Friday, 27 March 2015


To celebrate the fact that I have now had, rather to my surprise, a thousand views on this blog I am posting a piece on the first foreign dish I remember having (or was that B from Rhode Island at college?).   This is a dish I cooked during the Tour de France last year (although it is really a winter dish) but didn't have time to post it on my blog.

As I have related before, I was taught to cook by my father, who was very keen on French food at a time it was still regarded with suspicion by most people in Britain.  We used to holiday in France every year and, from 1965 until 1973, we used to spend the summer in the Languedoc-Roussillion.  This, of course, is prime cassoulet country and after the leisurely three day drive down, from Le Havre to our house not far from the Spanish border, my father would take us out to many different restaurants in the region looking for the perfect cassoulet.  This he eventually found in the town of Castelnaudary.   TV chef Rick Stein (whose programmes I usually don't watch due to his inexplicable fondness for fish) did a whole programme from the town, a few years ago, focussing on cassoulet.  To get to our house you had to drive along the main road which went through Toulouse, Castelnaudary, Carcasonne and at Narbonne we would turn south for the last part of the drive.  All of these places produce excellent cassoulet.  

There is a military link to cassoulet in that the story goes in France that during the Hundred Years War the English laid siege to Castelnaudary and the locals grabbed whatever they could to make a huge stew for their defenders who were so fortified  by the assemblage that they saw off the English.  This is almost certainly French patriotic nonsense, especially as the Black Prince sacked Castelnaudary in 1355 and massacred the inhabitants.  Another story suggests that it evolved from Moorish mutton stew which crossed the Pyrenees from occupied Spain. Certainly the distinctive bean element was more recent as they were brought back from the Americas after Colombus.   Catherine de Medici organised imports of white beans and they were grown extensively in South West France.

The recipe my father used to use back at home was from one of his many sets of Robert Carrier cookery cards.  These wipe clean handy sized cards came out in the late sixties and I think we had them all (I still have them).  Common though it is now to see a recipe paired with an enticing looking photograph of the finished dish, in those days, when cookery books didn't have colour photographs and foreign recipes were not the feature of (still black and white) newspapers as they are now, it was very unusual.

Cassoulet's name comes from the French form of the Occitan word caçòla which is a truncated conical earthenware pot. Like all such dishes, there are arguments about the exact ingredients and this is complicated by the fact that there are regional variations.  Basically the dish is one of white beans, sausages and duck or goose in a tomoato sauce.  In Toulouse, extra mutton and pork is added, in Carcasonne you get more mutton and sometimes partridge and in Castelnaudary duck.  I decided to make the duck version.  This was a quick version and does not involve having to prepare a confit (slow cooked meat preserved in fat).  You used to be able to buy confit d'oie in Waitrose but I haven't seen it for some years, probably because everyone who bought it has died of blocked arteries.  Goose fat is available at Christmas, at least, in most supermarkets but my doctors wouldn't be very impressed if I used it!  The Robert Carrier version uses lamb with the preserved goose but I eschewed that as I think the lamb is too strong for the dish and clashes with the duck.

I can't be doing with all this soaking dried beans overnight nonsense so used tinned white haricots.  First, I gently fried an onion with some thyme (important), a bay leaf and garlic adding the smoked bacon and then the beans once the onions and bacon have cooked.  Then heat them together for a few minutes while seasoning with black pepper. It's a good idea to leave some of the bean liquid in to keep it wet.  I removed the bean, bacon and onion mixture and then sauteed the duck pieces (this is where those without high cholesterol could use goose fat).  I grilled the sausages.  Getting a good approximation of Toulouse sausages is certainly a lot easier now than it was in the sixties and seventies.  I used the Waitrose ones.  Again, you should pan fry them in butter but grilling is much healthier.

Cut up the meat and sausages and put them in a casserole with the beans and onion mixture.  To be really authentic put the duck or other meat at the bottom then add the beans with the sausage on top.  Cover with a tomato sauce, which I made with chopped tinned tomatoes and a couple of big squeezes of tomato puree.  You can put breadcrumbs over the top for an authentic crusty effect.  Cook for at least an hour and a half in a medium oven.  I had it with a Côtes du Roussillon from the region around where we used to stay. Minervois, Corbières and Fitou would be more upmarket regional choices (although not when we used to go down there in the sixties and seventies as the local wine was horrible).

This is the sort of meal you really don't need a lot to accompany it.  Have a salad and pretend that it is healthy.  Across the Pyrenees there is a Spanish version of this dish, which I will look at another time and which I cook much more often.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Warre's Otima 20 year old Tawny Port

Over to my friend A's for dinner this week and so I took her a bottle of Tawny Port which has been lurking at the bottom of my wine rack for some years.  This was a present from Britain's Honorary Consul in Oporto, who was a senior member of the Symington Port family.  Warre's being one of their wines.  

A view across the Douro.  I took this picture from the terrace of a building where we had a meeting with the mayor

The Legatus has been to Portugal a number of times but always just to Lisbon.  However, in 2006 I took the train up to Oporto for the first time.  Waiting for me when I arrived at my hotel was this bottle of Warre's Otima Tawny Port; a welcome gift from our Consul General.  This was very nice and, fortunately, was just before the ban on liquids in hand luggage was introduced.  Later, I was presented with a triple pack of full size bottles of Graham's Port which I got shipped home in the diplomatic bag as it wouldn't fit in my hand luggage.  I gave the triple pack away, sadly, as my doctors don't like me drinking Port even though I really, really like it.  The oldest wine I have ever had was an 1896 Quinta do Noval, during our final law dinner at college.

A visit to Graham's

I had had quite a busy week in Madrid and Lisbon but the two days in Oporto were just a succession of lunches and dinners accompanied by more and more Port.  Lunch at Graham's, outside on their terrace, overlooking the Douro, after a tasting of about twelve Ports  was followed by dinner in the Factory House; the posh club which only Port producers are allowed to be members of.  They have two identical dining rooms next to each other.  After you have finished your main meal you all move from the first room to the one next door so you can have your Port without the scent of the wine being spoiled by food odours.  I sat next to a very beautiful lady whose husband was sat at the other end of the table. She flirted outrageously all through the proceedings in both dining rooms.  I asked her which Port family her husband was from.  "Oh, he isn't from one of the families," she replied, offhandedly,"but I am a Delaforce!"  She sent me half a case of her Port when I got home.

Anyway, Otima was something of a new approach to Port marketing when it appeared ten years ago.  Designed to be served chilled and aimed, in its trendy minimalist bottle, at women and younger people it was a great success.   It is a constant problem for the producers of fortified wines to get them to appeal to the younger market.  I remember a sherry called Tico. from Harvey's. some years ago which was designed to be mixed.  My mother loved it.  Fortunately, this wine didn't compromise on quality, although I admit we didn't drink it chilled.  It was dryer than I expected, quite nutty with some orange scent in there.  Surprisingly fresh it would have been good chilled, although we drank the whole bottle in short order!  It won a silver medal in the 2007 International Wine Challenge.