Time for cassoulet

Author: keith austin
Photography: KEITH AUSTIN

We have family in the backblocks of the Lozère, a region of southern France so remote that you only really know it if, well, you have family there. Because of this we have a large-scale map of the area on our wall at home, and even then we have trouble finding the spot where my partner's sister Cathie lives in a charming 17th-century farmhouse with bright blue shutters on the windows.

We usually end up looking for the small city of Mende in the Lot Valley, tracing our way south along the N106 to the impossibly picturesque town of Florac, and then peering closely for the nearby flyspeck that is Ispagnac. From there, Cathie lives a 15-minute drive into the foothills of Mont Lozère, along a winding, partly sealed road that ends right outside her door. Want to go further? You're on foot from here on in.

And for most visitors to the area, travelling by foot is the preferred mode of transport. That, or kayak, or horse, or canoe. And yet, somehow, despite its popularity with fresh-air enthusiasts, the region remains wild and rugged: a place of windswept moors and wolf sanctuaries. Even at the height of summer you can visit St-Chély-du-Tarn, or the troglodyte hamlet of Castelbouc or the village of Ste-Enimie - classified as one of "Les Plus Beaux Villages de France" - and still find a parking spot in the centre of town, a free table for lunch and pâtisserie shelves heavy with millefeuilles, tartes Tatin and pains au chocolat.

But I'm not here to take in the sights, I'm here to realise a simple dream that had started in these very hills a few years ago when Cathie bought us a large jar of local cassoulet as a parting gift.

I had never heard of the stuff, but it was an instant hit. Here was my sort of food: full of meat and full of flavour, the sort of simple, rustic meal that delights the senses and ruins the waistline.

My first quest to make cassoulet was doomed from the start. Expat Australian author John Baxter, who is in his third decade of living in the French capital, insists, as do many others, that cassoulet has to be cooked in a woodfired oven - a bit of a hard ask given that our Parisian apartment was only as big as a woodfired oven.

No, the only solution was to go full circle and return to the Lozère where this magnificent obsession began. Cathie has a large oven and most of the ingredients are available locally. It also helps that Cathie's mother-in-law, Collette, is happy to lend us an old recipe book from 1962 - Recettes des Provinces de France: Sélectionnées par Curnonsky - which features cassoulet. The game is afoot.

We collect the book from Collette in Clermont-Ferrand, where we explore the city's main square and its distinctive gothic cathedral, famous for being built of black lava stone.

The cathedral is holding up a mite better than the recipe book, that's for sure. It's what one would call "well-loved". It's faded and tattered and the spine is falling apart, but that's a major part of its charm. The recipes inside are culinary vignettes from times past - and certainly from a time earlier than the copyright year of 1962 indicates, as Curnonsky died in Paris in 1956 after falling out of a window at the ripe old age of 83.

Curnonsky was the pen name of Maurice Edmond Sailland, one of the most well-known food writers in France in the 20th century. He was known as the Prince of Gastronomes, so who better to guide us through the intricacies of cassoulet?

In the chapter entitled Le Languedoc Gastronomique, Curnonsky writes, "Anybody knows that cassoulet is essentially a beautiful confit of goose or duck simmered with pig rind and saucisse in a haricot, onion and garlic sauce… Cassoulet is one of those great dishes that is a complete meal which fills gourmets with bliss."

He goes on to say it is a "délicieuse onction" that leads to "l'apotheose gastronomique" - words that need no translation - but then adds a note of warning: "Its preparation is mostly a matter of time". Indeed, even today in modern France the expression "a good cassoulet is not made in a day" is still used to emphasise that taking things more slowly will produce better results.

There are, according to Curnonsky, four types of cassoulet: le cassoulet de Toulouse, de Castelnaudary, de Carcassonne, and de Castannau. Possibly these days this would be disputed, because every region in the south seems to have its own version that is, of course, the original, the only and the best.

Sitting at the table in her restored farmhouse, Cathie and I pore over the book like alchemists discussing the best way to turn lead to gold. We decide on the Castelnaudary recipe and begin translating it. Couennes? Pig rind or skin. Jarret de porc? Shin or shank. Clous de girofle? Giraffe ribs. Ha-ha, just kidding; it's French for cloves.

It's exciting, this; until we discover that Monsieur Sailland was, to say the least, a little lax when it came to offering recipe instructions and cooking times. Or it could be that he was writing at a time when we were all more knowledgeable about food basics and that, in today's spoon-fed, plugged-in world, we have lost the know-how that enables us to make sense of an instruction such as "faire un ragoût d'oie bien tomate" (make a tomato-based goose ragoût). Or perhaps he was just French.

Luckily Cathie has another cookbook that has a cassoulet recipe, Marie-Claude Bisson's Bien Cuisiner: Du Marché à Votre Table, and we refer to it when the Cur (as he was known) is being overly esoteric and unforthcoming.

In Ispagnac's tiny square, with its lovely 12th-century Romanesque church, we gather with the locals under the shady plane trees to buy our ingredients from the local market. The square bustles with dozens of stalls selling locally grown produce and products such as goat's cheese, honey, fruit, jams, pâté, saucissons and cuts of meat of all sizes and descriptions. We buy a carrot, garlic, five onions (one of which becomes clove-studded), and the herbs required to make a large bouquet garni. The meat - which includes pork belly, pork shoulder, various saucisse, some pig skin and a pork knuckle - is bought from the local Ispagnac butcher, who is fascinated and amused to discover that an Australian is going to attempt a traditional cassoulet.

The only things we don't source locally are the tins of duck confit, which I had earlier found in Paris in a fantastic butcher located just around the corner from the Place de la République.

We find a recipe for tomato-based goose ragoût and, basically, guess at the relevant quantities for our cassoulet. And that, I learn, is part of the attraction. Cassoulet is peasant food, and cooking it is not so much a matter of technique as of joy in gathering its ingredients and, later, a group of friends and family to eat it.

I also learn that you might want to pour off some of the fat that collects when the confit melts from your duck and/or goose, and that it's wise to hang onto the haricot bean liquid, because it comes in handy if the dish starts to dry out during cooking.

All in all it takes us only two days to make, including the overnight soaking of half a kilo of haricot beans and a search through the hardware stores of Florac for casserole dishes when we realise the recipe is for 10 people and that, like the blokes in Jaws, we need a "bigger boat".

The preparation is easy; there is little in the way of vegetables to cut, a couple of the saucisse are sliced into rounds, and the pork and duck are merely placed in the casserole, in the knowledge that the meat will fall off the bones during the long, slow cooking process.

When all our ingredients are ready we place the casserole in the oven on a low heat and head out to visit the marvellous wolf park 40 minutes away, just outside the medieval town of Marvejols.

By the time we return to the farmhouse there's only about an hour of cooking time left. The cassoulet seems a little dry so we add some reserved haricot-bean liquid and sprinkle a packet of breadcrumbs over to make the gratin topping that is so important a part of the dish.

Purists will argue that the crust should be made with proper breadcrumbs drizzled in goose fat. Others argue that breadcrumbs should not be used and that it is enough to let a crust form on top of the cooling dish and break it down several times before serving. All would seem to agree that breaking the crust several times before serving is essential - the Guide Gourmand de la France recommends it be broken down eight times. According to Larousse Gastronomique, "a final coating of breadcrumbs is essential for a fine golden crust" - and the recipe it gives, from author-chef Prosper Montagné, uses white breadcrumbs and melted goose fat. There is even a group - the Great Brotherhood of the Cassoulet of Castelnaudary - that was formed to keep the traditions and quality of cassoulet pure. Whatever the true answer - and I suspect there isn't one - at the end of day two our cassoulet is ready.

Our group - four adults and two teenage boys - gathers around the dining table in the farmhouse as the sun sets over the valley outside. On the table there is local red wine (something hearty to cut through the fattiness of the dish), a simple green salad and a baguette or two.

It is, as the Cur promised (and despite the lack of a woodfired oven), a délicieuse onction. It might not meet the strict requirements of the Great Brotherhood of the Cassoulet of Castelnaudary, but it is rich and earthy and tasty and tender enough for us.

The only downside I can see is that our Bien Cuisiner cookbook says each portion contains 1594 calories. And we have enough left over to feed the Great Brotherhood and all their friends. Seconds anyone?

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