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

Surprises

When you go somewhere, there are things that you expect are going to be there.  There is a picture in your mind, a set idea of what the world you’re entering will look like. With me, I do a lot of research on places, so my expectations are usually fairly accurate. It sometimes means spoiling surprises for myself, but it does mean that I most know what is coming.

In arriving in London, most of my expectations have been met. There have, however, been a few things that have shocked. They are just little surprises, small things that have struck me based on, to be honest, not a lot of observation.

So accept them with a grain of salt, but here are my three biggest surprises about the London food scene.

 

There are some amazingly good noodles around

I expected good Indian food (though I’m not convinced I’ve found it yet). I expected good French food. I expected pretty decent kebabs, reasonable Italian, and maybe some ok US barbecue.

For some reason, though, there were some cuisines that I wasn’t particularly expecting to be great in London. One of the ones at the top of the list was Japanese.

Turns out, that expectation was very wrong. It’s not just that there is some good Japanese food in London. It’s that some of the best food in London at the moment is Japanese.

There are two restaurants in Soho causing all the stir. Each have taken a style of noodles and worked at making them as well as they possibly can.

The first, Koya, is all about udon noodles. Thick and meaty, served with or without broth and a number of different toppings, it’s an exciting bowl of food. Some options are traditional Japanese flavours, and others are more British in origin, such as the special of roast pheasant, mushrooms and cabbage that I ate.

The other has a very small menu, and specialises in ramen. Tonkotsu has made a huge impact on this city, with the rich, deep pork ‘tonkotsu’ broth in their trademark bowl of noodles delivering an unbelievable depth of flavour. With only four bowls of house made noodles to choose from, plus a few sides (including some stunning fried chicken pieces), this is fast becoming one of London’s favourite cheap eats.

I don’t know why I didn’t expect great Japanese. Noodles are a global trend right now, so this city was sure to be right in the middle of things, but for some reason it didn’t click with me. It was certainly a happy surprise.

 

There are only three pub menus in London

When I first went into a pub here, the menu looked pretty good. It was a nice looking, quiet, local pub type of place, serving cider and tarragon battered fish, pork and chorizo burger, sausages and mash, chicken and ham hock pies, and so forth. All were good, simple pub dishes.

The second pub I went into impressed me a lot less. Clearly a cookie-cutter chain style pub, the menu had their larger fish’n’chips plate called “the Codfather”, and a “Big Ben Burger”. Very much a tourist operation, it was pretty dull. When I wandered past another pub advertising the same badly named dishes, it was to be expected.

The third pub I went into, however, again looked like a small, independent place. Cute, cosy, with some interesting beers on tap and boardgames behind the bar, it seemed like a place with its own spirit. But then, I looked at the menu.

Cider and tarragon battered fish. Pork and chorizo burger. Chicken and ham hock pies. The whole menu was identical, even down to the descriptors used on each dish. Which is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s a good menu, and I understand that pubs have good reasons for using menu consultants.

What surprised me was the lack of a desire to be individual. The pubs have so much character in terms of décor, or atmosphere, but then the food is identical. I look forward to finding the places that do their own thing.

 

The organic pig is winning

In Hyde Park there is a tiny little sausage stall. They sell a basic sausage in a bun, with some caramelised onion. Condiments are on the side, so you can choose what else you want on it. It’s all a very simple operation, with one slightly surprising factor.

The sausages are organic.

Yes, in a park-side sausage stall, they’re using meat from organic, boutique farm raised pigs. It’s not just there, either. From pubs to restaurants to back street cafes, organic pork seems to be served everywhere. The message is clearly getting through.

I don’t know why the success here has been so much greater than at home. Maybe it’s the influence of chefs like Fergus Henderson who for many years have focused on only cooking happy pigs, and serving every part of them. Maybe it is the continued TV work of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, and even Jamie Oliver, championing organics and ethical eating. Or perhaps it is the central place of pigs in British cuisine, where is seems to me to hold some of the same romantic position that lamb does in Australia.

Which is great for so many reasons. It shows that ethical eating can be commercially viable, and that people who go out to eat do care about the welfare of the animals. From the gastronomic side it’s exciting as well, because it means that everywhere the bacon, the sausages and the other pork dishes are almost universally excellent.

That is something that deserves celebration.