Friday, 27 July 2007

Do I really want to cook a Cassoulet?

A hearty stew is as essential to winter as a warm blanky, Ugh Boots and a hot water bottle. I am always on the lookout for a nice, interesting variation, but this year, I've been somewhat preoccupied with the idea of preparing an authentic Cassoulet. For those unfamiliar with the delights of French cookery, a Cassoulet is a traditional stew of pork, sausages, duck (or goose) and haricot beans originating from the Languedoc region of central France. It is creamy, and yes, it is as fatty as it sounds, but oh my, is it exquisite. I've found no shortage of recipes, however one which balances authenticity with time constraints is proving rather elusive (perhaps I am being a little naive in thinking that I can find a recipe that is simple, yet still authentic).

My first stop was the bible - Larousse Gastronomique (because I don't own a copy of Elisabeth David). According to Larousse, there are a number of different variations on the dish, and what meats you include depends upon the specific region the recipe comes from. For example, the inclusion of mutton is 'sacrilegious' according to the proponents of the Toulouse version, whereas it is considered 'essential' in Carcassonne. I myself, am leaning towards the no-mutton variety (she says tentatively, as members of the Carcassonne Cassoulet Preservation Society throw they hands in the air and cry, 'merd!') Anyway, if I want to give one of the Larousse options a crack, I am going to need vast quantities of goose or pork fat, a baker's oven, and a glazed earthenware pot, called a toupin (not to mention about 27 hours to cook the thing).

Valiantly, I continued my search. Next I turned to Stephanie Alexander's Cooking & Travelling in South-West France. According to her PR, this book won best French Cuisine cookery book in the WORLD a few years ago (not sure what happened to the French cookery books that were actually French, but anyway) so should provide some useful suggestions. Unfortunately, Stephanie's Cassoulet (as it is entitled - a little narcissistic, if you ask me) requires minced pork fat, rind from a loin of pork, rendered duck fat... the fatty list goes on.

So at this point, I was thinking, maybe I like the idea of making a Cassoulet more than I like the Cassoulet itself (forgive me for the existentialism). After all, I've only really eaten it a couple of times (whilst on a brief foodie-jaunt in the Lot region of France). Perhaps the challenge is what's keeping me so focussed on this (thus far) fruitless search? I'm not sure, but I do remember that Cassoulet tasting pretty freakin' good. I remember the confit duck falling from the bone, I remember the sweet and juicy sausage bursting in my mouth and I remember the creamy beans and crusty bread that soaked up all the delicious juices. Mmm.

Onwards and upwards. Given that this whole episode was inspired by John Burton Race (that's him... the picture comes from the Channel 4 promo page for the program) frolicking around the stunning countryside in French Leave (if you haven't see it, you should; it's yummy and hilarious), I thought I'd check his recipe out. John spent weeks visiting copious little old ladies demonstrate their own version of the classic before embarking on a marathon session of his own. It began at 5am and didn't finish until the dish was presented at 8 that night to the 'Order of the Cassoulet' (not a Harry Potter parody). Members of the Order, who were actually wearing hats shaped like a toupin, gave it the thumbs up (stressing that it was excellent for 'an Englishman'), however they all suggested that it should have been cooked a little longer. Longer?!?

JBR's recipe is about 150 lines long (and that's just the list of ingredients), and he wants me to find juniper berries to crush, and veal shin for the stock and now it's all seeming a bit too hard. I may just have to concede defeat and find one of those celebrity chef, quick-fix bastardisations of a classic recipe. You know the ones; the title is usually preceded by the word 'lightning'. I bet there's a Jamie Oliver or Ainsley version out there somewhere. I'll keep you informed.

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