I have pinched the title of this article from a book by Richard Mabey.
Unlike journalist Clare Hargreaves, who has pledged to eat solely British produce for a year, we at The Campaign for Real Farming are quite prepared to include some imports to supplement our mainly British diet. We do, however, applaud Clare’s experiment and her findings, only a couple of weeks into the year, have already revealed that you have to cook from scratch if you hope to avoid undesirable foreign additives like palm oil and soya. We’re absolutely on the same page here.
Richard Mabey, best known as the author of Food for Free advocates adapting recipes to use the ingredients you have to hand. Its about embracing the spirit of a recipe rather than authenticity. I suspect the French would throw up their hands in horror at the mere idea of a “Full English Cassoulet”. I find it fascinating to note the cultural variations around common ingredients. A Full English Breakfast might well include baked beans, and will almost certainly include sausage and bacon, and so suddenly a Cassoulet with its baked beans, pork and sausage doesn’t sound so French after all.
Yet at the same time I love the passionate discussions that you find in countries like France and Italy where people will argue for hours, even years, over which village makes the best and most authentic version of a dish. Their pride in their local cuisine is something from which our food culture could learn a great deal.
Cassoulet has become the dish of lockdown 3 for me. The primary reason for this is the long cooking and the smell that therefore fills the house for a whole day. It is so comforting and reassuring. I guess if you have an AGA or similar you might miss some of this delicious aroma, so effective is the seal on their door. However, on my gas and electric range the anticipation of the evening meal begins around lunchtime! During lockdown it is essential that the confident cook can adapt a recipe to suit the ingredients they have to hand. With this in mind, I discuss the main points below before giving what I believe to be a traditional cassoulet recipe but which you should then be equipped to adapt as you like.
I use dried beans more frequently during the gap between the maincrop potatoes beginning to run to seed and the first new potatoes appearing. Richard Mabey suggests that in the summer it could be made with fresh broad beans, but that really wouldn’t be cassoulet as far as I’m concerned. I do usually use the traditional French haricot bean (the same one that makes our beloved baked bean) but if you wanted to use a British bean here you could buy dried fava (broad beans) grown and dried in the UK by Hodmedods. I have occasionally grown enough borlotti beans to dry a few, but generally we eat all our homegrown beans fresh.
The first thing to know about dried beans is that they have to be reconstituted by soaking them overnight. It’s no good deciding in the morning that you are going to make cassoulet – you have to have done this the night before.
The soaked beans then need to be boiled for 10 minutes to remove any toxins. Don’t add salt to the water as it toughens the skins and then they will never soften. For the same reason I don’t use cured pork (bacon) for the long cooking although cured meat can, and traditionally is, added once the beans are soft. An addition I do recommend if you have it is the herb winter savory – it is said to help counteract the tendency to cause flatulence that beans are renowned for. Something else that helps is to cook them in an uncoated earthernware pot. I use the same chicken brick that I use for cooking game, it is blackened from years of use, but I still find it the best pot for cooking beans.
Cassoulet traditionally includes either goose or duck legs, often already preserved in their own fat (confit). If you don’t have confit then use fresh but remember that they will need a longer cooking time.
Garlic is a dominant flavouring in the traditional cassoulet, and there are no tomatoes as there would be in English baked beans. If you do decide to include tomatoes, remember not to add them until the beans are already soft.
The traditional topping for cassoulet is breadcrumbs, stirred in a couple of times before finally being allowed to brown – you can think of these as the toast for your baked beans if it helps!
The finished dish is somewhat fatty, so the accompaniment needs to be fresh and plain as a counterbalance. In its native Gascony the salad would be dressed with walnut oil, which if you are lucky you can buy from https://www.kentishcobnuts.com/ and I usually still have some fresh English walnuts to scatter over.
10 oz haricot beans
piece of belly pork (approx 1-1½ lb)
4 cloves garlic
1 tbsp molasses or treacle
2 sticks of celery
winter savory or thyme
2 bay leaves
2 level tsps. whole grain mustard
4 duck legs (fresh or confit)
4 Toulouse sausages
Preparation time: 10 minutes Cooking time: 8 hours
Soak the haricot beans in cold water overnight. The following morning drain them and cover with fresh water. Bring to the boil and boil hard for 10 minutes. Drain and place in an earthenware pot together with the belly pork and flavourings, tying the herbs between the sticks of celery to make a bouquet garni that is easily removed. Cover with cold water and put in the oven. Bring the temperature up to 200C/Gas Mark 6 (or start in a cold oven and transfer up to a hot one so as not to crack the earthenware pot). Once the liquid has got really hot reduce the temperature to 180C/Gas Mark 4 so that it remains simmering. Cook for 2 hours, checking the water level after the first hour.
Now that the beans are just cooked, reduce the oven temperature to 150C/Gas Mark 2 and continue cooking for a further 3 hours, checking the liquid level occasionally and adding more water if necessary.
Then add the duck and sausages, pushing them well down into the beans and cook for another 1 –1½ hours (the longer time for fresh duck).
Remove the lid and cover the surface with breadcrumbs. Cook without the lid for a further hour, turning the meat and breadcrumbs three times to brown.
Serve with a green salad, preferably dressed with walnut oil.