As February arrived last weekend, a breath of spring wafted across the valley. Stepping outside, we experienced one of those thrillingly uplifting assaults on the senses that signals earth’s awakening after a bleak winter. Near the door, a spectacular winter honeysuckle was in full bloom, its delicate flowers exhaling a sharp fragrance. We looked around, a little dazed. To one side, a country lane winding through bare-branched trees which two weeks ago had been glittering with frost; to the other, the gently undulating hills of the Tarn’s ‘little Tuscany’. And all around, a crescendo of birdsong from the hedgerows, a peculiar sweetness to the air and a softer, hazier radiance to the light.
No wonder poets go mad in spring.
Of course it’s not yet spring, and there are more frosty mornings to come. But last weekend was a foretaste, and it seemed appropriate that we should celebrate such a lovely day in the company of good friends, enjoying a dish which is part of the history of the region–le cassoulet. We were also keen to seize the moment–our hostess is inspired by the cassoulet genie only once a year. Ouf. Thank goodness we were at home when the spirit struck, and not, as sometimes happens, on a Ryanair flight sampling the delights of cheese melts and wilted lettuce.
More treats are in store ten minutes later as we arrive at our destination, a handsome 300-year-old maison de maître set in a sheltered hollow with views opening out across the countryside. As it faces in a different direction from our house, the perspectives it offers are interestingly different and more dramatic. We stand on the steps in front of the sunlit façade, gazing at the spectacle and thinking yet again how lucky we have been to end up in such a beautiful corner of France. The cat, sitting one step above, surveying his kingdom with a look of majestic approval, obviously agrees. We are ushered through the door and immediately start to salivate. In a luminous salon where a fire burns under an immense copper hood stands a low table surrounded by comfortable sofas where the aperitif is served: champagne in old-style coupes, foie gras maison and smoked salmon canapés. The guests raise a toast and catch up with the latest neighbourhood and family news. A chance to take things slowly, to savour le temps de vivre, le plaisir de vivre. Not a smart phone in sight…
I’ve written about cassoulet in a previous blog about Pierre-Paul Riquet, the 17th century genius who built the Canal du Midi, thus linking France’s Atlantic coast with the Mediterranean. His fifteen-year project was unimaginably gigantic for the time; his workforce numbered 12 000 men and women, peasants, stonemasons, blacksmiths, engineers and other technical experts. Riquet was an exemplary employer, paying good wages, granting holidays and sick leave and-naturellement-making sure his workers bellies were full.
The town of Castelnaudary, 60 km south-east of Toulouse, is the main port on the canal, and as those (many) foodies among you will know, it is one of the three places (along with Toulouse and Carcassonne) which claims to have invented this typical Occitan dish. Each time we drive past, I like to imagine a battalion of 17th century cooks stirring cauldronsful of it, ready to be ladled out to the work force. As Napoleon supposedly said, an army marches on its stomach; perhaps Riquet’s army was sustained in its advance towards Sète by the fat geese and ducks of a hearty cassoulet.
Different recipes exist, along with different champions of each version, but our hostess had used the authentic basic ingredients: preserved duck (or goose), Toulouse sausage, couenne de porc (smoked pork rind), and of course, those famous beans. There are different contenders on the bean front, but Sunday’s version had been made using haricots tarbais, dried white beans from the town of Tarbes in the foothills of the Pyrenees which are sometimes planted in between rows of corn or maize so that the stalks of the cereal provide a support as they grow (merci Cathy D for this information😉). In his blog here, American chef David Lebovitz describes them as ‘the holy grail of beans’; aficionados buy the handpicked ones at 19 euros a kilo. Even after lengthy cooking (up to 7 hours including the different stages), they retain their shape and their ‘croquant‘ (slight crunchiness) rather than ending up as a sad and sorry bean mush.
The preparation of the ingredients and the order in which they are added to the earthenware cooking dish are vital steps in achieving your masterpiece. Our hostess had prepared everything the previous day – this is a dish which tastes better re-heated. The beans are soaked for 12 hours, then put on to cook in water flavoured with onion, garlic, salt, pepper and a bouquet garni. Once they are ready the ingredients are assembled in layers: the beans, the previously cooked sausages and preserved duck, then a final layer of beans. Then everything goes into the oven for a long slow simmer (140° C in our hostess’s oven).
In the Riquet blog, I quoted the great Elizabeth David and her classic book French Country Cooking which contains the recipe I would recommend for those dedicated cooks in search of the true cassoulet grail (haricots tarbais can be ordered on the internet). She recounts a wonderful anecdote by Anatole France in which he describes the famous cassoulet served at Chez Clemence, a small tavern in 19th century Paris.
‘We know that in order to bring out all its qualities, cassoulet must be cooked slowly on a low light. Mother Clémence’s cassoulet has been on the go for twenty years. Occasionally she throws in goose or pork fat, sometimes a piece of sausage or a handful of haricot beans, but it’s always the same cassoulet.’
When, on Sunday, ‘le cassoulet de Denise’ was placed on the table, there were cries of admiration. Although I’m pretty sure it hadn’t been on the go for twenty years, it was one of the best I have ever tasted, a true labour of love. It also ‘caressed the eye’, presentation (or ‘food canvas’ as it’s sometimes called) being another element of success, as fans of Masterchef will know. In order to achieve this wonderful ‘look’, the chef must take out the dish every half hour and push down the crust which has formed on top into the cooking juices. The result is a unique colour, described rapturously by Anatole France, as ‘a rich amber hue similar to that found in the paintings of the great Venetian masters.’
I leave the last word to Prosper Montagné, famous chef and gastronome from the Languedoc, who declared ‘Cassoulet is the God of Occitan cuisine. A God in three persons: God the Father, the cassoulet of Castelnaudary, God the Son, the cassoulet of Carcassonne, and God the Holy Spirit, the cassoulet of Toulouse.’
PS You may add homemade breadcrumb topping for your last layer of cooking if desired. Also, put a bottle of good vinegar (Banyuls or wine vinegar) on the table if your guests wish to alleviate the well-known side-effects of too many beans…
PPS Visitors to the Tarn may explore its wonders while staying in one of the comfortable bedrooms in Denise’s gracious house. She offers B and B (‘chambres d’hôte‘), serving a delicious and copious breakfast using local organic products, and driving to the boulangerie 5 km away to get the croissants, chocolatines etc fresh from the oven! (No evening meals)