Full of beans in the Tarn

a breath of spring

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.

Frosty mornings in the garden

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.

Le temps de vivre Illustration from French Country Cooking by Elizabeth David

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 vivrele plaisir de vivre. Not a smart phone in sight…

Pierre-Paul Riquet, French engineer, responsible for the construction of the Canal du Midi. Source: from http://www.canalmidi.com/anglais/paulrigb.htm

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.

Bon appetit!

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.

French Country Cooking by Elizabeth David

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.’

Behold le cassoulet de Denise with ‘the rich amber hue of the 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.’

Amen!

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)

Contact:  denise.serin-aycaguer@orange.fr

La maison de Denise
Le petit chat

Despatches and Hatches. Omens and Portents.

Au revoir 2015. Bonjour 2016.

Living in France sometimes has unexpected benefits. Like, for example, having the whole of January in which to express your New Year greetings. Yes, you can dally along, whistling, until January 30th then leap to the phone and cry: ‘Bonne Année! Bonne santé! Meilleurs voeux!’ to all those friends poised to cross you off their dinner invitation list.

So, in the time-honoured tradition of my adoptive country, and well within the deadline, let me begin this blog by wishing a very sincere Bonne Année to one and all. And another wish: may 2016 be a happier year than 2015. Foolishly optimistic? Perhaps. But looking out of the window on January 2nd this is what I saw:

Omen 1. Somewhere...
Omen 1. Somewhere…

There are other advantages to this tradition of month-long well-wishing. One is that it gives you a chance to get over the turkey fatigue, another is that by the time you’ve got to the last name on your Bonne Année list, one of the most depressing months of the year is drawing to a close. The garden may look bare and bleak, but there are invisible stirrings, you just know the worms and beetles are at it underground, Tolkien-like creatures tilling the soil and helping those elvishly ethereal snowdrops and crocuses to spring forth. No sign of green shoots as yet, but last week, a neighbour brought round a few sprigs of winter daphne, and the whole house was suddenly redolent of spring.

Omen 2. Daphne Odora. O Wind, if winter comes, can Spring be far behind?
Omen 2. Daphne Odora. O Wind, if winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

So, January, it’s not all bad. In fact it has often been surprisingly productive for me in terms of writing, character and plot-hatching, and so forth. Of course there could be other reasons for this surge of activity aside from an atavistic urge to emulate worms and snowdrops. In January you can’t loll on the patio sipping pina coladas and waiting for the steaks to grill. Not in the Tarn anyway, where a lot of time is spent sitting by the fire, staring into the flames and letting your thoughts wander. But whatever the reason, the nouvelle année has nudged me into trying something new.

I should have been writing up the notes for Book 3 in the “French Summer Novel” series. But something was holding me back (no, this is not a feeble excuse about bionic hips and stoic suffering). That ‘something’ had been tugging at the curtains of my mind since finishing “Hot Basque”, a sort of Hamlet’s ghost moaning plaintively off-stage. It definitely moaned louder after the September anaesthetic wore off and in November the phantom finally stepped forth from the wings holding a lantern. The face was familiar. The apparition grew brighter and started to wave and suddenly I recognised Alexandra, mother of Caroline and Annabel, despatched well before the beginning of Book 1 in a fatal car accident.

‘Remember me!’ she quavered. ‘Tell my story! Time those skeletons came out of the family cupboard!’

I pointed out that I was busy planning a wedding for Caroline and skeletons were inappropriate guests but sometimes characters have a mind of their own.

And so the idea of a backstory gradually emerged. The ideas kept coming, Alexandra kept quavering, and I kept waving my lucky rabbit’s foot in the air and invoking Divine Eureka, she of the inspirational hot flashes. ‘Please Your Divineness let the light-bulbs keep popping on the cakewalk of the imagination! Thanks to your mercy I am now 20,000 words into “When Your Heart’s On Fire”, my…my…’ My what?

The backstory was more of a sketch than a portrait. Was it a short story? No, too long. A novel then? No. Too short. Maybe a novella? Er…what exactly is a novella?

A thousand light-bulbs pop on the Cakewalk, Ste Marie Pyrenées Orientales
A thousand light-bulbs pop on the Cakewalk, Ste Marie Pyrenées Orientales

Here dear readers permit me a fascinating digression. When we settle down with a book we know straight off whether it’s a novel or a short story. “War and Peace” is a novel. “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” is a short story. But what about those things in between, novellas/nouvelles/short novels/novelettes, that inhabit what Stephen King described as ‘a really terrible place, an anarchy-ridden literary banana republic’?

https://mmunovellaaward.wordpress.com/2014/03/15/stephen-king-on-novellas/

If you look on the internet, you’ll discover an amazing amount of disagreement about what constitutes a novella, which is handy if you think you’ve written one and other people don’t. Artistic considerations aside (plot and character development, style, tone etc, a discussion which would run to several pages), one of the main problems concerns the length, particularly if you’re offering it to a publisher. Publishers measure in words, and publishers, writers and literary critics all have different ideas about how many words constitute a novella.

As I was musing on this in relation to Alexandra’s story the following link popped up:

http://www.wcusd15.org/morrissey/greatliterature.htm

This is a paper with suggestions about what might go into a high-school literature curriculum. The author, Ted Morrissey, looks at the length of various works, then, using definitions by writers and critics, establishes what he calls ‘some benchmarks’:

-short story: 500 to 15,000 words.

-novella: 30,000 to 50,000*

-novel: 50,000 words upwards.

So what does this mean in concrete terms? He lists some commonly taught novels:  “To Kill a Mockingbird” (104,250 words), “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (108,575 words), “Jane Eyre” (191,500); then two short stories: Bartleby, the Scrivener” (13,692 words), and The Fall of the House of Usher” (6,710 words), finishing with two novellas: “Heart of Darkness” (37,746 words) and “Wide Sargasso Sea” (45,499 words).

But what about the following?

“Death in Venice”. I had always remembered this as a novel. In fact it’s 28,770 words. OK, well it felt as long as a novel. A long novel. Next: “The Old Man and the Sea”. Hmm. Difficult, long time since I read it. Was it one of Hemingway’s short stories? No. Longer. 24,191 words. “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, easy, that’s the novel they turned into THAT film, with Audrey Hepburn. Wrong. Only 26,433 words. Mathematically-inclined readers will already have their hands up, having spotted the numerical gap. These three works, ‘odd-ducks’ Morrissey calls them, fall between the 15,000 word limit for short stories and the 30,000 kick off for a novella. They are denizens of a ‘literary no man’s land’.

But time to leave all those fascinating internet discussions and go back to the question that started everything off.

Will Alexandra’s story turn out to be a novella? According to the above criteria it needs at least another 10,000 words before becoming a citizen of King’s ‘anarchy-ridden literary banana republic’.  Or will it be an odd-duck, waddling through the mud of a literary no-man’s land?

Something tells me I’m not really going to get a say in this. The final decision about when the story ends is going to be made by Alexandra’s ghost, shouting ‘Au diable with wordcounts, that’s it, curtain!’

And just how important are these literary labels anyway?

In a wonderful interview on the Southbank show (June 2015), George R.R. Martin talks about ‘genres’. For him, ‘a genre is a matter of furniture’ ; whether the setting is a castle with dragons or a spaceship in the future is not important; what really matters is the central notion of ‘the human heart in conflict with itself’.

http://winteriscoming.net/2015/11/24/george-r-r-martins-interview-on-the-south-bank-show/

Better write that quote on a  piece of paper and pin it up over the desk. Labels, schmabels. Time to breathe a sigh of relief and get back to writing. Except…

Alexandra is not the only one involved in the new project, is she? What about Divine Eureka? It’s like the plumber having to work with the electrician to get the new bathroom finished. What if the Goddess gets into an Olympian sulk and throws the switch on all the light-bulbs? What if the cakewalk is plunged into blackness?

Help, where did I put the rabbit’s foot? ‘Oh, your Divineness, I was just going to sacrifice a goat but all I can see in the garden are bluetits, maybe the neighbour can …’

Just a minute…what does it say at the end of Morrissey’s paper?  Something about the publisher…there it is…No! Yes! Read it for yourselves…

‘This article first appeared in…. ‘Eureka Studies in Teaching Short Fiction’…    😉

A really big Omen?
A really big Omen?

 

 

 

 

 

 

*Morrissey uses John Gardner’s definition, “The Art of Fiction, Notes on a craft for young writers” (Vintage 1991)

P.S. “Hot Basque”, in case you were wondering, is 104,700 words long, and all of them are FREE for download between 25 and 29 January! Talk about a pot of gold…

http://www.amazon.com/Hot-Basque-French-Summer-Novel-ebook/dp/B00XK2II3G

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Hot-Basque-French-Summer-Novel-ebook/dp/B00XK2II3G

http://www.amazon.fr/Hot-Basque-French-English-Edition-ebook/dp/B00XK2II3G

P.P.S. Trending! Trending! There’s a new picture relating to December’s blog! It’s a photo of the infamously famous Spot Bar, haunt of Dev Haskell, and was kindly contributed by one of the habitués of the neighbourhood in a rare moment of sobriety….

The Spot Bar aka Dev's office
The Spot Bar aka Dev’s office