The Great French Cassoulet

Here’s something I wrote for the Western Morning News Regional Newspaper a while ago – worthy (I hope) of a revisit. It reflects experiences in France with my own French in-laws. Sadly the great Grandmère is no longer with us. With Brexit looming, do we wish to import this? Oh la la…….indeed……

 
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Grandmère is a better man than I am - if you get my drift. It was with positive enthusiasm and a smile of pure joy that she readily agreed to cook us all cassoulet by way of a birthday celebration. I don't know if you are aware, but cassoulet is a sort of peasant stew. Ingredients can include haricot beans, pork, duck, sausages and a variety of herbs, carrot possibly, and other secret ingredients. It seems a bit arbitrary what exactly you include. Believe me, there's been many a deep and long discussion about all this around the Frenchies' table.

It must be the equivalent of asking for a pasty recipe in the South West. Everyone has a view and everyone is right.  

Tedious yet necessary research reveals it comes from the French "cassole" - a sort of earthenware pot in which authentic cassoulet is cooked. It also originates from the South West of France - apparently the town of Castelnaudary - hence sausages from nearby Toulouse are essential.  If you have never had it, it is great. However, I'm sure in the old days it was fine and cheap to make, and would keep fully nourished, any peasant who had wood to chop and pigs to feed and buildings to build all day. So, if the physical effort of your own particular day reaches its summit in the physical effort of lifting your car keys out of your pocket, be warned. This is a meal requiring a block and tackle system to raise you upstairs afterwards and a pencil booking at Derriford Hospital.

Now all that's out of the way, to the story.

Firstly, let me give you a glimpse of Grandmère. She is, as has been referred to already in these humble jottings, a fabulous woman. She is still wise beyond her years - although she is now in her 80's. She has seen much in her lifetime - success and failure, a tough farming life in a small village - now a commuter suburb of Brest, was in her teens during the war and her family hid the French Resistance during the Occupation in her family's barn - the highest risk possible - been round the world on cruises, seen air travel, telephones, space travel, and watched a new generation waste countless hours on the internet - typing pointless messages to each other instead of actually getting out more. She is a woman of great character - and certainly not to be challenged on matters of cuisine.

Not surprisingly then, she has her own recipe. As we were going to be 12 for a special dinner, several large pots had to be transported to her apartment. Next to the ingredients. This is where the pasty thing starts. I expect everyone has a view, and in France you can bet your bottom Euro that there will be precise regional variations, and whole weekends devoted to cassoulet festivals. Wars have probably been fought over this.

For the record, our version included the most expensive dried haricot beans I have ever heard of (3O euros a kilo - already beyond the pocket of any peasant I'd have thought), carrot, herbs, garlic, duck legs and a bemusing array of sausages. Three types in fact - namely Saucisses de Toulouse, des Côtes d’Armor and Saucisson.  

Say to Grandmère that she should be able to knock this little lot up in an hour or so at your peril. Oh no. This is a two or three day job here. Firstly the beans have to be soaked, individually in a specific mountain stream I'd have thought at that price, then simmered for a day in a large pan with onions and bouquet garni.  Meanwhile, the duck is roasted on its own. When the beans are done, add all the meat, and cook very slowly. You can put breadcrumbs on top and when this forms a crust, stir it back in. Severe traditionalists say this must be done 7 times.

Anyway, you can imagine it tasted fantastic and provoked much round-table discussion about the process, ingredients, how those pesky Toulouse people had got it wrong etc. etc.

If you have any cassoulet related thoughts please post them to info@vinelives.com  

I note that a Mr R Stein of Padstow has a recipe for cassoulet that takes a mere 1 hour to prepare and 2 hours to cook. Please. What are you thinking of Rick? Better keep him away from Grandmère too.  

Ed.