The return from holiday is always an odd experience if you are British. If you have been to sunnier climates, you will know very well that sinking feeling as the aeroplane descends into your airport, especially if it is British summer time. From a week or two of freedom and hot sunny weather, you descend through the turbulence of dark clouds to a wet and familiar Britain to proceed with life as normal. The holiday is well and truly over.
Thankfully, France was delightful and the memories will linger long enough to banish any depressing thoughts. After an unsteady first few days of dark skies and the odd shower, the sun soon cracked the flags over the Pyrenees and gave us the weather that we craved. This paved the way for plenty of mountain biking, swimming in crystal clear lakes, laughing, chatting and singing and of course, eating and drinking. My favourite hobbies all in one.
The Eastern Pyrenees is home to many famous foods and wines, none more so than the cassoulet. Cassoulet is one of those recipes that have been written and debated about far too many times for little old me to cast any strong opinions on. I will leave the chemistry and history to the good people of this beautiful area of France to argue over as they have done so for many years. My description of it is posh sausage and beans. But this does not really give it the credit it deserves. Think of quality plump haricot beans with intense garlic pork sausage, rich and buttery confit duck and/or goose with a crust of crunchy breadcrumbs and you may get the picture. And I'm not even going to debate whether or not a cassoulet should have a crust on or not: it is as essential to my cassoulet as is beef with a Yorkshire pudding. But of course, that is my only culinary opinion on this fantastic, filling and sustaining peasant dish.
We ate our cassoulet with our friends, children and lovely hosts, Eileen and Alan who kindly put us up for the week. It was a famous holiday for many reasons, but Eileen and Alan were so accommodating, patient and kind. So I dedicate this famous French meal to them, as well as The Graingers for being amazing people and inviting us into their family home. And with my easy recipe which has been adapted to cut out a good few hours of preparation from some of the long and drawn out cassoulet recipes I have seen, they can impress their friends at any time of the year, summer or no summer, Britain or France. Holidays in the sun and happy days indeed, roll on the next one.
Feeds 6-8 people
500g dried haricot beans, soaked for at least 8 hours
8 slices of smoked streaky bacon, sliced
2 onions, roughly chopped
8 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced in half
1 handful of dried or fresh thyme leaves
3 bay leaves
400g tinned tomatoes
1 tbsp tomato puree
12 large quality pork sausages, preferably Toulouse
6 pieces of confit duck or goose, or a mixture of both, excess fat removed and kept aside
500ml hot chicken stock
Salt and pepper
A bowlful of dried breadcrumbs
1 - Pre-heat the oven to 160 degrees, GM3.
2 - Scrape off some of the duck or goose fat from the confit and melt in a large frying pan. Add the bacon and cook until golden. Remove with a slotted spoon and keep aside.
3 - Brown the sausages in the fat then remove and keep aside.
4 - Add the onions and garlic and cook until soft. Add the thyme, bay leaves, cloves, tomatoes and tomato puree and heat through. Season with a little salt and pepper.
5 - Drain the beans and reserve the liquid. Add half of the beans to a large casserole dish. Add the sausages, duck and/or goose, the bacon then the tomato, onion and herb mixture. Top with the remaining beans then pour in the stock until it just reaches the top of the beans. If there is not enough, add some of the water you used to soak the beans in.
6 - Cover and place into the oven and cook for 2 hours. Check every now and again to see if the mixture is boiling dry and top with reserved water when necessary.
7 - Melt some of the fat in a pan and add the breadcrumbs, thoroughly combining. Cover the casserole with the breadcrumbs and with the lid removed, place back into the oven and cook for a further 60-90 minutes until the topping is golden and crunchy.