Camp Cassoulet

Cassoulet

Most people when they think of France, they think of only two places: Paris and Provence. While I’ll admit both are lovely spots for a visit (or in the case of Paris, to live in), there’s a lot more to this country than those two destinations. I suppose the romance of lavender in everything and hoards of tourists does have its appeal, but to me, Gascony is one of my favorite destinations in France.

Boat

And during my recent trip to Kate’s kitchen, near Agen, we spent last weekend cooking up cassoulet of all sorts, tasting local products, and drinking Armagnac with great restraint (that stuff is st-rong!) There was lots of choose from, but to keep our wits about us, our primary fuel was the darkest vin rouge in France: Cahors, often called ‘black wine’, made from just up to the north of us, from the canal and boat I called home for the weekend.

(Note: This post contains photos of animals used for cooking, some resembling their natural state. It’s part of life in the French countryside where that’s part of their way of life. Just a mention in case you’re sensitive to seeing things like that.)

Armagnac

Opting for the car over the train (Note to self: Next time, take the train to avoid the 3-hour traffic jam outside of Paris) one of the charms about driving on les autoroutes are the signs that notify drivers of the regional specialties.

Often they alert you to medieval villages, forests, caves, or other sights of interest.

Lelbenque

As you get closer to Gascony, driving through Gers, there’s no mystery as to what’s the specialty down here: truffles! And lots of them. But we didn’t see one specimen since it was early. Since the truffles weren’t quite happening yet, we had to settle for other delicious things from the region.

Like duck, beans, duck fat, bacon, duck foie gras, and sausage.
And a little pork.

You know you’re in rural France, when someone presents this to your table and no one freaks out.

Going Whole Hog

It’s porcelet; a young pig roasted with thick, crackly-skin. There was lots of ooing-and-aahing, and we were told to begin with the skin, then work our way through to the tender meat beneath. Being obsequious, I took a mouthful of skin, and chewed.

And chewed and chewed.

And chewed.

And chewed…

The skin was a bit too rough and tough, and I ended up working it around my mouth until I realized there was no way to get it down, and yanked it out..discretely, of course…except everyone looked at me anyways unraveling this gunky wad from my craw, which luckily escaped being photographed so you don’t have to see that. It was like chewing on a wet patch of suede. But once I got below the skin, the meat on the underside was a tender as could be and since Kate was the hostess, they presented her with the best morsel: the head. And don’t say I didn’t warn you…

pighead.jpggasconbread.jpg

I had to console myself with not getting the tête with a shot of Armagnac—Kate had to remind me, visually, of where my limit was.

How much I should drink...

Before we actually made our cassoulet, Saturday morning was spent at the market in Nérac, where I had the most terrific pain d’epices I ever tried. The vendors plopped a bit of goose rillettes (a spread made with goose and goose fat) on it, which was a combination I never tried, but will certainly do so in the future.

I also sampled nutty meringue cookies with almonds and hazelnuts, incredible cheeses from the Pyrenees, and lots and lots of prunes, which the region is justly-famous for. I lugged home a few kilos, along with some locally-pressed dark grape juice. I also selected some nice bulging, fragrant Comice pears to make a Pear Sorbet with for dessert, which I thought would be particularly welcome after the rich cassoulet with some ice-cold Champagne tippled over it. No one complained, fyi…

paindepiceagen.jpggrilledpeppers.jpg

Also at the market, I had a “Thanks for sharing” moment when one of the farmers showed me how be killed the doves he had heaped in a box by bending the necks to-and-fro for me. Before you get all freaked out, think of how I felt being there. I didn’t freak. But if I saw the actually dove-death, I may have had to look away.

So here’s your own “Thanks for sharing, David” moment…

doves

But what a difference from prickly Paris vendors. I loved at the market how they offered samples, which of course, made one want to buy and buy. And you got to select your own fruits and vegetables. As someone who likes to sniff each pear before it goes in my basket, it was a welcome change from the ne touchez pas attitude in Paris. When I told one of the fruit vendors how nice it was to shop that way, he said, “Yes, it’s much nicer to pick your own things. And it makes doing your shopping faster.”

Maybe I should start touching things around Paris in hopes they’ll take a cue from their neighbors to the south?

Er, on second thought, I’d better not. I don’t like getting my hand slapped (if you’re old enough to remember when they used to do that if you touched anything.) And I don’t think I’m quite ready to hand-select my own doves for dinner.

On the way home from the market, like most of rural France, the region’s full of winding roads with the infamous lack of signage that’s led many travelers astray…in spite of Michelin’s spectacular effort to organize the roadways of France. One learns not to necessarily follow the signs since they often don’t lead to the right place.

And down here, a village may consist of one ramshackle house, so getting lost is part of the charm. Unless you’re me and get all freaked out driving around and get lost, which I have a tendency to do, and don’t find it all that charming.

Thankfully Kate pulled up and came to our rescue and got our carload home.

Kate Hill

Once back in the kitchen, we unwrapped our goodies and she put us to work. After I discretely made my sorbet mixture with Romain and churned it up, I went from sweet to savory and my job, aside from keeping the wine glasses full, was to fry up the confit of duck we got at the market.

Confit is a preservation technique where duck, or sometimes other meats, are preserved by slow cooking them in fat very gently. Cooked and submerged, they can be kept for a long time covered with their own fat. Later on they get fried up in a pan and let me tell you, there’s nothing better than good, crisp confit.

3ducklegs.jpgfryingconfitdavid.jpg

Still, this is pretty rich (and dangerous) stuff.

Dangerous?
Because the bad thing is—someone’s gotta fry it. And if it’s me, you walk around like a freak for the next week with one hairless arm dangling by your side. I wonder if I can get my other arm threaded so I match, until it grows back?

Duck Confit

The good thing, though, is that if you’re the fry-guy, you can squirrel away all the best crusty morsels of duck that you fry up, those hyper-crispy ones that tastes like duck candy and eat them yourself. Unless you’re feeling generous—or guilty— which I did, and gave the a few choice tidbits to Tricia who came from Nice with the promise of making me socca, which I held her to for our last day’s breakfast…which she kindly made while racing to the airport.

Rolls of Fat

But back to the cassoulet…after unrolling rolls of fat and lining the three cassoles that Kate arranged for us, each one was layered with a different bean, a few lengths of grilled Toulouse sausage (which she told us is erroneously called ‘garlicky’, and usually has very little, or no garlic) and picture-perfect, expertly-fried duck confit. A few versions have lamb in them as well, but we were sticking with what we were doing. You want lamb? Go ahead and make yours with lamb. I’m not frying it, though. I did my time at the range.

Duck Confit

And whoever cooked the confit, as you can see, did an excellent job. It’s perfectly-done; bronzed to perfection, or as the French would say—dorée, or ‘gilded’.

bulldog.jpg2beans.jpg

In the end although this was 3-bean cassoulet, I decided I did like the one we made with Haricots Tarbais the best, which are the dried beans the region and most classically used for making cassoulet. We did make a cassoulet with dried fava beans, which dissolved during the long-cooking, although we enjoyed it the next night as a soup which we served some unsuspecting neighbors who stopped by to see what and where all the delicious smells were coming from.

And by surprise, I noticed the dried fava beans that were bought at the local market said “Grown in Bolivia.” Holy mother-of-cassoulet! Sounds like it’s time to go on strike down here to protest the globalization of cassoulet. Where is José Bové when we need him?

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The butcher on the vintage butcher paper says, “Don’t cry for him, he’s going to make good sausage.”

After a great weekend, I packed up everything I left strewn around the boat where I slept, and we piled ourselves and our prunes into the car for the ride back to Paris. On the way out, I snagged a gorgeous yellow cassoule for making my own cassoulet at home.

Whisks

Merci to Kate and the rest of the gang for opening up her kitchen for Camp Cassoulet.

Links and Recipes

The recipe for Kate’s Cassoulet, and check out her book: A Culinary Journey In Gascony.

One of my recipes for cooking up a batch of Haricot Tarbais and comprehensive information from the bean cooperative in France.

Paula Wolfert’s new edition of Cooking of the Southwest France is the most comprehensive and thorough book on Gascon and southwest cooking.

Cassoles for making cassoulet, and how they’re made.

The infamous Charles & Lindsey Shere recipe for cassoulet

Searching for the Secrets of Cassoulet from Saveur magazine.

The Camp Cassoulet Flickr photo page.

Other cassoulet ‘campers’:

Local expat, Chez Loulou.

Lucy & Loïc, from Lucy’s Kitchen Notebook.

Robert Lossen, who makes the most beautiful handmade knives.

Tricia from a Taste of Province.

And of course Kate, who operates The French Kitchen.

31 comments

  • What a lovely read!
    Ohh, you lucky boy with one of those cassoles I now hanker after!!!
    Joan

  • How fabulous – especially since I am watching all the Julia Child DVDs lately and have recently seen both cassoulet and roast suckling pig!

    I want to go to France.

  • No one freaked out? I would have freaked out because that is a beautiful pig and now I am all hungry…

  • That second picture is seriously breathtaking. Give me access on Flickr so I can favorite it!!!

  • A wonderful writeup, David. I loved reading it.

  • Okay so yes the animal shots are a little too close for comfort, but merci for tucking us into your pocket to tag along for the weekend … it was a great trip!

  • What a great weekend!

    I agree that sight at dead animal at your plate can be disturbing, but it is more honest, because that is what we all eat when we eat meat!

    And, maybe, it can remind all of us to give more respect to our food, not to just eat it without thinking what is in the “backstage” of our meals but to appreciate it more!
    I would call it “conscientious eating”.

  • Thanks for letting us vicariously travel along with you David. Except for the patch of sueded skin and the fry burns, it sounds like it was a wonderful trip.

  • Oh, you cruel man…. those poor garlic cloves, torn rudely from the earth, roasted with those innocent chili peppers…. :)

    Seriously, my only problem with these pictures is that the pork looked so good I tried to lick my laptop. Now I can’t find the iclean anywhere. Ick.

  • That sounds so fabulous! What do you think the American version might be? I’ve got access to an old farmhouse in New Hampshire that’s just crying out to hold a cooking camp! Maybe in NH it would be appropriate to hold it in the summer and call it “Blueberry Boot Camp”

  • Fabulous post. Thanks for the warning on the animals in their natural form – I think that actually made me WANT to look at it. But I still couldn’t stomach it for long….

  • Lovely photos, David, and fine descriptions… you make me want to tour Gascony again! And for cassoulet, don’t forget the recipe in Open Hand Celebration cookbook, don’t find the book at hand… Oh what the heck, I’ll post it on my own blog.

    (Dave Note: Thanks! I linked to it in the post.)

  • How are vegetarians treated here?

  • Splendid.

  • You’re the man, man!

  • Roast suckling pig, ahh brings back memories… (a must at Chinese wedding & birthday banquets) … crispy flavorful skin and fall apart juicy flesh. The carcass is usually saved with other leftover banquet dishes and made into a soup flavoured with dried chillies and salted veg. Very moreish.

    I do a fair amount of frying at home, squid can be explosively dangerous too. I wear my blisters proudly like war wounds. Have you had chillie juice in the eye? That’ll send anyone howling out of the kitchen.

    BTW, I love your blog so much I use it as my homepage :)

  • Gers is one of the best region for great food! Your pictures are beautiful! Cassoulet, foie gras, confit de canard MIAM

  • Joan: I found a link to a place that sells them in the US, which I put in the post. Their prices are quite reasonable, but I don’t know much about them. I love mine (and no…you can’t have it…)

    Babeth: Yes, it’s great. I have a very old recipe for Gâteau du Gers which is like a clafoutis with raisins soaked in…what else?…Armagnac! Someday I’ll get around to making it.

    Joolian: All my Chinese friends tell me I’m actually Chinese. And I must say, I make a very mean pot of jook.

    Jeremy: If I’m the man, what does that make you?
    : D

    Sara: You got it, girlfriend.

    Tracey: iClean? Ha ha…thanks for the chuckle.

    laura: How about starting ‘Blueberry Buckle Camp’? Let me know if you do; I want to reserve a top bunk!

  • A perfect chronicle of the weekend. Some meat, some wine, some more meat, some more wine. What wonderful memories!
    It was great to meet you and I hope to see you next year.
    Get some Biafine for those burns!

  • Those ARE the pots from the Not Freres Poterie in Mas Ste.Puelle along the Canal du Midi and where I got ALL my pots (including your souvenir!). The traditional color is brown; I do believe that glaze holds up better over the years. My oldest ones are nearly 20 years and I use them for everything- salads, bread making, pastry, dog food and the best bread pudding around. The prices are great if the shipping doesn’t kill you- they weigh a ton!

  • http://www.le-midi.co.uk/acatalog/Cookware.html

    I also found this link to a mail order place in UK for the NOT cassoles. But there must be a place in paris where I can get one – if you should ever come across a shop selling them in Paris can you post it, pleeeeeeeez?
    Thanks
    Joan

  • Can you put me in your vegetable basket next time? I’d like to come along and see Kate’s kitchen! Bises, Ms. Glaze

  • My wet chin? A mixture of tears and drool…

    Oh, how I miss France.

    I’m trying really hard not to hate you right now. Thanks for this post. It is a classic. If I could flickr favorite a post, it would be this one.

  • Another place to add to my “must visit” list. These photos are great.

  • Superb… But I’ll raise your Cahors with a Gaillac. It’s the preferred tipple in these parts – at least for us – I have absolutely no probs with Cahors, but for some reason the locals in Toulouse erect noses at it.

  • Your post is very timely. I am about to make cassoulet this weekend. I have already made my duck confit and decided to skip making my garlic pork sausages and buy them from my butcher instead. The tarbais beans had been waiting in my pantry since last winter.

  • I made cassoulet last week, and I’m all ready to have some more! It’s worth every minute to prepare and every dollar spent on loads of duck. I was no where near Gascony, but your post took me there!

    I do love your blog…

  • I’m really enjoying reading everyone’s account of Camp Cassoulet.

    Thank you all! David, your photos are incredible.

  • The timing of this wonderful report couldn’t have been much better. I spent Thanksgiving with hosts who don’t care for turkey, so they prepared an enormous, glorious, bubbling cassoulet instead. Better than spaghetti carbonara.

    For my part, I made an apple-pear confit from one of Patricia Well’s cookbooks to accompany Kouign Amann. Using your recipe, I encountered difficulties, though I am not sure what all the factors were behind less than satisfactory results. (Very warm day, but the kitchen was cool & A/C turned on just in case.) The baked KA resembled your photograph to a large extent, but I began to question the outcome after the first chilling.

    The pastry rose beautifully, but the presence of yeast in the dough wasn’t really apparent since the rolled and folded dough just didn’t look ample. I also wasn’t sure if I should let the streaks of butter be as in a “rough” puff pastry, since your documentation suggests the flour, water and fat should be seamlessly amalgamated.

    More worrisome was the soggy nature of the dough after chilling. It was easy to roll and handle, but largely because the liquid that should have made it sticky was exuded instead–sort of like sweat. (Yes, ick!) Second, I might recommend a larger pie plate and perhaps a slightly lower temperature for 30 minutes. A jelly roll pan I placed on the oven rack below the KA collected a pool of butter and charred lava. I am pretty sure one reason the final product was rather flat was the smell of burning caramel; I opened the oven door after 20 minutes, whisked out the jelly roll pan, and turned down the temperature.

    Rich taste was appreciated by one and all. Any further suggestions for second attempts would be welcome since I’ve never visited Brittany and tasted its pastries at the source. I get the impression KA should be much more of a laminated pastry than mine proved to be at the end.

  • I am french and love cassoulet and everything around confit, having lived for 11 years in Pau, not far from Toulouse

    I guess you are also familiar with Provencal Cuisine

    There is a very interesting and inventive restaurant in Avignon, held by a young chef, called “New Ground” (near Place St Didier); it’s playing with the provence “saveurs” in a very creative way; he also does some good stuff around his home-made foie gras

    Go and have a look (and taste it)

  • Any suggestions what to serve as a dessert with cassoulet?