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Carbonnade Flamande - have I got the right beer?

"It occupies that culinary space that makes it feel like it's both comfort food and a decadent treat." Diversivore

I started this because I had made up my mind to make Carbonnade Flamande for dinner tonight. I have the meat out of the freezer ready to go, lots of onions and beer. However, now I'm not so sure - mostly because of the beer.

Carbonnade Flamande is Belgian, but also made in the north-eastern corner of France and it was one of those dishes that (I thought) the big four cooks of the 60s - Robert Carrier, Elizabeth David,Jane Grigson and Julia Child and co. - made. I thought it would be an opportunity to revisit - like Delia.

"In the 1960s, every other restaurant was a bistro and every other bistro served carbonnade de boeuf à la flamande, a traditional Flemish recipe that translates as beef in beer. But, like other once-hackneyed 1960s' recipes, I think it's now been neglected and there's a whole new generation now who probably haven't yet tasted it." Delia Smith

And this is her response to modern times - Beef in designer beer. From the title you can see one problem - 'designer beer' - and from the picture you can see another - the croutons - well she calls them croutons - on top.

I'm actually doing this in the wrong order because I came across Delia's version quite late in the day. First of all I went to my bookshelves and got out all those 60s gurus. To be surprised. Julia Child and Robert Carrier are the only ones who deal with it. And here is where I insert another one of those lovely videos from Jamie - Tracey I have discovered is his surname - not Jamie Oliver. It's nine minutes long, so you might not want to watch it, but it's amusing to see him bumble along, making Julia's version and actually quite instructive. The finished result is pronounced delicious, although maybe he should have cut off some of that fat that he deliberately left on.

In the course of the video he demonstrates one of the problems. When it comes to the beer he has some genuine Belgian dark beer, turns to Julia's book and finds she specifies lager, but continues on regardless. Having now read through quite a few recipes I am actually pretty confused about what kind of beer it should be.

"Given the Belgian roots of this dish, it shouldn't be too surprising to find out that the beer is a big deal." Diversivore

The real purists say it should be Trappist beer. What is Trappist beer you might say. Well it's this:

Beer that is made in a monastery and - yes to be properly Trappist beer it has to be made in a monastery - and which costs as much as a prime bottle of Burgundy according to one source. So I just checked with Dan and actually it's not quite that bad. Dan has quite a range from the top price of $117.9 for a case of 12 down to 89.99 for a case of 12. Or you can buy a 1.5 litre bottle of La Trappe for $59.99! And at that price wouldn't you just want to drink it?:

"Colour: Warm amber-coloured with a creme-coloured head.

Aroma: Hints of cloves and nuts, balanced by the sweet aromas of vanilla, raisins and banana.

Taste: La Trappe Quadrupel is the heaviest ale of La Trappe Trappist ales and is eponymous of this ale style. A full, warming and intensive taste. Malty with the sweet tones of date and caramel.

Aftertaste: Smooth and light bitter aftertaste." Dan Murphy

I think this is darkish but not dark - after all amber is not dark brown - so it's not Guinness. Mind you Robert Carrier goes for Guinness - and not much else it has to be said - just onions. But there are those who recommend a dark ale, and then there are others who recommend a lager. Maybe the James Squires One Fifty Lashes that we had with last night's curry will do. It was ever so slightly sweetish although I see it is described as pale ale which really doesn't seem to fit the bill. Lots of the writers seemed to think that you needed something sweet to offset the bitterness of the beer. Well that would depend on the beer wouldn't it?

The only other main component is onions - lots of them and then there are all the alternatives:

"As to the recipes ... they all include beef and plenty of onions, along with flavorful Belgian beer to replace the wine you'd generally use in a similar French recipe. After that, every grandmother and her grandchild has a proprietary list of additional ingredients. These can include smoked or unsmoked bacon, juniper berries, mustard, beef stock, brown sugar, white sugar, flour for thickening, bread for thickening, pain d'épices (a sort of gingerbread but with a more colorful palette of spices), thyme, and, very occasionally, garlic." Edward Schneider/HuffPost

So let's look at a few of those. Bacon - not many people had bacon and some even said it was too much, so I don't think I would be going for that. Juniper berries. Yes a few did mention those, but bay leaves and thyme seemed to be more common. Even parsley. Mustard - yes a few did add that, although when you add it was a bit divisive. Delia spread her toasted slices of bread with it before topping with cheese, putting on top of your finished stew and grilling until looking good. Very unconventional I think. But maybe nice.

However, whilst we are still on bread David Lebovitz adds pain d'èpices to his stew - that's gingerbread - and you even have to make that. I couldn't find the original recipe, but several people gave it a red hot go. The picture at the top of the page is one of them and the one on the right here is another. I'm not including the recipes as I don't think any of us are keen to go to all that bother. Various writers did support him in the theory of adding it though. Fundamentally the bread has a dual purpose - to thicken the sauce - others do this with flour or ordinary bread - and to offset the bitterness of the beer. Which most do by adding a bit of brown sugar - and vinegar at the end.

"The biggest key is making sure that you focus on building the flavours at the beginning and balancing them at the end." Diversivore

As to the rest of the 'other' ingredients - the vinegar was common - mostly wine vinegar, but sometimes cider, garlic about half and half and the herbs - as I said most usually bay leaves and thyme.

Nigel Slater didn't call his version Carbonnade. He was rather more honest and called his version Braised beef with beer and onions. I say honest because he went out on a limb and added redcurrant jelly at the end to offset the bitterness and give a bit of 'character' as Julia Child says for her vinegar. He also served it with apple sauce, which was entirely a Nigel thing.

And note the mashed potatoes which he recommends as a side. I'm with him on that but the most common carbohydrate accompaniments I saw were either noodles - wide ones - or chips. Noodles I can sort of see but chips? To me serving chips with something that has a gravy is like serving mash with something like fried fish. Not right.

So here are a few examples I found - nothing from Jamie (Oliver), and Nigel Slater only just creeps in really. Felicity Cloake hasn't done her thing, and neither does delicious. in Australia - or Coles, etc. So I think Delia is right. It has seriously gone out of fashion. So give it a go and bring it back because it's good. I'm going to make up my own version I think following Jamie of Jamie and Julia's basic method - well I suppose it's Julia Child's really. But it will have to be the One Hundred and Fifty Lashes beer. I'll give it a go though. Here are the also rans: Beef and beer from Belgium from Edward Schneider of Huff Post who had quite a bit to say about the dish; Carbonnade Flamande from delicious. UK; Carbonnade (Flemish beef and beer stew) from Saveur; Carbonnade à la Flamande from Nigella Lawson and Carbonnade Flamande from Diversivore which was quite interesting about the whole thing.

Better go and get on with it or it will be too late. And I forgot to mention the arguments over what cut of meat to use. Some said it had to be shin, some said it had to be chuck. Well I've only got rump so that's what it will have to be and it's not nice thick chunks as seen in the video. I don't have fresh thyme either. It will have to be dried.

POSTSCRIPT - A failure from Madhur Jaffrey - I think my first from her. Our Paalag Gosht was pretty bland and tasteless I have to say. And I think it confirmed to me that I don't like lamb as much as beef. But then perhaps it was the way it was cooked, because Carbonnade Nïmoise, Navarin Printanier and Irish stew are all absolutely delicious. Anyway I don't recommend it. It was pretty flavourless - although I was pleased to discover that Kashmiri chilli powder is indeed a lot milder than the usual. You can get it in Coles store that stock Indian spices.


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