Cahors & Cassoulet - As Nature Intended
Those of you who don’t have duck fat coursing through their veins look away now for this a paean to three C’s: cassoulet, Cahors and cholesterol. Certain foods take me back to places I’ve never been and conjure effortlessly a John-Major style misty-eyed epiphany:
The ploque of boule upon boule in the village sandpit, a glass of chilled pastis, grimy-faced urchins in rakishly-angled caps with their warm crusty baguettes cradled like sheaves, old maids cycling home with their confit de canard - and is there cassoulet still for tea?
Cassoulet is more than a recipe, it is a visceral sacrament based on ritual and intuition. There is even a moral dimension associated with this dish for to cook slowly and with care is to suggest that food is precious, should be savoured and not wasted. Patience is the slow careful flame that transforms the off-cuts, bones, beans and sinewy meat into wholesome food, reduces and melds the various components to the quintessential comfort food. The origins of cassoulet and the regional, even familial, variations, recounted so eloquently by Paula Wolfert and others, add to the mystique of the dish, which seems to exist as a metaphor for all such slow-cooked peasant dishes in Europe.
Slow cooking is a luxury in a world driven by convenience and fraught by the notion of wasting time. The genius of slow food is that it nourishes more than our bodies; it also teaches us to appreciate the value of meal time. The taste of things is influenced by the degree to which we engage with food and wine; how we savour and understand it, the value we ascribe to details.
Eating cassoulet without a glass of wine though is like trying to carve your way through the Amazonian jungle with a pair of blunt nail clippers or wading through lava in carpet slippers. We should accept that some combinations are meant to be. It’s called a local marriage not because it is a love-date of perfect unquenchable affinities, but because it is a hearty entente of two mates with close memories of where they come from. Cahors is renowned for its medicinal, iodine flavour; it expresses notes of tea, fennel, dried herbs and figs; it has a pleasant astringency and a lingering acidity. Cassoulet is crusty, oozy and gluey, bound by fat. The food requires a wine of certain roughness and ready digestibility. Sweet, jammy oaky reds and powerful spicy wines lack the necessary linear quality; sometimes we should look at wine as an elegant seasoning to the food. Cahors adds a dash of pep (and pepper) to the stew whilst remaining aloof, and cleans your palate by providing a cool rasping respite from the richness of the cassoulet.