Who would have thought that I would get a really good idea of a Belgian – or Dutch – classic dish such as Carbonades Flamandes when sitting on top of a tranquil mountain looking down over lake Como?
But that is exactly what happened. The Chief Taster and I originally thought we were the only intrepid couple staying in the faded grandeur of the b&b that is the Villa Simplicitas in San Fedele Intelvi, but we were soon joined by a Dutch couple – the looked nice, and when we got talking to them they turned out also to be nice.
We were eating an Italian meat stew and got talking about how other countries’ versions – boeuf Bourgignon…goulash…Lancashire hot pot…. and then on to carbonades Flamandes. Or rather, Vlaamse Karbonaden bearing in mind that ‘Flamandes’ means Flemish – so rather than coming from the French-speaking part of Belgium, it comes from Flemish part (probably Ghent) which borders with The Netherlands.
Our dinner companions explained that carbonades Flamandes gets its identity from the beer used in the dish.
Belgium has a history of beer production (initiated, and still carried out, by Trappist monks). These are thick wheat and barley-based beers – the best for this dish being Duvel, dry, complex and deeply smoky.
Traditionally carbonades Flamandes is served with Belgian frites, but these aren’t too good at soaking up all the wonderful gravy, so mash, champ, or boiled potatoes might be better.
Recipe for Carbonades Flamandes or, more accurately, Vlaamse Karbonaden
- 5 kg/3 lb 4 oz beef cheek (or you can use shin of beef), cut into 1” or 2 cm chunks – you should not need to cut the pieces. Occasionally this is made with wild boar.
- 4 x 500 ml bottles Guinness – or even better if you can get it, dark Belgian beer such as Duvel – two of these bottles are for you to drink with the meal
- 2 onions, peeled and finely chopped
- 50g/2 oz – one fifth of a brick of butter
- ½ tbsp (1 desert spoon) brown sugar
- 1 tbsp plain flour
- 1 tbsp balsamic vinegar – or red wine vinegar would the authentic choice
- 4 tbsps Dijon mustard – or again, if you want to be authentic, use moutarde de Gand, mustard from Ghent
- 3 cloves
- The leaves from five sprigs of thyme
- 1 tsp smoked salt
- A few enthusiastic grinds of black pepper
- Some people add carrots
- The Hairy Bikers add redcurrant jelly
- A good quality baguette – if you want to be authentic this should be pain d’épices – a spice (majoring on ginger) and honey laden loaf made out of rye flour. Pain d’épices used to be a type of sourdough so you could try a dark, rye sourdough loaf, or a gingerbread loaf if you can find one.
- Chives to garnish
- Preheat the oven to 150°C.
- Melt a knob or two of butter in a Dutch oven or cast iron casserole. Gently fry the onions, and remove with a slotted spoon to a small bowl.
- Add the meat and brown it (you may need to add a bit more butter).
- Once the meat is browned sift in the flour and stir through.
- Add the brown sugar, the cloves, the thyme and the seasoning and stir through for a couple of minutes.
- Add the balsamic vinegar, and 1 tbsp of mustard. Stir though.
- Stir the onions back in.
- Slowly add 660ml/2¾ cups beer, stirring all the time to avoid lumps forming.
- At this stage you might want to add in some redcurrant jelly, or carrots if you are happy to go off piste….
- Cover and simmer in the oven for a couple of hours.
- When you are ready to eat, toast the bread on one side (if they are huge slices, cut them smaller). Spread the untoasted side with the rest of the mustard.
- Put the pieces of bread, mustard-side down, on the surface of the casserole.
This post is dedicated to Freerk and Elouise van der Meulen