Welcome to the fifth entry in a series pairing Brussels culinary classics with beers brewed in Brussels. You can find the previous editions – and the background to the series – here.
The only rules for the pairing are: the beer has to have been brewed in one of Brussels’ 19 communes, and the dish has to be a stone cold Brussels classic.
In this round: Pistolet with filet américain, paired with Brasserie Cantillon Chouke and Brasserie de la Senne Stouterik.
This series is all about pairing archetypal Brussels foods with Brussels beer. Up to a point. There are some verifiably classic Brussels and/or Belgian (depending on your definitions) creations that, for me, were just that little bit beyond the pale. Paling in ‘t groen (eels in green sauce). Witloof (Belgian endive). Snails. Usually, filet américain would also fall into that category. If you think it’s just a grilled steak, then you’d be wrong. It is in fact the local iteration of steak tartare (even if no proud local would describe it as such), just one example of the city’s culinary obsession with “rustic” meat dishes – the city’s more traditional estaminets revel in serving things like geperste kop (head cheese) and zwarte pens (blood sausage). But, for the sake of journalistic rigour, I buried my disgust and put americain on the pairing list.
Filet américain, or américain préparé was, the story goes, created in Brussels by chef and restaurant owner Joseph Niels in 1926 at the ‘Canterbury’ tavern-restaurant at 129 boulevard Emile Jacqmain. The restaurant is long gone, but the original recipe survives. Niels’ version included beef, mayonnaise, piccalilli, Worcester sauce, onion, parsley, and more. It’s available all over the Low Countries, and my first exposure to the stuff came at a motorway service station outside Brussels in 2009, when on a university school trip one of my unwitting fellow students bought an américain sandwich thinking it was some sort of steak. He was appalled with what he found. As were we.
I’ve since overcome my revulsion at eating uncooked meat. You can buy it in every Brussels supermarket, but I went to the Pistolet Original sandwich chain for mine. There, they serve américain in classic Brussels pistolets – round, crusty, airy bread rolls – with watercress. Their americain is meaty and rich, with some acidity. It is quite dense on the palate, but the watercress provides a hint of pepper. Aside from the quality of the américain they make at Pistolet, there was one other reason to go there: they have a very exclusive beer to pair it with.
Chouke is the result of a tripartite collaboration between Brasserie Cantillon, Valérie Lepla of Pistolet Original and Dirk Myny of Brussels restaurant Les Brigittines – Pistolet receive small bottles, and Les Brigittines sell 75cl bottles and Chouke on keg. It’s a geuze consisting of equal parts one-, two-, and three-year old lambics with the entirety of the two-year component being lambic aged in Armagnac barrels. It was blended in the winter of 2016, and its supply is restricted. So restricted, in fact, that when I visited Pistolet to buy my sandwich and beer, I was not allowed to take the beer off-premises. The restaurant is on the lambic obsessive trail, and the restrictions placed on the beer’s sale are presumably to prevent sales on the secondary market.
The beer itself pours amber and clear, with an off-white head that dissipates quickly. The aroma has tannic and oak vanilla hints, as well as a slightly cheesy background. Taking a gulp, it’s light with a funky tartness, with a vinous quality alongside some subtle citrus notes. The finish is again tannic, and short. The acidity of the Chouke could both match the slight tang of the américain, as well as cutting through the richness of the raw meat. Additionally, the healthy carbonation of the geuze can provide the fizz and strength of finish to help cleanse the palate from what is a sticky meal.
And what to put up against a beer that was designed to pair with américain sandwiches? Brasserie de la Senne’s Stouterik. It’s a straight-up dry Irish stout (no bias) in the classic de la Senne mould, 4.5% in alcohol, inspired by Yvan De Baets’ appreciation for Guinness, and boredom with the Belgian interpretations of it – they were too sweet and lacked personality, so in the early years of the brewery he and brewing partner Bernard Leboucq made their own. It’s not the brewery’s biggest seller, but is an in-house favourite.
Stouterik is quite black, although there is a hint of brown around the edges, and it comes with a strong brown foamy head. On the nose it gives off a mix of hoppy citrus fruits alongside more traditional roasted coffee and bitter dark chocolate. Those characteristics follow through in the mouth, accompanied by a little sweet toffee and a strong carbonation. That’s followed by a fully bitter aftertaste. Ideally, the stout could substitute in some roasty flavours that you (I) might normally associate with meat dishes, and that roast bitterness should cut through the meaty richness. The smoothness of the stout could pair well with the texture of the tartar.
The Chouke and américain pairing brings forward some of the grape flavour of the Armagnac barrels, as well as oak and vanilla, and even some slight grapefruit and other citrus flavours and it pairs well with the pepperiness of the watercress. The tartness, together with the carbonation, helps to clean my palate of the thick, greasy tartare.
The Stouterik, on the other hand, has its hoppy, citrus notes accentuated by the américain. The pairing also serves to rein in some of the roasted coffee and chocolate aromas of the beer. As expected, the strong carbonation helps to cut through the fatty meat. On the whole, however, the Stouterik is just a little too light to be able to full stand up against the raw meat intensity and whatever spice mixture Pistolet adds to their américain.
Both beers pairs reasonably well with the américain, the dish bringing out some unexpected flavours in the Chouke, the acidity of which also helped as a more robust counterweight to the fatty meat than the Stouterik. The latter was in the end just a little too light to withstand the américain.
We have a winner
Chouke, Brasserie Cantillon.
The Next (and final) Round:
Pain a la Grecque, paired with Brasserie En Stoemelings Curieuse Neus and Nanobrasserie L’Ermitage Soleil