the week between Christmas and New Year in the French departments of Picardie and Nord-Pas-de-Calais which are, historically, along with large swathes of Belgium and Zeeland in Holland, part of the larger area of Northern Europe known as Flanders. These mostly flat and seemingly bucolic rural regions of north-eastern France were the site of the fiercest trench warfare in World War I and are today known more for their giant military cemeteries and grim rows of crosses stretching to the horizon than for the food they produce. Driving the Somme Valley in French Flanders is a sobering experience even in the heat and brightness of high summer, but in the freezing, drifting fog of deepest winter, when the white headstones seem to lurch out at you and then disappear into the mists like the many ghosts they recall, it sends a mighty chill through both body and soul. A chill that the regional cuisine seems to be have been invented to dispel.
Following a restorative beer in the charmingly medieval town of Arras, our nerves were steadied enough to drive north through the falling snow to Lille where we were to spend New Year’s Eve. Foolishly we hadn’t made any plans for that evening and consequently ended up at the only place in town that had a spare table – a bizarre, Moroccan-themed restaurant enticing diners in for “One Night in Marrakech”. If that fabled North African city is nothing but a den of drunken, middle-aged Frenchmen staggering around trying to belly dance and exposing large acreages of flesh for henna tattoos then our night was indeed an authentic experience, though I would hope there is more to it than that.
However, since we couldn’t beat them, so we joined them (in all things minus the henna), so come New Year’s morning we looked like we’d just been dragged to Marrakech and back on our faces. Venturing gingerly out onto the deserted Lille streets, we, once again, found a table hard to come by, but eventually managed it at a warm and friendly gastropub full of similarly rumpled young people. Seeing that everyone else was working through their hangovers with frothy Belgian ales and steaming bowls of black stew (and not being in much of a state to make decisions) we ordered glasses of Leffe Blonde and servings of boeuf carbonnade a la flamande or Flemish beef and beer stew.
Meats braised in ales of all kinds can be found throughout northern Europe, but nowhere else, perhaps, has the concept been raised to such a culinary pinnacle as in Flanders. There, some would argue, one finds not only many of the world’s best beers, but also cuisine that both makes extensive use of beer and is prepared to be enjoyed with beer. Carbonnade is, more or less, the national dish of Flanders and is known in Dutch-speaking areas as Vlaamse Stoverij or Vlaamse stoofkarbonade. It is noted for its slightly sour flavor that is derived from the dubbel (double) or trippel (triple) Abbey-style ales used in its preparation, as well as a jigger of cider vinegar added just before serving. The most unique aspects of a traditional Carbonnade though, and what makes it so different from all other beef and beer stews, are the slow sauted onions and the, seemingly-curious, addition of mustard-coated ginger-snap cookies that are used both as a flavoring and a thickening agent. These cookies really place the dish in its culinary context with the spice-trading and koekie-mad Dutch making key contributions.
Whether because it contained hair of the dog or was accompanied by it, the carbonnade acted like some sort of miracle restorative on our poisoned systems and sent us back out into Lille’s cold streets for an entire day of exploring, which was just as well since there was absolutely nothing else open in the entire city that day. Saying hearty braised dishes are perfect for wintry weather is, frankly, about as insipid a remark as most braised meat dishes, even those fortified with beer, so I shall avoid that particular cliche here, and say instead that it is perfect for curing a hangover. That’s right, you heard it here first: beer both creates and cures hangovers.
- 2lbs lean stewing beef (chuck steak)
- 2 large onions, sliced thinly
- 4 large cloves garlic, sliced
- 1/4lb smoked bacon, cut into cubes (lardons)
- 1 package (about 6oz) ginger-snap cookie
- 4 tablespoons smooth Dijon-style mustard
- 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
- 1 bay leaf
- 2 good sprigs fresh thyme
- 1 – 1.5 litres (3 pints) – or more for drinking – best Belgian abbey-style ale (preferably a brown/brune or trippel), like Chimay or Kwack
- 1 tablespoon butter
- salt and black pepper
- Heat a large dutch oven or other pot with tight-fitting lid, to medium and add butter.
- Gently saute bacon until golden and crispy. Remove to a plate.
- Season beef well with salt and pepper and brown in batches in bacon grease.
- Remove browned beef to a plate and reduce heat to medium-low.
- Sweat onions gently for 12-15 minutes or until nicely caramelized.
- Add garlic and cook for 2-3 minutes.
- Increase heat to medium-high and when sizzling, pour in half cup of beer and, with a wooden spoon, scrape all the brown bits off the bottom of the pot.
- Add bacon and beef back into the pot along with bay and thyme.
- Pour in enough beer to almost completely cover everything and bring to a boil.
- While stew is coming to the boil, take a knife and spread mustard over one side of all your ginger cookies.
- When stew boils, reduce heat to low and carefully place mustarded ginger-snaps all over top of stew.
- Cover pot and simmer stew gently for at least 2 hours, but as long as 3.
- After 2 or 3 hours, taste stew for seasoning. It should taste like it needs a touch of salt.
- Kill heat and stir in vinegar. Taste again. Correct seasoning if you think it needs it, otherwise serve immediately with buttered noodles, Belgian fries (traditional), mashed or boiled potatoes, or just with a crusty baguette.
- Enjoy with some excellent Belgian beer