On a clear day, the white peaks behind Montfort seem almost close enough to reach out and touch. It’s that cusp of the seasons when autumn leaves, snow-capped mountains, and scarlet sunsets mingle for just a moment; that one or two weeks when everything pauses, like an orchestra between movements of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. It’s too early to ski and there’s too much snow to hike. It’s also shooting season, so our lovely carefree dog walks through the forest are on hold; men with guns and hipflasks of Armagnac are not a great combination. One thing that does benefit at this time of the year though is the garden. Last weekend we planted a huge established Magnolia tree and an avenue of Crepe Myrtles, so thankfully, not everything is in a holding pattern.
This recipe for Beef and Stout casserole with dumplings is something I often make during the ski season, but it’s equally perfect after a full day of gardening. I generally prep the night before which makes for a speedy early morning exit; all that’s needed is to brown the cubed beef and vegetables, add the stout and seasonings, and pop it in the AGA. If you don’t have an AGA, a slow 160C oven is fine. A crockpot will do perfectly too. It’s all about fall-off-your-fork slow-cooked meat and the delicious wintery flavours of stout, rosemary, bay and a hint of orange. For me, dinners like these are part of the magic of winter, but particularly, the ski season—the smell of fires burning, that synthetic swoosh of ski pants as one leg slowly brushes past the other after a long day on the mountain and the unforgettable sensation of coming home to the comforting scent of a slow-cooked meal. The dumplings take no time at all to prepare; just make the dough, pop them in the pot and sink into a chair by the fire with an apéro while they puff up into perfect fluffy balls. This is no fuss hearty winter fare.
I used heirloom carrots from my local market, but regular orange ones will do. These purple ones always remind me of my childhood. In the 70’s there was an Australian add for toothpaste that claimed their fluoride ‘got into’ your teeth. The concept was demonstrated to a class of schoolchildren by a woman none of us had ever heard of called Mrs Marsh, a kind of Aussie Mary Poppins, who strode in with a confident swagger, dipped a piece of chalk into a glass of purple water, then expertly snapped it in half showing a thick purple ring around the stick of pure white chalk. The nation was agog and Mrs Marsh became a household name. Any Australian of a certain age will remember it, and no matter how many times I cook these purple heirloom carrots—there she is, and so is that famous slogan, ‘ohhhh, it really does get in.’
You can use any brand of stout for this recipe. I used Stroller Oatmeal Stout from Southbourne Ales in Bournemouth. It’s not something we can buy here in France; it was a lovely gift from some friends from Dorset.It’s also nice to be able to promote the ales of a female brewer. Jennifer Tingay won a Silver Medal for this Oatmeal stout at the International Brewing Awards in 2015 and its rich velvety flavour with hints of blackberry and liquorice are perfect for this dish.
As a side, I like to serve a bowl of finely sliced pan-fried brussel sprouts, cooked with a generous knob of creamy Normandy butter and a good sprinkling of Maldon Salt till they’re just tender, but still a vibrant green.
“I wonder if the snow loves the trees and fields, that it kisses them so gently? And then it covers them up snug, you know, with a white quilt; and perhaps it says, “Go to sleep, darlings, till the summer comes again.”
—Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass