Sunday, 29 January 2012

Cometh the hour, cometh the cassoulet

It was July. The weather had been mixed as we had trundled from Bordeaux to Carcassonne by train. It was late afternoon when we disembarked, with no obvious method of getting to the hotel other than Shanks's Pony, so we walked, using iPhone 'sat-nav' to guide us.

After checking in, we'd walked over the bridge to the village that lies beneath the plug of rock that bears La Cité itself. Everything was shut. Reluctantly, we adjourned to the hotel restaurant and, expecting nothing to match the view as night descended on the ancient city, ordered cassoulet.

It went way beyond our expectations. We'd had the tinned stuff before, but this was a first 'proper' taste of a treasure of French regional and national cuisine.

Two days later, when we boarded a train for the mountains, we took with us a carefully wrapped cassole, the traditional earthenware cooking pot for the cassoulet.

Back home, in the autumn, I laid in duck confit, but the haricot bean - at the heart of this hearty dish - proved elusive. And then, just as the weather started its dip to the sort of temperatures one could expect in January in northern Europe, I found some.

The moment had arrived.

Cassoulet was, the great cook Prosper Montagné declared, "the god of south-western food" in France.

Initially, it would have been made with fresh broad beans, until white beans arrived from across the border in Spain in the 16th century. And the haricot had since become the established bean for the dish. It remains arguably one of remarkably few absolutely crucial ingredients.

This culinary adventure began in seemingly sensible manner - checking recipes in my own library.

I turned first to the version in Hot Sun Cool Shadow by Angela Murrills; then to one in Goose Fat & Garlic by Jeanne Strang and yet another in Paula Wolfert's The Cooking of South-West France.

Stephanie Alexander had produced her own version in Cooking & Travelling in South-West France, which was the last of my collection of books dedicated to that area - and, as far as I know, the only ones published in English.

If I was getting a little dizzy by now, it was but the start.

In French Country Cooking, the Roux brothers used pork and lamb and no confit. Joël Robuchon's version includes lamb shoulder and lamb neck, and involves topping the final dish with crushed melba toast mixed with parsley, which sounds close to heresy, if you ask me.

Bruno Loubet presents a simplified version in Cooking from l'Odeon, to be cooked not in a traditional earthenware pot, but in something like Le Creuset and presented at table in exactly that.

In The Complete Guide to the Art of Modern Cookery, Auguste Escoffier gives instructions for a cassoulet dominated by mutton and with the option of "goose or chicken".

In European Peasant Cookery, Elisabeth Luard's version is informed by her year living in the Languedoc and the instruction of her neighbour there.

And of course, we cannot forget the divine Mrs David, whose French Provincial Cooking goes into some detail about the history of the dish, as well as providing relatively straightforward instructions from a period when Toulouse sausage was something you could only hope to find in a very limited number of shops.

Culinaria France crams it all into a very terse recipe, while The Food of France, like Murrills, simplifies.

Larousse Gastronomique prefers far more detail, and quotes Montagné as having said that cassoulet could be divided into three types - a 'Trinity'.

The 'Father' came from Castelnaudary. The oldest version, it included pork - loin, ham, leg, sausages and fresh rinds - with "perhaps some fresh goose".

The 'Son' of Carcassonne used leg of mutton and, in the shooting season, partridge.

The 'Holy Ghost' of Toulouse uses the same ingredients as in Carcassonne, but in smaller quantities and with the addition of "fresh lard, Toulouse sausage, mutton and duck or goose".

These are the main versions, but as Larousse makes clear, it is far from being a finite list. There is even a salt cod version, with the fish replacing the duck or goose.

But while this so clearly reveals its peasant roots, the French being the French, there has had to be some formalising of what was already a classic - well beyond its home region - into an institution.

In 1966, the États Généraux de la Gastronomie française decreed that a cassoulet had to be made up of at least 30% pork (which could include sausage), mutton or preserved goose, together with 70% haricot beans and stock, fresh rinds, herbs and flavourings.

All of which still leaves things about as clear as mud for the beginner.

So, which path did I follow?

In the end, it was largely Luard, with hints from Robuchon and David.

Prep had started yesterday with the beans. I usually use tinned ones, so I was grateful to read on the packet that 40g of dried haricot would turn into 80g of cooked pulses, which is generally regarded as a 'portion'. Seeing 80g weighed out, I decided to add another 20g for good measure. These was then decanted into a bowl with plenty of cold water and left overnight.

And so to this afternoon.

The pulses were rinsed, drained and popped into a large pan with plenty of cold water, a peeled and sliced carrot, a stick of sliced celery, an onion studded with two cloves, a sachet of bouquet garni, six crushed garlic cloves and the small amount of pork fat Matthew had been able to give me yesterday.

It's heated quickly and then, just before it starts to boil, the temperature is reduced to leave it barely simmering. And so it stays for an hour.

In the meantime, the meats are prepared. Now, this was dinner for two people with smallish appetites, so I'd got a small piece of lean pork, which I diced, plus two Toulouse sausages.

One of the confited duck legs was placed, dripping, into a frying pan, where it gave off all of it's coating of creamy fat, before being removed to a plate. Then the pork and the sausages were fried in this fat, together with another four crushed garlic cloves.

The duck leg was stepped of its flaking meat; the sausages were sliced thickly. A diced onion was cooked in the fat after the meats had all been removed.

Don't throw the fat away - you need it later.

Next up, skin, deseed and chop a large, beefy tomato.

Heat your oven to 120˚C.

When the beans are ready, strain. Get rid of the vegetables and bouquet garni. Keep the pork fat.

Take your pot/casserole and put the fat in the bottom, fat side down. The theory is that, starting with some beans, you layer the ingredients. For just two of us, that meant a layer of beans, then everything else forming on thick layer, to be topped with more beans.

Oops. A problem. There were nowhere near enough haricot to top the dish. It was rather too late to contemplate a minimum four-hour soak for more beans, followed by an hour simmering.

I cheated in the only way possible, rinsing of a tin of cannellini beans and using them to fill in the gaps.

The dish is covered (with foil, if you don't have a lid) and placed in the oven for two hours. Check a couple of times and, if the beans look a little too dry, add a little boiling water.

After two hours, remove from the oven and turn up the heat to 160˚C. Spread a layer of breadcrumbs over the top and drizzle with the melted goose/duck fat from the duck confit that you'd reserved.

Leave the lid off and pop back in the oven. Give it 30 minutes, by which time it should have a nice, golden crust, then remove and stir the breadcrumbs gently into the beans. Back in the oven it goes for at least another half an hour.

The key here is patience. But every 10 to 15 minutes, give it another stir.

This breaking the crust is considered to be really authentique: they do it seven times in Castelnaudary and eight in Toulouse. It's now been set at three times in Hackney.

Remove, serve and eat.

For a first effort, I was very pleased. It wasn't perfect - the shortage of haricot being an obvious point. But I'd also be inclined to increase the initial bean cooking time by 30 minutes, as suggested in at least one recipe, to ensure they're just a little softer.

And the pork and sausages need to be cooked initially for a shorter time but at a higher heat.

But that apart, I was chuffed. My first effort was no insult to the lovely, half-glazed dish that has graced the kitchen since our return last August. And it certainly won't be long before I give it another go.

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