Friday, November 21, 2008

Keep out the Cold with a Warming Stew.

I promised I'd write some more about our local speciality, the famous cassoulet. Much has been written about this rustic stew, and it has become something of a must- try on the tourist circuit. So, one witnesses the comical sight of coach-loads of heavily perspiring tourists packing out the restaurants of la Citié,the Unesco Heritage Site in Carcassonne, manfully ploughing their way through steaming plates of bean stew in the 30c heat of July. Because 'it's what you do when you take in the sites of Carcassonne'. You bring a copy of the DaVinci Code to study in an ostentatious manner as well.

Every European country has a winter stew written into its gastronomic history, if only to use up all those hearty winter vegetables in an effort to keep warm, from Lancashire hotpot to Tuscan white bean stew. And in the chill of a Southwest France winter, cassoulet was just as much of an alternative to central heating as all the rest. Basically it's a white bean stew, very much like the Tuscan one, with sausages,tomatoes, garlic and meat. It's in the choice of meat that the cassoulet displays its regional characteristics.
As I mentioned before, the town of Castelnaudery lays claim to producing 'le vrai' cassoulet. And a village just north of the town was famous for producing the traditional red clay pot that the stew should be served in. This is a deep bowl, with the sides narrowing towards the base. This gives plenty of space for the bread-crumb crust that some regions insist on for the finished dish.
Depending on where you eat your cassoulet will determine what meat is likely to be in it, but as a rough guide it's:
Castelnaudery : all pork...any cuts together with sausages and pork rind
Toulouse : pork, but confit duck or goose as well, and Toulouse sausage (naturellment)
Carcassonne : pork, and sausage with lamb, or if its's in the autumn, you may be lucky enough to find a piece or two of partridge
The Perigord : lamb, Toulouse sausage and cou farci d'oie...stuffed goose neck.

There are so many variations that really, anything goes as long as you stick to the main ingredients which must include dried haricot beans. They should be lingots produced around Tarbes but they are hideously expensive and probably not that easy to find in the UK.

There are three processes to the making of a cassoulet: the soaked beans are cooked separately, and the meats as well, then the whole thing is brought together with confit duck or goose for the final cooking....the duck/goose will have been previously cooked when it was confit'd so doesn't require the long cooking that the rest of the ingredients do ( I'm beginning to sound like Delia Smith)

This recipe will serve 8 -10 and just requires some crusty bread to accompany it. Nothing else, oh - apart from a few bottles of a gutsy red wine. It's a rib-sticking piece of gastronomy, so no other vegetables or side dishes are neeed. Some indigestion tablets might be a good idea for those with less than robust digestions.

For the bean part you will need:

1 kg dried white haricot beans.
a carrot, an onion and 2 cloves of garlic( well, as many as you like really...this is where I stop sounding like Delia.) These should be roughly chopped
Bouquet garni
350 gms (more or less) salt belly of pork
a ham bone...if you can scrounge one from your local deli, a Bayonne, or Serrano ham bone is ideal, but an ordinary one is OK.
salt (go easy on it as you've got salt in the pork, so taste as you go) and peppercorns

To cook:
Soak the beans in cold water overnight. Then drain, rinse, and place in a large saucepan with enough water to well cover, and bring to a fast boil. Cook for 10 mins. Then add the rest of the ingredients and simmer gently for about 1 hour. Test the beans - they should be soft, but not mushy.

While the beans cook prepare the meat part of the dish.

For this you will need:

350 gms lean pork shoulder
700 grms good quality pork sausages, preferably Toulouse, but any sort with a high meat content
250 grms peeled tomatoes - I strongly recommend a large tin of Italian plum toms - it's easier and they have a richer taste, but let's not tell the French !
yet another carrot and onion and plenty of garlic
1 generous litre of meat or vegetable stock
Salt and pepper to taste.

Cut the pork into chunks, and fry off gently (in duck fat if possible) with the chopped onion, sliced carrot and crushed garlic. Add the sausages ....if you're using the Toulouse variety you'll need to cut it up into chunks, if not you can leave the sausages whole.Then sauté everything off until is a nice gold colour. Add the hot stock and the tomatoes. Season well and cook at a gentle simmer for about an hour. All being well the beans and meat will be ready at the same time.

Whilst both are simmering away you can prepare the confit'd duck or goose.
For this you will need:

1 850 gm -1kg tin of confit de canard or d'ioe

Place the tin in a pan of hot water and warm up in a moderate oven for 10-15 minutes. Remove from the oven and carefully open the tin. A cloth over the tin at this point is a good idea, as there will be a lot of hot fat sloshing around.
Lift out the pieces of duck or goose and drain well. Tear the pieces into easily eaten chunks, being careful to remove any bones. Pour the liquid fat into a kilner type jar and refrigerate. Stored like this, the fat will solidify and keep for months. It makes the best-ever roast potatoes and is one of the few fats that are actually acceptable health-wise.

Now you're ready to assemble the cassoulet.
Drain off the beans, discarding the vegetables and herbs. Remove the rind from the salt pork (the French don't, so keep it on if you wish)and cut into chunks.
Take a very large casserole dish - terracotta if possible,for authenticity - and layer in the beans and the meats - the salt pork, the shoulder of pork, the sausages and the duck or goose meat - plus the vegetables from the pork and sausage stew, then top up with the cooking stock until everything is well covered. At this point you could refrigerate the dish until and hour before you need it. It will sit quite happily for a couple of days, thus saving a lot preparation time if you're entertaining on a tight time scale.

Just before placing in a moderate oven sprinkle a thick layer of fresh breadcrumbs over the top of the cassoulet and cook for an hour. As long as you check that it hasn't absorbed all the liquid it will sit quite contentedly in the oven for a lot longer while you chat with your guests. It's a perfect dish for solo entertaining as all the hard work can be done beforehand.

So, making sure you have all the required ingredients, or adapting the recipe to make use of what's available, just wait for the first sprinkling of snow and spend a cosy afternoon in the kitchen assembling your version of a French winter stew.

Monday, November 10, 2008

November- The Month for Remembering.

From the middle of October the supermarkets and flower shops have been filled with huge pots of chrysanthenums,and to a lesser extent scarlet cyclamen. These are in readiness for Toussaints,or the feast of All Saints on November 1st. Cemeteries all over France will be ablaze with gold, copper or deep maroon balls of tightly packed chrysanthenums. On the actual day of Toussaints masses for the dead are said; in the case of our village an 11 a.m mass was celebrated in the ancient chapel of St. Jean which adjoins the cemetery As is customary in France, the graveyard is several hundred meters outside the village itself. If cemeteries can be pleasant places, ours is. It has magnificent views - south to the mountains, north to the flatter, more arable land of the Gers, and in front, the peaceful valley of the Save. The family plots are quietly impressive, with their collections of memorium plaques..for an uncle, a god-parent, an old comrade. Reading the names it soon becomes apparent that there are four or five main famillies in the village whose roots go back generations, and their heirs are still running local councillors, bar owners,local tradesmen. Modern life has made it's presence felt in France, as everywhere else, and new famillies move in, but it's reassuring to know that the old-established names are still here, contributing to village life.

November 11th sees the 'Armistice 1918' as it's called on my French calender.

This afternoon the young man who works for the mairie, and keeps the village looking nice, will put out the four small tricolour at each corner of the memorial opposite the post office. The four corners are marked by upright WW1 shells, now unarmed and painted black. As in the UK the monumant itself bears the names of the village men who died in both conflicts, and in the Algerian debacle as well.

Tommorrow, at 10.55 a small crowd of villagers will gather and the mayor will solemly read out each individual name, each one followed by a murmured 'Mort pour France' from the congregation. There will be a one minute silence, and then everyone will retire to the bar for an aperitif.

The French don't wear poppies as they do the UK, instead they opt for blue cornflowers. Unfortunately in this day and age the cornflower is now reduced to a paper sticker for coats and lapels. The British Legion still produce a 'proper' poppy, thank goodness.

Toussaints and Armistice Day provides the French with two more public holidays, but that will be their lot this year until Christmas Day.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

A Home-made Treat

Just in case I've stirred anyone's interest in marron glacé they are quite easy to make at home.I found this recipe in the Daily Telegraph. I wouldn't imagine they would keep very long, unlike the commercially produced ones but if anyone has a spare five minutes in between baking the mince pies and preparing the stuffing on Christmas Eve (I can hear the howls of anguish even now !) here's the recipe

You will need

150g (5oz) chestnuts
Half cup of caster sugar
Half cup fresh orange juice
113g (4oz) icing sugar, sifted
1 tbsp ground cinnamon (or more, to taste)

1. Peel chestnuts and steam for 7-8 minutes over a pan of simmering water.
2. Put the orange juice and caster sugar together in a pan. Bring to boiling point on the hob and reduce to a syrupy (like light caramel) consistency ( 3-4 minutes). Quickly tip the chestnuts in, stir very gently to coat them. Drain off the syrup, and spoon the chestnuts individually onto a wire rack to cool. Tip chestnuts into a bowl and coat lightly in icing sugar and cinnamon (to taste).
3. On greaseproof paper, dry chestnuts in the oven (40C) for 10 minutes. Garnish with orange peel.

recipe and photo curtesy of the Daily Telegraph.

Home-made marron glacé would make a lovely Christmas present for friends in these cash-strapped times. Arranged in a pretty box, with a bow, or hand crafted gift swanky-looking present for not much cost, just a bit of effort.

I don't know how good the chestnut harvest is going to be this year. We have masses of sweet chestnut trees all around us, but the real chestnut territory is in central France, and the Perigord in particular.

I do like them with Brussell sprouts, but I have to admit all that peeling ruins one's Christmas nails! So I'm ashamed to say I buy them ready-to-go. The tin ones are OK but I think the vacuum packs are better as the chestnuts are drier and seem to break up less easily.

Tinned chestnut purée is a great store cupboard stand-by. Whipped up with a little cream to 'slacken' the mixture,(adding caster sugar to taste if the purée is unsweetened) then tipped into bought meringue cases, and topped with a drizzle of melted chocolate to which a little rum has been added.... disgustingly delicious!

Friday, November 7, 2008

The Unbearable Enthusiasm of New Grannies.

Just in case any of you didn't know why I had a pile of baby clothes on the spare bed I shall inflict yet another baby photo on you.

Ain't 'e 'ansome? Two weeks-going-on-six-months. He'll be walking and talking at Christmas by this rate !

French Treats

The bed in our spare room is beginning to resemble the village epicerie.In anticipation of our trip back to the UK I'm starting a collection of French specialities to enliven our Christmas celebrations. I've even gone to the lengths of paying for hold luggage to transport them all. As Daughter-Turned-New-Mum said when I told her of yet another gourmet item I'd added to the list, 'Are you actually bringing any clothes?'

Eldest-and-Wisest-Daughter kicked off the campaign by reminding me that she was very partial to marrons glacés and would I be bringing any? As that was early October there were none in the shops then, but lo, like the Star in the East, they appeared in the supermarket last week. One box went in the shopping trolley along with a vacuum pack of smoked duck breast. Now I'm dithering as to whether I should buy another packet of smoked many will there be for Christmas lunch? I intend to prepare a 'Gascon' starter of paper-thin slices of duck and foie gras with caramelised apple or fresh figs if I can lay my hands on any fairly easily. I know foie gras is an emotive subject, but it is delicious, a statement which won't win me any brownie points with those who are dead against the production of it.

Proper Gascon salad should have gesiers in it as well, but they're an acquired taste, one which I haven't acquired but The Captain is very enamoured of them. Gesiers are basically gizzards which have been slow cooked (or confit-ed) in duck or goose fat. They're then sliced and together with the smoked duck scattered over a bed of mixed salad leaves. Sometimes lightly fried chicken livers are added as well.I try to avoid the genuine Salade de Gascogne when I see it on a menu.They are served at many of our village lunches (where there's no menu) and are very popular with everyone except me, who tries to flick the (to me) unappetising offal over to The Captains plate without anyone seeing. I can't imagine gizzard salad going down very well at our family lunch, and I may have to go easy on the foie gras so's not to offend any Christmas guests who might be a little more sensitive than my lot.

Confit of duck is always welcome in our family, so tins of that have already been sent back via friends. As the tins usually weigh around a kilo each I'm not dragging them back in a suitcase. Gascony and the Haute Garonne is the spiritual home of the duck and the goose so the shops are bursting with all things duck/goose orientated all year round, but its in November that it really comes into it's own, with supermarket offers on legs, breasts, livers, gizzards and even carcasses, to confit for the winter. Both daughters would like some jars of goose fat, but they'll have to wait until someone comes down with a car. I'm not paying for excess baggage just so they can have crispy roast potatoes, although spuds roasted in duck or goose fat are to die for!

If I had the weight to spare I'd rather take some tins of cassoulet. That's a real winter warmer and a signature dish of Southwest France. The inhabitants of Castelnaudery (between Toulouse and Carcassonne) lay claim to the vrai cassoulet. Anything else is a pale imitation, they say. There are many variations to the dish but the undeniable essential is dried haricot beans...purists would say they must be lingots and hail from Tarbes, but again there's argument about that. But then, the French love a good argument, especially if it concerns food.

Castelnaudery is a pleasant but unremarkable little town on the Canal de Midi notable for being the headquarters of the French Foreign Legion (a trivial piece of information, but one that might stand you in good stead at the next pub quiz night )as well as producing a stonking good cassoulet. Castlnaudery insist on having masses of pork in duck, just big chunks of belly and /or loin, couennes (thin strips of pork rind)and sausage of course. No self -respecting cassoulet can be served without really thick porky sausage. In Toulouse they add some neck of lamb and a piece or two of duck confit, and the sausage has to be the Toulouse variety...packed with pure,lean pork and capable of withstanding several hours of cooking. Carcassonne prefers to use leg of lamb - just to get one up on Toulouse probably!
The recipe for cassoulet is not complicated, it's only a bean casserole after all, but the list of ingredients is endless so I'll devote a separate blog to that later.

But back to the spare bed. I'd like to take some glacé fruits, oh.... and I'll be taking some Agen prunes as a joke 'pressie' for a friend. If you need to eat prunes at least make the experience enjoyable by eating the king of dried plums from the Agen orchards. They're big, fat and totally scrumptious. To be consumed in moderation, as they say on bottles of wine...which no-one takes any notice of.

There is also a small, but growing pile of baby clothes on the bed as well. What ever can they be for ?

photo of marrons by curtesy of : passamanrie/

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

A Damp Weekend in the Haute Garonne

Well, the chocolate biscuits are still languishing in the hall. The rain, which is not a frequent visitor here, decided it would arrive last Tuesday and has stayed with us for seven whole days. This is what undoubtedly dampened the enthusiasm of our village 'trick or treaters'.

The Captain thought he heard a kerfuffle at the front door halfway through the evening, but on going to investigate found only a copy of the Watchtower lying on the doormat. No, I'm not making it up. Perhaps there is some simmering battle going on between Jehovah's Witnesses and small children representing the forces of evil. It seemed a strange night to be out evangelising. I shall be on my guard next year as to who will be knocking on the door to save or damn my soul. Whoo...scary !

The rain continued to drizzle down for the rest of the weekend, completely ruining the national holiday that comes with All Saints Day, or Toussaint as it's known in France. As it fell on a Saturday this year the country was in rather a state of confusion. Saturdays are one day of the week when shopkeepers can rely on some decent takings and to have to close up on that particular day can mean the difference between a weeks profit or loss for small business. Especially in the present economic climate. So, as so often in France, one didn't really know which shops were liable to be closed.

I would have liked to have been in Paris,rather than watching the mountains disappearing behind grey clouds this weekend. The 14th annual chocolate fair was being held there and it must have been heaven on earth. I'd have willingly swapped the drizzly Haute Garonne for a few hours of calorific hedonism. 400 exhibitors and 140 of the best chocolatiers showing off their craft. I ask you !

There was an enormous sculpture of the Eiffel Tower, and even a chocolate fashion show. ( Type in the URL below to see a short video, if you've the strength of will not to rush to the corner shop for a Mars Bar afterwards)
Apparently chocolate was introduced to France by Anne of Austria in 1615. In fact she only agreed to marry Louis XIII on the condition that she be allowed to bring her chocolate allowance with her. Perhaps chocolate allowances should be built into a pre.nup. contract. 'You can have custody of the dog - I keep the chocolate.'

I wonder if Heaven is entirely made of chocolate? It would certainly make dying a lot more attractive.As only Jehovah's Witnesses are to be admitted to the Heavenly Heights come the Day of Judgement perhaps I should sign up the next time they come to call, just to be on the safe side