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

Magic Beans

We all know the story. Jack went to sell his cow but was convinced to trade it for a handful of “magic” beans. His mother, angry at his blatant stupidity, throws the beans out the window into the dirt. Overnight, an enormous beanstalk grows higher than the eye could see. Jack climbs it, finds some giants, and the female giant helps him steal amazing treasures from the male giant, until the male giant chases him down the beanstalk. He then chops down the beanstalk, letting the giant fall to his death.

It is a classic fairy tale, one we were all told in our youth. Thinking about it now, though, I’m not really sure what the purpose of the tale is. Jack was rewarded for making a number of, quite frankly, terrible decisions. Not to mention the whole theft and murder with no consequences part of the story.

The moral of Jack and the Beanstalk does seem to be that blind naivety and amoral opportunism will lead to prosperity, which isn’t really what we should be telling kids.

Regardless, there is one very clear message that comes out of the story.  It’s a message about beans.

They’re magic.

I don’t mean that beans will really create staircases to castles in the sky, of course. My blind naivety is of a very different sort. In fact, my innocent belief that a job would suddenly appear for me is exactly what forced me to rediscover the beauty of the bean. No, beans are magic because of the way a few of these small, dried legumes can feed a man for a whole week.

As my last post told you, many months into my adventures over here I am still lacking an income, so my spending has been constrained. Meals out and food delivered have been replaced by large cook-ups that last as long as I can make them.

So, down at the supermarket, I turned to the beans aisle. For a little over four pounds I bought a kilo and a half of beans. Some were berlotti, some haricot, and some pinto. All were thrown in my basket. Other than that, an onion, a carrot, a baby fennel and some olive oil was all that I needed. My total spend? A mere £5.60.

I have spent enough time in London to know that £5.60 doesn’t get you a lot. It’s more than most coffees, but less than a lot of sandwiches. It is, really, an incredibly minor amount of money.

But this minor spending, when thrown together in a pot with a few other odds and ends (such as the end of a piece of parmesan cheese), can feed a kingdom. My pot of beans stretched to an amazing 12 meals. I ate them nearly every lunch and dinner from Saturday night through Thursday night, and gave some away. And it always tasted great.

Of course, I made some changes each meal. Sometimes I mixed it with some pasta, mashing a bit up to thicken the sauce. Other times, I just spooned it cold into a buttered bread roll and topped it with a dash of hot sauce. On my last day I even used the beans as the filling for a lasagne, uping the luxury of it with a decadent white sauce, all made from the hostel’s free ingredients. It was enough variety to stave off the boredom that could come from 6 days of beans.

But even by themselves, the beans were exceptional. I used to be a little afraid of cooking beans. Actually, afraid might be the wrong word. I was drastically uninspired by cooking beans. Far too often they were too tough or too mealy, lacking any real flavour. I would love them in something like chilli con carne, but just a large bowl of beans would send me running.

This changed when I read one article. It was a ‘How to live well’ by Tamar E. Adler, reproduced in the ‘Best Food Writing 2012’ compilation. A treatise on how cooking beans is one of the great pleasures of life, it inspired me to put the pulses in the pot and try it for myself.

Few articles have so revolutionised my thinking of an ingredient in the way this piece did. Every tip Tamar included, from how much fennel and parmesan rinds enhance the broth, to the way you can test a bean’s readiness by seeing if you can blow the skin off it, has helped me make outstanding beans ever since.

It helped me recognise that the broth the beans are cooked in, like a slightly thickened, insanely rich stock, is one of the most pleasing things to come out of a kitchen. For that alone, Tamar should be celebrated.

So find the article, read it, learn from it, and buy some beans. If you are travelling and have a pot, but not a lot of cash, it is all that you need.

You will never eat so much, so well, for so little. And if that isn’t magic, I don’t know what is.