Friday, 27 March 2015

Cassoulet



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.

5 comments:

  1. One of my favourite French dishes. My wife and I had a fantastic trip biking through Languedoc a couple of years ago, and I suspect that I had cassoulet at least every second day.

    I might give it a go in the kitchen although I suspect Toulouse sausages might be a little tricky to find in Boston.

    John

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    1. Sounds like a great holiday! Hope the biking was cycling rather than motorbiking from a calorie input/output point of view!

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  2. Thank you for the very evocative reminder of the joys of eating a cassoulet.

    I think of Mr Stein as a tragic figure in a way, a talented chef and broadcaster doomed by his hopeless piscine evangelism.

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    1. A funny and sadly accurate description!

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