It is at this time of year when I need my French 'fix'. That is to say, even a short visit to France is more than welcome to shake off the cobwebs, or, rather, the winter blues. Having had our fare share of snow and cold winter winds, it is time to recharge the batteries and pop over the channel for some change of scenery.
Nowadays it is so much easier to get to France especially with Eurotunnel as you are in Calais in no time at all. Once in Calais you are in the Nord de pas Calais region of France where most of the time you simply pass through on your way to other regions of France. However, it is easy to get to Paris and other areas by road from the region, so for me that has to be a definite plus.
The region has many attractions including the city of Lille. This is only about eighty minutes from London St Pancras if you travel by Eurostar, so can be the perfect day trip too if you feel like a shopping trip abroad.
Lille has many tourist attractions such as the Fine Arts Museum, The Grand Place and the Town Hall with its belfry. If you wish you can take the one hour’s city tour where you will travel by minibus to see all the historical sights the town has to offer.
For me, the best part is simply strolling the cobbled streets of the old part of the town and browsing the street markets and stalls with the paintings, antiques, furniture and of course, lots of junk - but you never know what you may find useful amongst this either. I find this sheer heaven!
Whilst strolling and browsing you will no doubt smell the wonderful food stuff wafting from the cafes and stalls with dishes such as “moules-frites” being served as a favourite in the area. This is a meal of mussels and chips and is very, very good.
Another dish in the area which to me is my favourite comfort food at this time of year has to be Carbonade Flamande. This is simply a dish of stewed beef in beer but on a cold winter's day it is a really heart-warming nourishing meal to behold. Sometimes served with boiled potatoes or chips, I have even had it with pasta and noodles, so it does vary from restaurant to cafe.
Carbonade Flamande is traditionally a Belgium dish, probably a farmer’s dish, using good Belgium beer to make it. It is very popular in northern France and in the Alsace region and Germany too. This is probably because these areas of France and Germany are so close to Belgium.
So, at this time of year, whether strolling the streets of northern France or keeping warm indoors at home in Wales, this is one dish we have quite often during this time of year. I have to add that it goes down very well with a glass of Belgium or French beer of course!
This month my recipe is for this tasty beef stew in beer, so whether you are able to take a trip to France and taste the real thing or simply enjoy the tastes of France in your own home, it will still be a pleasure.
There are many variations of this recipe but I think you will find this one quite easy. If you cannot find French or Belgium beer, just use a good dark beer at your local supermarket. Some recipes suggest serving it with croutons smeared with French mustard, it is up to you, whatever you enjoy, but a glass of beer served with it is exceptionally good.
To Serve 4 - 6 people
- 2 1/2 lbs (1.3kg) chuck beef steak, shin beef or thick skirt
- 2 tablespoons olive oil or pork dripping or pure lard
- 8oz onions, roughly chopped
- 1 bouquet garni
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1 tablespoon wine vinegar
- 1 tablespoon flour
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 1/2 pint beer
- Cut the beef into thick strips about 2ins long.
- Heat the oil or fat in a heavy bottomed pan and seal the beef strips for a few minutes on each side.
- When all are sealed, place on a warm plate.
- Soften the onions in the pan for a few minutes without browning them.
- Put the meat back in the pan.
- Add the beer and if needed, add some water to cover the meat.
- Season with salt and black pepper and add the bouquet garni.
- Cover with a lid and bring to boiling point; at this stage you can either reduce the heat or simmer for an hour on top of the cooker or place in a moderate oven for an hour until cooked.
- When the meat is cooked, remove and place in a warm dish.
To make the sauce:
- Heat the vinegar with the sugar in a small saucepan until it bubbles and forms a dark caramel.
- Stir in two tablespoons of boiling water and add this mixture to the pan, this gives it a good colour.
- or a thicker sauce, mix the tablespoon of butter with the flour and stir it into the sauce.
- Replace the meat in the pan.
- Bring to boiling point and then simmer again for ten minutes.
Serve with either noodles, frites (chips)or plain boiled potatoes and a glass of beer!