Stick the bucket

It’s all about the stickiness. That thick, viscous film that coats the mouth is what makes me go back fork after fork. It’s what makes this cassoulet so exciting.

But then there is so much to love about a cassoulet, a dish so vital to the culture of southern France that it is known as “the God of Occitan cuisine”. There’s the crust, deep and dark from hours of baking. There’s the creaminess of perfectly tender white beans, and the bite of a dense, fatty Toulouse sausage. And of course there’s the silken meatiness of confit duck leg and braised pork in amongst everything.

All of these elements are delicious, and they are all vital in making such an exiting dish. Though for me, the broth stands above as something special, not only because of the depth of flavour that comes from building it over multiple days, but because of the texture.

It is a lengthy process to make cassoulet, the best ones taking three days. At Chateau St. Martin, a beautiful stone restaurant outside of Carcassone, it all starts with those underutilized parts of the pig – the head, the feet, great swathes of the skin. This is simmered for hours, letting the fat and gelatin seep into the stock, creating the basis of that wonderful broth.

I get that not everyone will be as excited by this description as I am. A rich bean and meat stew made with a pork broth so gelatinous that it sticks to the top of your mouth is certainly going to be too heavy for a lot of people in these health conscious days. But it is known as one of the great dishes of the world, which is why I travelled to France and walked for an hour outside of the town to an empty restaurant just to try it.

I had to. I mean, it is on my bucket list.

The idea of a bucket list is pretty ridiculous, really. There’s something a little morbid about creating a list of things to do before you die, especially when they are, and almost should be, unnecessary activities. It is, however, a fun activity, if not taken too seriously. It allows you to think about the experiences that you really want to have, one day, when the opportunity arises.

I wrote my bucket list on a whim one day. When putting together an application for something I mentioned an activity as being on my bucket list. I decided that it made sense to actually create one, and to make it all about food. So I wracked my mind for things that I had read about or heard about, experiences that I imagined would be amazing, things to taste, places to visit, and skills to learn. Things that I wanted to do sometime in my life.

Then, as is often the case, I did nothing for a while. Even when I got to the UK, in visiting distance of so many of my items, I procrastinated and didn’t get around to doing any. So for my final trip home, I made sure to hit a few items. One of those was to try a real cassoulet in Languedoc, and I booked my train to Carcassonne.

Cassoulet was always going to be on this list, and not just because of my love of beans, pork and confit duck.

I have always been attracted to dishes with history. Ritualism and tradition are important when it comes to food, to contextualising what, how and why we eat. Cassoulet has more tradition than most, with a history of at least six or seven hundred years, and an origin story involving a siege in the Hundred Years War that is almost certainly apocryphal. There is a specific earthenware pot that it is cooked in, a particular bean that must be used, and some very particular rules on how to make it that are debated over in earnest depending on which city you come from, but that always include breaking the crust 7 times while it cooks. There is even an academy set up to protect the dish and its history, complete with annual processions wearing bright red robes.

But more even than this, to me cassoulet is representative of an entire school of cooking. People refer to it as peasant food, but that is a flawed concept, as what peasant could ever have taken three days to make a meal? What it is, though, is food of necessity that has, over hundreds of years, been refined into something beautiful.

In that origin story, when the English had the castle town of Castelnaudary surrounded and the townspeople were almost out of food, they threw together their last stores into a stew to share. That’s the whole point of cassoulet, that all the main ingredients – haricot beans, sausage, confit duck – are things that can last a long time.

But time and history and the romance and culinary brilliance of the Occitan people didn’t leave it there. They took this basic stew and made it one of the most celebrated dishes of France, a hearty counterpoint to the finesse of much of stereotypical French cuisine.

That’s why I love cassoulet. That’s why it was on my bucket list. And at the end of the day, despite all the craziness in getting there, it was absolutely worth it. Because, philosophy aside, it was delicious.

 

For those who are interested, here is my Culinary Bucket List:

  1. Drink a glass (or bottle) of Champagne in Champagne
  2. Attend a crawfish boil in Louisiana
  3. Eat traditional dumplings in Hong Kong
  4. Witness a tuna auction at the Tsukiji fish market
  5. Eat chaat on the street in India
  6. Visit the ancient Roquefort caves
  7. Hunt and eat a wild boar
  8. Indulge in a proper Quebecois poutine
  9. Smell and taste fresh durian
  10. Have the Canard à la presse at La Tour d’Argent
  11. Burn and numb my mouth in Sichuan province
  12. Eat seafood tostadas on the street/beach in Baja
  13. Make my own salumi
  14. Taste many a microbrew in Portland
  15. Have roast young suckling pig and drink rioja alta upstairs at Botin
  16. Go foraging in Scandinavia
  17. Eat pearl meat taken straight from the water
  18. Have the best of BBQ: brisket in Texas, and whole hog in NC
  19. Drink tea on a tea plantation
  20. Eat the best oyster in the world
  21. Taste real tequilas in Jalisco
  22. Try a real cassoulet in Languedoc
  23. Learn how to toss noodles by hand
  24. Hunt for white truffle in Northern Italy
  25. Make a pulled sugar sculpture
  26. Taste well aged fermented tofu
  27. Eat top quality Edo style sushi in Tokyo
  28. Dig into haggis, neeps and tatties in Scotland on Burns Night
  29. Take part in a saffron harvest
  30. Sit on a pristine beach, eating fish cooked over a fire, and drinking from a coconut

Granada: With your drink

If I lived in Granada, I’d be a raging alcoholic.

Not to say that wouldn’t be true in other places as well. The drinks certainly flowed well in cities like Budapest, and in New Orleans there was a go-cup in my hand from breakfast until, well, nearly breakfast again. But this part of the south of Spain is a special case.

It’s not because of the quality of the booze, either. While some of that Spanish wine is pretty decent, more often than not you’re just knocking back a fairly ordinary lager. Nor is it really a constant party like some other cities, with every individual moment of revelry staying relatively tame.

No, the potential damage to my liver in Granada would be thanks to one simple fact: In this town, drinking is the best way to eat.

“Tapas” has become one of the most overused words in the world of food. It has inexplicably morphed into a catchall term for any small plate, regardless of cuisine or style. But in this corner of Andalucía, they do tapas as it is meant to be done. That is to say, free with your drink.

That’s right. The bars and restaurants of Granada give you free food with every drink, all through the day. It sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it?

And, to be honest, more often than not it is. A lot of the food is simply terrible. Just think about the sort of dishes that would be out for free by every tourist-trap beer barn, where everything is deep-fried in the same old oil. There are plenty of bars where free tapas is a horrible thing, but then they aren’t the bars that I go to.

If you ignore them, though, and go to the classic places, the neighbourhood places, and the places that take some time with their food, then it can be a great experience. Take, for example, Bar Casa Julio. A tiny hole in the wall bar down a tiny laneway off one of the main tourist squares, Bar Casa Julio has maybe eight items on the menu. With your drink you might get some salty, crunchy fried anchovies or squid, a fresh octopus salad, or some simply luxurious croquettes. And be sure to get the berenjenas, fried slices of eggplant drizzled with a thick, dark honey, one of the best vegetarian snacks I’ve come across.

Everything at Bar Casa Julio was simple and delicious, the way bar food should be. How could anyone stick to just one drink?

If you listen to locals, or do a bit of research, you can find bars like this across the city. There was a little neighbourhood joint called Bar Axia, suggested to me by a barber, which was wonderful. It was a warm day and people spilled out into the square, knocking back glasses of cold beer and plates of cured meats, sardines, fried seafood and deliciously silky potato salad. I didn’t want to leave.

Nor did I want to walk out the door at La Tana, where surprisingly bright slices of tomato on bread accompanied a killer wine list and a room buzzing with people enjoying themselves. The place was so packed that it was hard to move, random artifacts covered the wall, and it felt like a place that people wanted to be. I certainly did.

And that’s the thing about Granada. It’s not that the food is the best you will eat, or even the best tapas (Seville takes the cake there. I could spend ages talking about the pork cheek at Bodeguita Romero). It’s the conviviality of the culture that makes it special.

I love good food and drink. I think that is pretty clear. But as much as the quality of the food matters to me, food is at its best when it brings people together. The way they eat in Granada, with small plates and lots of drinks, works well for getting people talking. It’s no wonder that the rest of the world has borrowed tapas culture, even if much of the world hasn’t mastered the art yet.

Granada is a town fully immersed in the idea of eating and drinking together. That’s why I had to leave. I don’t know how much togetherness my liver could handle.

Snacks for the end of the world

What will you do if the apocalypse comes? When the seas boil, hordes of zombies sweep across the planet and all order collapses, what will you do to survive?

If the fall begins while I am here in Lisbon, it is pretty clear what my first step would be.

I would loot Sol e Pesca.

This tiny bar/tackle shop/canned fish emporium is a dream for the gourmet survivalist, showcasing the best of the Portuguese ocean preserved for the long haul. After the fresh food has run out, the high quality tinned morsels found in this Lisbon hotspot would be more valuable than gold.

Until then, however, you can ignore the looting and just enjoy the place for what it is. The tables are tiny and the room is small and dark, as any good bar should be. Along one wall, opposite a few remaining rods and reels, is a long cabinet full of brightly coloured tins, a feature wall more exciting than most. In these cans, adorned with pictures ranging from Roman goddesses to fish in skirts, are expertly preserved morsels of Portuguese seafood. Sardines, tuna and mackerel are the most common, but many other options are available.

Fish canning has happened in this country for over 150 years, and while it has often been considered “poor people’s food”, it is a popular way to have a healthy, cheap snack. Sol e Pesca is far from the only place to buy these tins of glory, but it is a perfect place to taste them. The fish is released from their metal confines and served with bread and wine or beer, providing a quick, tasty meal. The tins of sardines in olive oil and mackerel in tomato that I tried were highly satisfying, if possibly wanting a grain of salt. Even better were the thin slices of muxama, or dried and cured tuna (which, while not technically canned, are still preserved). It was a meal of ultimate simplicity.

I am not aware of anywhere doing this style of eating in Australia or the UK. Thoughts on canned fish seem to be stuck with ideas of tuna bakes and snack packs in school lunches, and with a few exceptions (particularly in the realm of anchovies) they have yet to reach the restaurant table in any significant way. This is a shame.

When you think about it, this basically the seafood equivalent of charcuterie. Just as there is no comparing supermarket sandwich ham to a great prosciutto, it is wrong to think of these quality products in the same way as you do the cut-price tin of “dolphin free” tuna stashed at the back of the pantry.

Imagine starting your next dinner party by opening up a few tins of beautiful, plump Portuguese sardines, or some rich tuna lightly spiced in oil. Or think of having a gourmet snack ready to go if someone comes over unexpectedly. If the quality of canned fish created by companies such as Minerva and Ramirez can be bought in Australia, I will certainly be stocking up.

I think my friends will appreciate it. Even without an apocalypse.

Sorry, and the next thing

I have failed you, my dear readers. For more than a year, more than half of my time in the UK, I have not written a word. And that is really inexcusable.

I could blame it on having a job, and it is true the long hours I have spent toiling behind a bar have taken up a lot of time, but in truth it is my own laziness that is at fault. Nothing has been written because, to put it simply, I have not been bothered to write. So I am sorry.

But now is not the time to look back at the year that has gone. One day I may revisit my UK experiences, but not yet. For I have moved on from London, having left the shores of the motherland to head back home, and I am taking a few stops on the way. I intend (although we have seen what my intentions count for) to document this long way home, and I will endeavour to do a better job this time.

So look out for word of my new adventures. They will appear here soon, I promise.