Hurray, hurray, I’m on holiday. Since I still can’t really go out, what does that mean? Lengthy, complicated cooking projects. I’ve still got four food writing books on my 20 Books of Summer list, and I’ve never made cassoulet before, having been put off both by the high cost of the ingredients and the day-long cooking process. Now is the perfect time: I have nothing to do, and nowhere to spend the money I would normally allocate for leave activities like coffee with friends, mornings spent browsing bookshops, or day trips. In light of this, I decided to follow Elizabeth David’s recipe for cassoulet toulousain, from her first book A Book of Mediterranean Food. The obvious warning: if you are likely to be made queasy and/or vitriolic by reading about someone cooking meat, please feel free to click away now.
My edition, by Penguin Modern Classics, contains a lovely introduction that David wrote for the 1989 reprint, explaining the origins of the book. A Book of Mediterranean Food started out as a collection of scribbled recipes that she wrote for her own benefit, returning from work* in the Mediterranean and the Middle East to the challenges of post-war rationing. She badly missed the food she had fallen in love with. In a world where fresh vegetables were thin on the ground, tomatoes had not yet returned, and “powdered egg” had become a staple ingredient, the recipes were a kind of rebellion against the grey austerity of her life. It’s thanks to this quality that it was published. One of the recipes features a whole roasted sheep, for instance. At a time where the weekly meat ration stretched to a few ounces, that kind of extravagance was ridiculous and aspirational, and guaranteed that she would be published. The introduction is snobbish in places – one of the recipes is written entirely in French, and David pours scorn on the idea of translating it to make it accessible – but at the same time, she delights in the fact that the book coming out in paperback meant that students and housewives just starting out could afford to buy it and have their worlds expanded.
Anyway, the cassoulet. Part of the reason that I’ve never cooked from this (or Summer Cooking, which I also own) is that it is challenging to follow a recipe written in 1950. First, there are logistical issues: where on earth am I meant to buy breast of mutton? Even the upmarket butcher where I acquired some of these ingredients does not sell mutton. I would have probably needed to order it in specially, so I ended up substituting lamb. I have also been inexplicably unable to buy parsley throughout lockdown. I have no idea why there has been a prolonged local run on parsley, of all things, but there you have it. Honestly, I don’t tend to feel that parsley adds a lot to dishes, so I just left it out and didn’t fuss about finding a substitution. I also don’t know what “Regulo 3” is, and Google wasn’t terribly helpful, but I assumed it was a gas mark, converted this to celcius, and then reduced it by 20C for a fan oven.
David doesn’t follow the conventions of modern food writing, because they simply hadn’t been established when she was writing. Several of her recipes require “a wineglass of oil”, which has definite charm and indefinite volume. At times, she assumes culinary knowledge that I don’t have – her instructions to “roast the mutton and pork belly”, for example, leave it very unclear what level of done-ness she wants me to achieve and whether/how much to season it. Since roasting the meat is one step in a complex multi-step process, I suspect that a modern writer would be more precise about this. In the end, I opted for sticking it in at 200C (fan) for 35 minutes, which was enough so that it was cooked through, but not enough for it to start falling apart when I cut it up to be added to the beans. Similarly, the formatting of the book is not what you would see in a cookbook published in 2020 – she crams several recipes onto a page, rarely separates out the ingredients list from the instructions, and keeps changing the oven temperature without warning the reader. None of this is bad, but it does mean that I probably wouldn’t pick up this book to make a hasty midweek supper after coming home from work. I learnt to cook from recipes that follow what we now think of as the typical format, so it’s just more work to follow ones that aren’t.
I made a couple of mistakes while making the cassoulet: firstly, I left the beans, gammon, and bacon cooking for too long, so that when I came to add the roasted meat and sausages the beans were already falling in on themselves. Normally, I find that cannelini beans take quite a long time to cook from dried, and I wandered off to work on my jigsaw and listen to a podcast. When I came back, they were starting to get mushy. The second mistake followed on from the first: because so much of the cooking liquid had already been absorbed, I added a glass of water to the saucepan before I transferred it to the oven. It took a long time for it to be absorbed, meaning that it then took longer for the crust to form on the top. Neither of them was a particular problem, because it was delicious despite being mushy and I had plenty of time – but things to be aware of if you fancy attempting this yourself.
Per the instructions, I allowed it to form a crust twice, stirring it in each time, and the third time it made a golden crust, it was ready. In total, it took about seven hours to make this, plus soaking overnight – two hours to cook the beans, gammon, onion, garlic, and bacon (I roasted the other meats in the oven while that was going on), and about five hours at 130C (fan) with everything in the same pot. I don’t have the “deep earthenware pot” that David prescribes, so I just stuck everything in my biggest saucepan and trusted it would be okay as long as the oven didn’t get too hot. (It was okay).
How did it taste? It tasted like what it is: expensive, elaborate pork and beans. That’s not a criticism. I like pork and beans a lot. I don’t really drink, so I had it with a lemon San Pellegrino on the side, which was just right to counter the fact that it is fatty and rich – more of a winter meal than a summer one, as David points out herself. It’s not an aesthetically pleasing food – partly because I let some of the beans go to mush, as I said above, but partly because this is not the type of meal that can be made to look pretty. Even pictures by professional food stylists don’t do much better than mine does, at least according to Google Images. Perhaps if I did have a big Le Creuset pot, and perhaps if I’d taken the photo when it was golden in the pan, it would be more attractive than it is spooned into a bowl. Looks aside, it tasted wonderful. The meat was falling apart by the time I served it, and the beans had picked up the flavours of all the different ingredients included. Probably the only thing I would change, if I was making it again, would be to add more garlic – David only includes three cloves, and I think that a meal that makes twelve portions could probably do with five or six. I might also be more careful about stripping the fat off the roasted joints, because it was very rich – I took the fat off of the pork belly, and some off of the lamb, but I left it on the duck. In future, I think almost all of it would need to come off.
My freezer is now full of cassoulet, and I imagine I will be eating this for a few months, since it’s too rich to eat several times a week. I am definitely not complaining about the amount it produced! It made my whole flat smell wonderful for over a day, as well, and given the amount of different components, it didn’t generate too much washing up. I can’t imagine that I will make cassoulet again in a hurry, because the ingredients were so expensive, but I can see it being a lovely thing to serve people in a very cold winter. Should we ever have a proper cold snap in southern England again (it’s not looking likely), I will know what to do. As to A Book of Mediterranean Food – I will be trying out more of the recipes going forward, though only on days when I’ve got plenty of time to puzzle out what they mean.
*At one point during the war, she apparently ran a reference library “for the Ministry of Information”. This gives rise to the remote but delightful possibility that Elizabeth David was actually a spy.