A great deal has been written about this famous country dish. And while I should like to pay respect to Prosper
Skin a duck or goose, trim all the fat off and melt it with the skin. Pepper and salt the bird, cut in portions and cook in its own fat for one hour. It can be put in a sealed jar, in the fat it has cooked in and kept in a cold place. This is confit d’oie.
Traditionally, the cassoulet is made with goose or duck but pork could be used.
Soak overnight small white beans (haricots); cook in water that comes about 5 cm (2 in) above the beans, with pork skin, pig’s trotter, an andouille (sausage made with pig’s intestine, tripe, etc …).
Fry the bird portions to take the fat off, add a persillade (parsley ground with garlic), tomatoes, and mix with the beans.
Put in a cassole (big basin-type ovenproof dish with a lip, which gives its name to the dish), add a sausage on top and cook in the oven for 1½ hours.
This was the traditional Sunday meal and it was cooked in the baker’s oven. The poorer people used to replace the meat by a roll made of bread soaked in milk, eggs, seasoning and wrapped in a cabbage leaf. This was called the farci. It was cooked in the oven with just the beans to make a Poor Man’s Cassoulet.
The second cassoulet is an Englishman’s version of the dish. It comes from a friend in Devon,
Nine months surviving on 250 francs a week (eight years ago) in a run-down gîte in the south-west Charente subjected my family and me to the best and worst that French country life can offer. Memories of the best remain: Riberac market, home-grown onions, banks of wild orchids, the guttural greeting of the post van, and still with us today, the heartwarming cassoulet.
The culinary ethics of a farmer’s wife were demonstrated unforgettably when I witnessed the slaughter and dressing of a chicken. Not one part was wasted – the undigested grain was removed from the crop and, via the kitchen window, was fed back to her cousins in the yard. Such scrupulous housekeeping provides the thrifty with a cheap but nourishing basis for many meals.
Though not for the squeamish, flayed goose neck and severed eel head became regular items in the bulging baskets that returned from the Friday market. These ‘throwaways’ were the basis for much of our favourite food. Speed, economy and compromise dominated my cooking for a family of six.
This is my own hybrid version of the classic French cassoulet but I treat the dish as a basis for a variety of forms. Here is one. Having a goose neck is a luxury, but it makes a wonderfully strong glutinous base. I often make the dish around Christmas when we’ve had a goose and there is goose stock available. Otherwise I use turkey or chicken stock. When times are hard I use strips of pork belly or mince instead of cassoulet sausage. These are now more widely available.* Buy a lot when you find them – they freeze well.
Soak the beans overnight in plenty of water; then boil for 15 minutes. Discard the water.
Heat the oil in a cast-iron casserole, add the bacon and cook until the fat runs. Now add the onions and cook until soft.
Add the carrots, tomatoes, garlic, goose neck and sausages. Place the bouquet garni on top and cover with the beans. Pour over sufficient stock to cover and bring to the boil.
Place a tight-fitting lid on the casserole and cook in a slow oven (Mark 2, 150°C, 300°F) for 3 – 4 hours or cook overnight in the bottom oven of the Aga.
Serve the dish sprinkled with parsley.
Use minced lamb instead of sausage and add a heaped teaspoon of cumin and the peel of a lemon. Also gently fry the lamb with the onion. Remove the lemon peel before serving.
* From Fenns of Piccadilly, Berwick Street, London, and from Nigel Schofield, Bangers, 1 Eppletons Farm, Copplestone, Crediton, Devon EX17 5LE (Copplestone485).
© 1987 Geraldene Holt. All rights reserved.