Today, November 14th …
Prosper Montagné, the man who gave us the Larousse Gastronomique, was born on this day in 1865 in Carcassone. His original goal was to be an architect, but he was inevitably drawn into the business when his father opened a hotel in Toulouse. He stayed in the industry, and gradually moved upwards through the kitchens of some of the most famous restaurants in the country, with a few other career diversions along the way. During the first world war he organised the kitchens of the Allied armies; in the 1920’s he travelled to the United States and visited the slaughterhouses of Chicago; on his return to Paris he opened his own restaurant (which folded); and, of course, he wrote several books.
Naturally we should choose something from the Larousse Gastronomique to celebrate Prosper’s birthday. Given that it contains an awesome 8,500 recipes, it might seem like an impossible choice, but there is one clear winner – the quintessential French dish called cassoulet. Why is the choice so easy? Because Prosper was born in Carcassone, and started his career in Toulouse – which means he had a personal history in two of the three classical sources for cassoulet.
Prosper starts by fairly prosaically describing cassoulet as a “Haricot (shell) bean stew”, he goes on to quote “certain gastronomes” who insist that the cassoulet from Castelnaudary (in South West France) is the only true version, and “serious culinary writers” (including himself) recognise a “Trinity” of cassoulets – those of Castelnaudary, Carcassonne, and Toulouse.
He then goes on to differentiate them:
“The three types of cassoulet should have the following differences: that of Castelnaudary (the forebear, the leader), is prepared with fresh pork, ham, knuckle of pork, and fresh bacon rinds; that of Carcassonne with the addition to the above of a shortened leg of mutton, and partridges in season; that of Toulouse, always in addition to the ingredients already mentioned for the cassoulet de Castelnaudary: breast of pork, Toulouse sausage, mutton (neck or boned breast) and confit d’oie (preserved goose) or confit de canard (preserved duck)."
And finally, gives the basic recipe:
Cassoulet de Castelnaudary.
Here is a ‘simple’ recipe confided to us by a gourmand of Castelnaudary:
Simmer some white haricot (shell) beans in a glazed earthenware pot known as a toupin (Pamiers or Cazères haricots are the best) with the usual seasoning, meats, and aromatic vegetables (without forgetting the garlic, the soul of Languedoc cooking!)
Drain them when they are properly cooked but whole and unbroken, put them in their special earthenware pot (in Issel clay) which has been lined with fresh bacon skins cooked with the haricots, knuckle of pork, breast of pork, sausage, a leg of confit d’oie (preserved goose).
Sprinkle with a layer of coarse breadcrumbs and add goose fat. Put into the baker’s oven (heated with mountain furze), and cook gently for several hours.
When a good golden crust has formed on the surface of the cassoulet stir it in with the aid of a spoon, and repeat this operation at least two or three times.
‘And so’, says our gourmand, ‘you will obtain a cassoulet which you can serve with either a fine Aquitaine wine, or with an old Minervois wine’.
As it is Prosper’s birthday today, it would seem appropriate to make the version from Carcassonne, so please do add the mutton and (if you have them) partridges, to the basic recipe.
A previous Story for this Day …
On this date in 2005 we featured “Armadillo and Hot Spices”.
Tomorrow’s Story ..
Peace Christmas Pudding
Quotation for the Day …
Cassoulet, that best of bean feasts, is everyday fare for a peasant but ambrosia for a gastronome, though its ideal consumer is a 300-pound blocking back who has been splitting firewood nonstop for the last twelve hours on a subzero day in Manitoba. Julia Child.