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

The street food riddle

If a tree falls in a forest and no-one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? What came first, the chicken or the egg? If my grandfather’s axe had its handle replaced by my father, and its head replaced by me, is it still my grandfather’s axe?

To these ancient puzzles, I add one more.

Is street food still street food if neither sold nor eaten on the streets?

This deep philosophical question was running through my head as I wandered through the dark, smoky party that was Street Feast at Hawker House. Ten food stalls and four bars, housed in a old factory now full of cheap tables and chairs, this was the first winter market put on by the Street Feast team.

It felt like an underground warehouse rave for middle class hipster foodies. And it was fabulous. From the sticky, smoked pork ribs to the luxury of a lobster roll, the food was all pretty excellent, and the whisky bar really knew how to make a Boulvadier. I was in my element.

But the entire event was inside, under a roof. Bao, tacos and chicken wings may be thought of as street food, but here the closest you could get to the street was to head out for a smoke. You were more likely to be sitting up in a rickety little loft than seeing anything resembling a road. In that case, does it still count as street food?

Perhaps my idea of street food is a little too romantic, though. Maybe it’s too proscriptive to think that the street is a major part of it. No longer do we have the tiny little cart selling oysters or smoked fish on the corner. That’s an image of the long past, kept in my head from books and movies.

Even the food truck culture seems to have moved on, though. You read about the early days of Kogi, Roi Choi’s Korean taco truck from LA that was one of the first big stars in the field, and they talk about pulling up to a parking lot alone until someone saw the cops and they fled. There was something special about that, and if you kept an eye on Twitter you could really get an experience. That was only in 2008, too!

Here in London, I’ve seen many food trucks, but none of them by themselves. They seem to live in clusters, forming little market squares on a set day in a set location, the same few options every week. In a little square off Brick Lane that had some great little vans, some of them looked like they weren’t able to move at all.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. The street food markets and convoys are great fun. You get to choose between a number of different options, all at reasonable prices, all generally pretty good quality. It’s just that it feels like a food court more than a street stall. An exceptionally good food court, for sure, but still.

Which brings me back to my question. Is the term “street food” even useful in a city like London? This is a city where nearly every food is sold from a van or a stall somewhere, but also served on a white tablecloth. When you can get roast chicken by the roadside and fried chicken at fine dining it makes the distinction a little meaningless.

So I don’t know if the sliders and sorbets and Hot Toddies being sold at Hawker House really are street food. What I do know is that it is really, really good food. This is a group of businesses at the top of their game, coming together to create an atmosphere of celebration. It’s worth the smoke and crowds and hipsters.

They have two more weeks before they pack up shop. If anyone is in London, you should get yourself there. Take the party off the streets.