Thursday, 17 May 2012

Time for a spot of Flemish cookery

There’s nothing like a bit of inspiration from your travels, and so just over a week after getting back home from Brugges, I decided to try my hand at making that classic Flemish beef dish, a Vlaamse Stoverij.

I consulted my large French cookery book, which I knew had a recipe for a carbonade – and then the internet. After browsing a while, I discovered that, originally, many people would have padded the beef content out with either liver or kidney.

And then, in the middle of a US cookery forum, I unearthed an absolute gem from 2008.

The poster was one 61-year-old Rudolf from Ghent – or Gent, to give it its proper Flemish spelling. And sure enough, his lengthy post contains comments about how people outside Flemish Belgium substitute French names and words for Flemish ones – be that for places or culinary creations.

And then he went on to give a recipe for the Gent Stoverij, as taught to him by his grandmother (a Gent mill worker), plus some historical context.

It was a dish intended to use up offal, plus stale beer and bread.

Rudolf stipulates that the beef should have some fat and not be veal. In his recipe, it should be beef liver too. He also makes a point of saying that the bread should be “real bread, not Wonderbread”). And he suggests allowing for “a gallon” of beer.

So on Saturday, I bought a white loaf from one of the artisanal bakers on Broadway Market.

I picked up some beautifully marbled casseroling beef from Richard and, having borne in mind the first article, my knowledge of the effect of the cut on a dish like this and my own preferences, two pig’s kidneys from Matthew (nobody had any beef kidney).

Then, being lucky, I managed to track down four small bottles of Leffe, a blonde Belgian beer.

And so, adapting a little, off we went.

Small cubes of meat are essential for Rudolf – “1x1x1 inch”, he says, although “smaller is even better”. Mine was pre-diced – and a perfectly good size. I halved the kidneys and cored them. Since The Other Half doesn’t like offal, such larger pieces meant that it would be easier to serve.

Sauté the meats and a sliced onion in butter (“NOT oil”).

Pop into an iron pot. Make sure you add all the scrapings from the pan you’ve sautéed them in.

Take two slices of bread and spread them liberally on both sides with mustard. I used a bit of Dijon.

Place these on top of the meat. Add beer. Lots of it, so that the contents are covered. Add a couple of bay leaves and a sprig of thyme.

Bring to the boil, then turn the heat right down, cover and cook for around four hours.

Rudolf says that, in effect, you can’t overcook this – but you do need to stir occasionally, as it can get stuck to the bottom of your dish.

If you need to add beer to keep the level up – do so.

At this point, taste and then season. You can add diced potato to the dish for the last half hour if you want.

And that is pretty much that.

My variations meant adding some sliced carrot and celery to the onion and meats at the start. I didn’t use quite as much beer as Rudolf would have, but there was some of my own defrosted chicken stock in the fridge that needed using up, so that went into the pot in the spirit of it being a dish designed to avoid waste.

And I cooked small jacket potatoes to go with it instead of putting potato in the stew itself.

The beef was wonderfully flaky and the sauce rich and sweet and thick – the bread thickens it very well indeed). The long, slow cook really does the business in allowing the flavour to fully develop and removing the last shred of bitterness from the beer.

I should have stirred more often and more vigorously – fortunately The Other Half was on washing-up duty – and that might have darkened the dish to the deep brown that is so characteristic. But otherwise I was really pleased with it.

For Rudolf, this was a dish to avoid waste, which his working-class grandmother would cook. It was, he notes, popular with the textile workers of Gent at the end of the 19th and into the 20 centuries.

Which brought to mind Lancashire hot pot. And indeed, the earlier article I’d found, which said that some people would use kidney or liver in their Vlaamse stoverij was reminiscent too.

In Lancashire, the mill workers who most famously made this dish (to be slow-cooked in the baker’s oven while they were at work) might have added other ingredients, such as oysters.

Such variation is one of the hallmarks of ‘peasant cuisine’ – and this is a perfect example of that; it’s a culinary gem. The undoubted authenticity of the recipe and its context gave my own cooking and eating extra pleasure.

And just like a Lancashire hot pot, this will most certainly be done again.

• You can read all Rudolf's comments here, together with the initial forum post and other comments.

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