One for the Curmisagios

When I was researching the etymological roots of various European beer-related words, I discovered there had been a Gaulish personal name, Curmisagios, which translates as “the beer seeker”, or, if you like, “the beer hunter”. Among the tribes who lived in Gaul, home of Curmisagios, were the Belgae, whose own name was borrowed in 1790 by the subjects of the then Austrian Netherlands for the short-lived Etats-Belgiques-Unis – United States of Belgium – they set up during a soon-crushed rebellion against the Emperor in far-away Vienna.

The name Belgium was revived 40 years later, in 1830, by the Roman Catholic Flemings and Walloons of the old Austrian Netherlands for their own new country after they rose against the Protestant Dutch who dominated the post-Napoleonic United Kingdom of the Netherlands. In the 20th century the beers made in Belgium were championed by Michael Jackson, who – some of you can see where this is going already – called himself the Beer Hunter, and who was thus, in the language once spoken in ancient Belgium, the Curmisagios.

Tomorrow I’m travelling to the seminar on wood-aged beers being organised by the Zythographers’ Union in Yorkshire, and I am sure Michael’s benign influence will be felt at the event, even though his death a month ago has robbed us of his presence. He would, I know, have had pertinent and insightful comments to deliver on beer in wood. Every person there will be sorrowful he’s not around to let us have his opinions and experiences, gathered from 30 years of hunting beers across the planet.

For me, the most influential book he wrote during those 30 years was the Michael Jackson’s Beer Companion from 1993, mainly because of its 40-page section on matching food and beer, and cooking with beer. I began my own experiments with beer cuisine by trying out recipes from the book, before going on to try to invent some ideas of my own. One of the dishes from the Beer Companion I’ve made several times is a Belgian dish involving strips of lamb cooked in a beer-and-cream sauce which is a definite dinner party winner.

The original recipe includes artichoke hearts, but I’ve substituted squash, for two reasons: I don’t like the taste of artichokes, and I find them a pain in the posterior to cook – too tough. The recipe in the Beer Companion also suggests using a Belgian saison ale: I would recommend a good, fruity, slightly sweet dark ale such as Young’s Winter Warmer, Theakston’s Old Peculier or McEwan’s Champion. Anything too hoppy is NOT recommended, since you will be heating and reducing, and heavily hopped beers get more and more bitter under this treatment, one of the lessons inexperienced beer cooks learn quickly.

Lamb with beer and squash
(serves four)

  • One large squash
  • 700g/ (1 1/2lb) lamb, sliced into strips
  • 1 clove garlic, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 750ml (1 1/2pts) ale
  • 100ml (4 fl oz) crème fraiche
  • 1 tablespoon flour
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

Chop the squash in half, remove and discard the seeds. de-skin the halves with a sharp knife and cut them into thin strips. Boil in lightly salted water until just tender. Drain, rinse under cold water and set aside.

Head a large, heavy-bottomed pan over a moderately high heat and add the lamb strips, stirring frequently, cooking them until they are just browned but still pink inside. Add the garlic and thyme, then the strips of squash, browning them in the lamb fat. Add the pepper to your taste.

Pour in two thirds of the ale, stirring the bottom of the pan with a wide wooden spatula to release the caramelised lamb juices, turn down the heat slightly and allow the beer to reduce until only a few tablespoons’-worth remain.

Add the rest of the beer and the crème fraiche, blended with the flour. Allow the pan to boil for one to two minutes’ more for the sauce to thicken, then serve sprinkled with parsley, and accompanied by boiled new potatoes, and runner beans. Serve with the same beer you used in the dish. Raise a toast to the Curmisagios.

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