For us, carbonade flamande is the Flemish answer to boeuf bourguignon and we cannot claim to prefer one dish to the other.
The central element of the dish is dark beer, whose bitterness is balanced with the sweetness of raw sugar and whose own sugar content is balanced with the acidity of vinegar and mustard.
The resulting braising sauce is seasoned and thickened with slices of pain d’épice, which dissolve during braising and combine perfectly with the liquid.
Pain d’épice is a French bread sweetened and refined with honey and spices. However, it is not available everywhere and we do not eat it often enough for it to be worthwhile for us to bake it. An alternative is therefore slightly dry sourdough bread with the crust removed. However, since this lacks the typical spices of pain d’épice, you should replace them with the French spice mix Quatre-épices, which consists of white pepper, dried ginger, nutmeg and cloves and which we recommend for the spice rack anyway.
The meat is cut into large pieces, otherwise it will fall apart completely during braising. We recommend at least 4 cm in size. For the same reason, we cut the bacon into strips that are also not too fine, but should be at least 1 cm. Onions, shallots and garlic are chopped very finely. We measure out vinegar, raw sugar and flour, as well as slices of bread and mustard, dark beer and beef stock, and the herbs: parsley, thyme and bay leaf.
It is best to tie these herbs together to form a “bouquet garni”, a small bunch, so that you can remove it again very easily later. Since we couldn’t buy any fresh thyme today, we use dried thyme leaves.
As we use ordinary bread, we also season with Quatre-épices and a touch of Piment d’Espelette for a little bit of spiciness.
Now for the cookery:
We preheat the oven to 160 degrees Celsius.
In a casserole, we fry the bacon strips in a little olive oil until slightly coloured. Medium-high heat is sufficient.
The bacon is set aside and then the beef is browned on all sides. This takes a few minutes. Give the meat its time, the browning is very important for the later taste.
The meat is also put to the side. We add a little olive oil and sauté the onions and shallots for 3 – 4 minutes before adding the garlic.
After another 2 minutes, we sprinkle raw sugar, stir well and let everything caramelise gently.
When the sugar has become liquid, we add vinegar and stir to loosen the roast from the bottom of the pot. This is called deglazing.
Return the meat and bacon to the pot with all the juices that may have oozed out of them and dust everything with flour.
We mix the ingredients thoroughly until the meat is coated with the mixture.
Now we add the dark beer and our herbs….
…and finally pour in beef stock. We now also season gently with Quatre-épices and a pinch of Piment d’Espelette.
We spread our slices of bread generously with mustard. Medium hot mustard is usually used here, but since we don’t have any pain d’épice at hand, we use a sweeter version instead.
Now we place the bread with the mustard facing down on the stew stock and lightly submerge the slices so that they are completely soaked.
We cover the casserole with a lid and put it in the oven for 3 hours. After every hour, we stir once carefully so that the bread dissolves well and combines with the sauce.
And with that, the carbonade is done, we just season with salt and black pepper. If the sauce should still be too thin, you may let it simmer gently in the oven or on the cooker for a short time without a lid, but do not cook the meat any more. Usually, however, the quantities given in this recipe will lead to a wonderful result.
Carbonade flamande is classically served with French fries or mashed potatoes. Today we opted for spaetzle and that also works splendidly.
And may the taste be with you.
Ingredients (for 4 hungry people):
1 kg beef for braising (e.g. from the shoulder or top round), cut into pieces of at least 4 cm side length
150 g unsmoked pork bacon
3 medium onions, finely diced
4 shallots, finely diced
3 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
20 g raw sugar (brown sugar)
20 ml wine vinegar or balsamico bianco
3 tbsp flour
0.5 l dark beer
0.5 l beef stock
A few stalks of parsley, sprigs of thyme and 3 – 4 bay leaves
3 – 4 slices of pain d’épice or dry, sourdough bread with the crust taken off
Medium hot mustard
Optional: 1 – 2 tsp Quatre-épices (white pepper, dried ginger, nutmeg and cloves) and a small pinch of piment d’espelette
Salt and black pepper from the mill