Cooking with beer is a tradition in Belgium
HOEGAARDEN, Belgium - Belgians are as fanatical about their beers as the French about their wines, and if Belgian cuisine is more North Sea than Mediterranean, that just makes it better suited to winter eating at home.
Since the 1300s, this Flemish village (pronounced HOO-garden) about a half-hour's drive east of Brussels, has been famous for its witbiers, or pale, aromatic white beers, brewed with a substantial portion of wheat added to the barley malt. The town's last brewery recently survived a threatened shutdown and has even expanded and stepped up exports to the United States through Anheuser-Busch.
The brewery, 't Wit Gebrouw, runs tours, which are amusing if you've never seen a copper kettle brewing vessel or watched a high-speed bottling line in operation. But the real point of visiting the brewery is to taste the full range of beers (only the flagship Hoegaarden wheat beer is distributed in New England), and to feast on the beer-based cooking of chef Eric Cauwbarghs at the attached Brasserie Kouterhof.
According to Cauwbarghs, the unusual flavor profiles of Hoegaarden beers make them particularly useful in the kitchen. The flagship wheat beer, for example, is slightly sweet and sour with a sharp hop bite and lingering overtones of coriander and Curacao orange (both coriander seed and Curacao orange peel are used in the brewing process). The chef's patient explanation, complete with tasting terms in Flemish, makes it clear that winemakers have no corner on flights of descriptive fancy.
Cauwbarghs serves about 120 diners a night from a surprisingly small kitchen outfitted with a four-burner stove, one oven, and a broiler. He manages by making dishes that can be prepared (or finished) quickly, such as his version of steamed mussels.
After sauteeing onion and thinly julienned vegetables in olive oil in a deep saute pan, he adds a pinch of fish paste and about two pounds of mussels, then pours about a half bottle of Hoegaarden witbier over them. Surprisingly, he doesn't cover the pot during steaming, but simply keeps turning the mussels and vegetables over high heat until the mollusks open. At that point he stirs in a little cream and showers the pan with chopped parsley and scallions.
The whole process takes just a few minutes, and the results are extraordinary. The orange and coriander overtones in the beer become pronounced, making the resulting bowl remarkable.
Cauwbarghs also uses beer in his desserts. He whips up a sabayon for six. Swiftly separating six eggs, he adds six heaping tablespoons of sugar to the yolks, then six eggshells full of the brewery's dark, fruity Forbidden Fruit ale (not yet available in New England). He rapidly stirs the mixture in a figure-eight motion over a simmering pot of water until it foams up and begins to thicken. He whisks tulip glasses from the freezer, each cradling a small scoop of vanilla ice cream. Dollops of strawberry jam go on top of the ice cream, then sabayon, and the whole thing is ready in less than five minutes. The tart and fruity beer, it turns out, is a perfect complement to heady vanilla.
Brasserie Kouterhof and 't Wit Gebrouw, Stoopkensstraat 24, Hoegaarden, Belgium; 011-32-16-767-433; www.kouter hof.be (Flemish only). Tours run Tuesday to Sunday and cost about $7.50; fixed price tavern meals $16-$25.