A few months ago, I visited my good friend Marie in the countryside of Louvil near Lille, in the most Northern part of France, not far away from the border with Belgium. It’s only many years after Marie first invited me over that I finally decided to go there last Spring, given that such a season can actually apply to this area of the country where clouds and rain seem to be the normal daily weather – from a Southerner and Niçoise’s twisted point of view of course (lol).
I did not regret at all going there over a weekend, and Marie took good care of showing me around, in Old Lille and beyond, so that I’d bring back nice memories to share with other Niçois at home. Besides, the weather has been really nice most days that I was there, beating all odds. The only hours that the skies spew out clouds and fog actually were hours that made me feel like being part of the local life, with outdoor colors building sort of the local folklore too in a way. Thick grey above my head, deep green beneath my feet, and red bricks all around.
The area around Lille is popularly called “le plat pays“, which literally means “the flat land“. No drop, no ascending inclination, no hills, nothing but a continuous green flat land, inhabited by cows, churches and single road villages entirely built of red bricks. In fact, when one is driving in the North region, churches are the only elevated components of the landscape that can be seen from afar, which gives tourists and locals alike an indication of the distance between different villages – as each village has got its own church. We drove through Armentières, home of the actor and film director Dany Boon, and stopped in the vicinity of the small town when we spotted the only small hill of the area in Saint-Jans-Cappel. A group of retired people was hiking and getting initiated to ornithology, which I thought was a nice way to learn more about the place they lived in.
After a short walk, we hopped back in the car and headed towards Belgium and its beautiful coastline. We had lunch on the beach of Koksijde and a really relaxing time, wandering about on the sand of this massive beach that is about 20 kilometers long and several hundreds kilometers large, so different from the ones we have on the French Riviera. This small town of Belgium is mainly home to vacationers and weekenders, hence the busy coastline, and on the opposite the more quiet atmosphere of the alleys of the chic town’s backstreets, where families constantly come and go all weekend long, one after another, unloading from their cars the kids’s bicycles, the wives’s heavy luggage and the husband’s tools box or hammoc (depending on what kind of husband you have!), in order to quickly settle down for a few days in their holiday home.
The South of Belgium and the North of France have something in common that is Flemish culture. For what is of interest to me and in regards to my blog, I noted the importance on both sides of the border of beer, potato, French fries and meat & beer stews, all strong ingredients of the local culture. When we got back to the French side, Marie took me to one restaurant in Lille she particularly likes, Les Compagnons de la Grappe, where she had me have a local specialty dish called Flemish Carbonnade, along with a pint of Belgian blonde beer of course.
The Flemish Carbonnade is a beef and beer stew with a twist. The beef is simmered for 5 hours in a coarse Belgian beer with condiments, and served with a potato based side. While the dish simmers, the ale bitterness is sweetened by an addition of gingerbread inside the stew, which gives the dish a light sweet and sour flavor. This is just delicious and I’m so glad I got to know this dish during my travels. Now let’s get to the recipe of this Flemish Carbonnade from Belgium.
- 1.2 kg of beef for Daube or Bourguignon
- about 3 tbsp of flour
- 3 onions
- 3 garlic cloves
- 60 grams of butter
- about 1 liter of Belgian ale, abbey-style (I chose Leffe beer)
- 60 cl of water
- 2 tbsp of brown sugar
- 3 tbsp of red wine vinegar or cider vinegar
- 1 bouquet garni
- salt and pepper
- 6 slices of gingerbread
- 3 tbsp of mustard
- Prepare all ingredients ahead of turning the fire on.
- Cut the beef in pieces of 3 to 5 cm.
- Slice the onions.
- Mince the garlic.
- Heat a cast iron pot and melt 40 grams of the butter.
- Cook the onion to a light golden brown, then reserve in a salad bowl. Keep the juices in the pot.
- Salt and pepper the beef, and briefly coat all pieces with flour.
- Add butter in the pot, and put the beef in it. Keep the heat at maximum temperature in order to brown the beef on all sides. Just a minute before this step is done, add the garlic and combine well to cook together. Reserve along with the cooked onions, and leave the cooking juices in the cast iron pot.
- Add the sugar, briefly let it melt, and deglaze the pot with the vinegar to form a light syrup.
- Put back the beef and onions, and coat them with the syrup.
- Add the bouquet garni.
- Immediately pour the beer and the water with a bit of salt.
- On the side, spread mustard on 4 of the the gingerbread slices, cut into pieces and cover the meat in the pot with the gingerbread pieces.
- Put the lid on the pot and let simmer for 2 and a half hours, letting a tiny space for the liquid to slowly evaporate.
- Take out the bouquet garni and let it rest. Get back to it on the second day.
- On the second day, heat the fire up again! Cook the stew for 3 more hours for a super tender meat.
- Regularly stir the stew, don’t let the beef attach to the bottom of the pot. Add a bit of beer if needed, but not just in the end as the ale needs time to add flavors density to the dish, and to loose its bitterness.
- Grill 2 slices of gingerbread in your toaster, then dice them up and combine them to the stew.
- Serve warm with roasted potatoes or mash potatoes or potato chips, Belgian-style, or with tagliatelle pasta.
Created and Written by Sophie Rebibo-Halimi. © 2018 All Rights Reserved.