I hate to say it, let alone write it but there’s a hint of a twinge of autumn in the air here in the Languedoc. Days are warm and sunny but there’s a bit of a chill in the evenings now. Summer plants are starting to give up the ghost, many of the second-homers have packed and gone and Vincent, the local log man is busy trundling up and down the street with a lorry full of logs. My turn came this morning when 4 cubic metres of beech logs were tipped in the orchard ready for barrowing up the path to the log store. An hour or so later, bowed of back and cronky of knee I sat drinking a reviving something-or-other and started thinking about filling the freezer for the winter to come. From there it was a hop and a skip to thinking about cassoulet – that iconic dish about which there is much controversy. Mind you that’s not saying much; as someone once said, put four Frenchmen together and they’ll have no difficulty in holding six different opinions.
Cassoulet, if you haven’t been introduced, is a thick, heavy stew comprising haricot beans (about which variety there is also much dispute), duck confit, garlic sausage and pork. That is if you are an aficionado of the Castelnaudary cassoulet (the birth place of cassoulet if its citizens are to be believed). On the other hand, should you vote for the Toulouse cassoulet you would have the eponymous sausage, mutton and goose whereas in Carcassonne there would be the addition of partridge, especially in the hunting season. So you pays your money and takes your pick.
Castelnaudary’s claim derives from the story of how during the misnamed Hundred Years war, (1337-1453) the Brits, led by the Black Prince, besieged the town. Its good men and, more likely, women gathered together all the remaining bits of food and decided to make a huge hearty stew for the soldiers defending the town. So hearty and fortifying was it that it promptly resuscitated the soldiers’ derring-do and they gave the old heave-ho to the Brits and saved the city from British occupation – shades of Monty Python.
Another more prosaic view is that it is a melange of culinary cultures including Arab and Catalan.
Equally under dispute is the pot or cassole in which this chef d’oeuvre is cooked. It is agreed that it must be earthenware, made from the local red clay and glazed outside but not in. Originally the pot was a cauldron placed on an open fire of gorse wood collected from the Montaigne Noir (these are some local mountains). I know, I know, but these details are important if you wish to join the cassoulet club. Later things changed and oo la la, the shape – the shape it is everything. It is the shape about which cassoulet connoisseurs disagree. Some advocate the conical pot, narrow at the bottom and wider at the top. This is said to expose the beans to the heat of the oven. Others pooh-pooh this concept and go for a wide round one so that the beans don’t dry out. What is necessary is that the skin that forms as the dish is cooking must be broken and then stirred in again seven times.
I’ll leave the last words to chef Montagné who, in 1928, perhaps in an attempt to pour oil on troubled cassoulets, described the dish as his gastronomic holy trinity:
“Cassoulet is the God of Occitan (Languedoc) cuisine; a God in three persons. God the Father is that of Castelnaudary; God the son of Carcassonne and the Holy Spirit that of Toulouse”
I look forward to tasting all three at the forthcoming Fête du Cassoulet in Castelnaudary at the end of the month. Lots of music; lots of guzzling; Yummy.