Can Flanders Kitchen Rebel Wim De Jonghe create the perfect match for three of Huyghe’s strong blond beers? Alan Hope puts him to the test
The challenge: We present a top chef with three beers and ask him to come up with three perfectly paired dishes.
The chef: Wim De Jonghe, of Het Land aan de Overkant in Leuven, one of the new crop of chefs chosen as this year’s Flanders Kitchen Rebels.
The beers: Averbode abbey beer, ABV 7.5%, La Guillotine, ABV 8.5%, and Delirium Tremens, ABV 8.5%, all brewed by Huyghe.
The preamble: Before the starter come the starter-starters, or amuses as they’re known. A dish of radishes marinated in vinegar with cucumber cream and flatbread spiked with fennel seeds and black olive granules is fresh and palate-opening, but will by the time I write this be replaced by rutabaga cream and baby turnips accompanied by an oatmeal cracker. Then comes salmon marinated in gin and juniper berries, and blood sausage with an apple cream. There’s also the restaurant’s trademark bread, which comes from Namur, with two types of butter: raw-milk butter with sea-salt from France, and butter creamed with anchovy.
The starter: The real starter is a play on a traditional dish from West Flanders called karnemelkstampers, with the mashed potatoes replaced by a parsnip cream made with buttermilk. The grey shrimp – perhaps the most outstanding single product to come out of Belgium – are bathed in a little bisque, all topped off with a slow-cooked egg. The whole is rich and complex, although the composition is really pretty simple.
The Averbode accompanying the dish is lightly bitter with a bright carbonation intended to counter the sweetness of the parsnip, shrimp and bisque, and to cut through the filming effect of the egg. In the latter case it’s only partly successful; the egg tends to overwhelm everything else in the dish.
The main: A blindingly white piece of supreme of cod, just the right side of glassy, with pumpkin and parsley-root chips atop a pumpkin cream spiced with bergamot and lemon. The cod sits in an orange sauce with orange zest, and the plate is scattered with single leaves of Brussels sprout and Belgian endive.
The dish was constructed to pick up the orange and spice notes of La Guillotine, a strong golden ale with high alcohol and complex yeast flavours. The hops add not only bitterness, picked up by the bergamot and the garnish, but citrus flavours which are echoed in the orange sauce. This was a perfect pairing in every detail; although the three beers we provided are not remarkably different one from the other, the chef has dug deep to single out and work with the distinguishing characteristics. It’s also an accomplishment to work with a bergamot powder which is intensely bitter (he brought some to the table to show us) and make its presence felt while not allowing it to overpower.
The ending: Delirium Tremens has notes of citrus and pepper and is somewhat sweet, with yeasty flavours of warm bread, making it a perfect accompaniment for a dessert like lemon meringue pie, which Wim has deconstructed into silver dollar-sized buttery biscuits, meringues no bigger than a raspberry, and a stiff lemon custard. Each element of the beer is reflected in the dish, even the peppery baby basil garnish – and if that’s not the essence of beer and food pairing, what is?
The verdict: We’ve already seen the range of Wim’s talent in the kitchen, and the depth of reflection in his conception of dishes. This challenge illustrates how well he identifies what’s particular about each of an admittedly narrow selection of beers, and uses that to invent something (almost) perfectly appropriate.