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Tuesday was cassoulet day at the Auberge. Cassoulet is a classic dish, a generous family meal and the pride of Gascon cooking. It is named after the earthenware pot in which it is traditionally cooked. Some say the dish was created out of necessity during the Hundred Years War, when anything to hand was thrown into the pot. There are many different variations made throughout Gascony, and possibly as many different recipes for it as there are cooks. Marie-Jeanneís cassoulet au confit was her own variation on a well-known theme.

The first stage of preparing a cassoulet took place the day before: gathering white haricot beans, the local large variety, haricots tarbais. The haricots formed the bulk of the dish. We would collect a generous basketful of haricot pods. Inside the beans were plump, creamy and mottled. They were soaked in water overnight to make them full and soft. On Tuesday morning, Marie-Jeanne prepared the sauce, consisting of onions, garlic,tomatoes, carrots, herbs and stock. She deseeded the tomatoes by scooping out the centres and pushing the flesh through a sieve with a wooden spoon. Meat formed the basis of the flavours: pork spare ribs, ham, shoulder of lamb and whole Toulouse sausages. A few pieces of pork rind added to the flavour.

The cassoulet was cooked slowly in the huge fait-tout cast-iron stockpot throughout Tuesday afternoon. The smell always made me feel hungry. The French word mijoter, meaning a long, slow simmering, describes the process so aptly, evoking the gentle bubble of the stew and the intermittent rattle of the lid. Towards the end of the cooking, confits de canard and some chunks of the local black sausage were added. Finally, the cassoulet was transferred into earthenware serving dishes, a layer of breadcrumbs was spread on top and each dish was baked in the oven just long enough for the breadcrumbs to form delicious golden crusts. Marie-Jeanneís cassoulet was hearty, filling, smooth and thick, it had a rich, gutsy, warm, gamey, country flavour. There is a homely, reassuring quality about cassoulet; it is truly satisfying. If I were a Gascon, Iím sure cassoulet would be my comfort food.

extract from A Summer in Gascony


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