Thursday, 30 October 2014

Soupe à la Bière

Every year at around this time Le Festival Des Soupes et Des Pains (The Festival of Soup and Bread) is held either in or around Montreuil-sur-Mer, but I've heard that apparently this year’s event had to be cancelled. So I thought I'd put this soup together to compensate myself in a small way for that loss. (Not that I could have been there physically, but I definitely intended to be there in spirit.)

There are many types of beer soup across the north of France as well as in Belgium and northern Germany. Some versions seem to me to be little more than beer warmed up with a bit of seasoning but this version is closer to a northern French recipe using some of the fine root veg from the area. I roast the veg to concentrate the flavour although I doubt that roasting is very traditional. 

This type of soup is very often served with croutons and grated cheese. Typically the cheese would be gouda or emmental although you can use whatever hard cheese you fancy - some cheddars would be a good option. Given the choice, though, I'd probably go for a mimolette. The Bernard brothers produce a particularly fine mimolette at Wierre-Effroy, which is just a little way down the road from Montreuil. (I've referred to the brothers before but I felt guilty for not mentioning their very fine mimolette).

If you're expecting the kind of subtly flavoured French soup that you might find in a refined French restaurant then think again. This soup has a strong and distinctive flavour and, for that reason, I think it's best served in small bowls as a winter starter. The amounts given here will provide you with 4 starter portions. Of course, if you really love beer, then by all means have a large bowl.
Soupe à la Bière

3 average or 5 small carrots (I used small chantenay carrots) - a total weight of between 200 g and 250 g
1 leek
1 large or 2 small shallots
½ tsp sugar
250 ml bière blonde (use an interesting lager if you can’t find a French bière blonde)
300 ml chicken stock, plus another 100 ml on standby just in case the soup needs it (use a vegetable stock if you prefer, but chicken stands up better to the beer flavour)
4 - 8 tbsp crème fraîche
100 g hard cheese (see above)
A few thin slices of baguette for croutons

Preheat the oven to 180ºC. Wash and peel or scrape the carrots (if they need it) and cut them into large chunks. If you’re using smaller carrots, then cutting them in half lengthways should be enough. Coat the carrot pieces in a little oil and place on an oven tray. Wash the leek, dry it and place it on the oven tray alongside the carrots. You don’t need to do anything else to the leek. Put the tray in the oven and roast for around 30 minutes until the carrots are almost completely tender and the leek has softened and collapsed a little. (Don’t worry if the leek looks a little brown or even burnt on the outside; you don’t need the outside leaves.)

Chop the shallot finely and, using a large pan, soften it slowly in a little butter. While that’s happening remove and discard the base, the outer leaves and any coarse green part of the leek. Chop the softened leek and carrot pieces roughly. Once the shallot has softened add the leek and carrots to the pan, season and pour in the beer and stock. Stir in the sugar. Bring the mixture to the boil, cover loosely, turn down the heat and let it simmer for 20 minutes or so.

Liquidise and adjust the seasoning. You may also need to add a little more sugar if the beer is a less sweet variety. Add a little extra stock if the soup is too thick. Pour into bowls and stir in as much of the crème fraîche as you think the soup needs. Don’t skimp on the crème fraîche: it’s an important part of the soup and not simply a garnish.

Fry or toast the slices of baguette to use as croutons and grate your chosen cheese on top of the croutons or into a small bowl to serve alongside the soup.

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By the way, if you've never been to Montreuil-sur-Mer and feel that you might be tempted to visit one day (after all it’s less than an hour’s drive from the tunnel) then it might be helpful if I point out a few random things:
  • First, it’s not ‘sur mer’. It hasn't been ‘sur mer’ since roughly the end of the middle ages. The access to the sea silted up about then, but why change a perfectly good town name?
A Montreuil Walk
  • Second, it’s been described as the Carcassonne of the North. Well, it has impressive ramparts and I can recommend a bracing stroll around them but if you compare it to Carcassonne then I’ll have to put on my doubtful face. It’s not as elaborate, it’s not as touristy and it’s not as fairytale. It’s more like a real northern French town with added ramparts.
Montreuil Ramparts
  • Third, it has a surprising number of cobbles.
Street Scenes in Montreuil
  • Fourth (and this might be less helpful), I'm rather fond of the place, even if the festival of soup has been cancelled.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Flognarde

I'm lucky enough to live only a short distance from the Royal Horticultural Society garden at Wisley. Towards autumn they often sell some of the fruit grown in the garden and that means a chance to try some of the more traditional and rare varieties that you’ll never find in a supermarket. And that’s how I ended up with a fine bowlful or two of apples and pears. With that much fruit on hand, I thought that a flognarde might be called for.
Apples from Wisley
I've come across some versions of this dessert that seem like an attempt to make uninspiring apples a bit more interesting. But if you start with interesting apples or pears, then it’s so much better than that. The flognarde (or flaugnarde) appears to have started life in the Limousin region of France, although it turns up in other places such as the Périgord too. You might be tempted to ask what’s the difference between a flognarde and a clafoutis with apples in it, but please don't - that question gives me a headache.

There's a little drop of rum in this recipe and I know that will put some people off. Rum just doesn't seem to be a popular flavour these days. You could leave it out altogether or substitute some calvados but please try the rum if you have some lying around because it adds a lot to the overall taste in my very biased opinion.

I used a 24 cm square tin that was sold as a Yorkshire pudding tin on this occasion. This size will give quite a thin centre to the flognarde, but that’s the way I like it (and the way that I first came across it). Some people like a thicker result and so use a smaller tin if you prefer. Don’t use a loose bottom or springform tin, though, because the batter is thin and likely to leak.
Flognarde
I reckon that this will serve 8 people but 6 is more realistic if you have hungry friends.

For the fruit:
     30 g butter
     2 - 3 tbsp caster sugar (depends on how sweet your apples or pears might be)
     4 apples or a mixture of apples and pears - peeled, cored and sliced

Melt the butter in a frying pan, add the caster sugar and the apples or pears and cook gently for five minutes or so. Stir now and then to ensure that the fruit is coated in buttery juices but don’t allow it to break up. Set aside.

For the batter:
     80 g plain flour
     ½ tsp baking powder (this probably isn't traditional, but I think it helps the texture)
     60 g caster sugar, plus a bit extra for dusting the tin
     4 eggs, lightly beaten
     1 tsp vanilla paste or extract
     1 tbsp melted butter
     2 tbsp dark rum
     150 ml milk (whole milk is probably best but semi-skimmed will be OK)
     20 g softened butter
     1 - 2 tbsp caster sugar for sprinkling on top of the flognarde

Preheat the oven to 180ºC. Butter a suitable pie dish or oven tray (see above) and coat with a light dusting of caster sugar. Mix the sugar and flour together in a large bowl.

Whisk the eggs, vanilla paste, melted butter and rum together and then whisk this mixture into the flour and sugar mix. Gradually whisk in the milk, while doing your very best to avoid any lumps. Stir in the apples (or whatever fruit mixture you’re using). (If there’s a lot of juice, then you don’t need to add it all). Pour the mixture into the prepared tin or dish.

Break the softened butter into small pieces and dot them over the top of the batter. If you can, avoid putting any of the butter too near to the edges of the tin.  Bake in the oven for around 30 minutes. The centre should be set, but still soft and the top should be browned in places, especially at the edges. (Personally, I think the slightly crisper edges are the best bit).

Sprinkle with an additional tablespoon or two of caster sugar as you take it out of the oven. If you’re serving this hot from the oven then it’s best cut into pieces before removing from the tin. If not, allow the flognarde to cool in the tin and then the whole thing can be lifted out carefully and divided up appropriately.

This dish is usually served hot, ideally straight from the oven, but I think it’s also pretty good at room temperature or even chilled. A little crème fraîche or cream would be nice alongside, but it’s not essential. I know that some die-hard flognarde fans even like a room temperature slice for breakfast the next day and, actually, I reckon that’s not a bad idea.
Flognarde