The Mint Shop

The Mint Shop

Friday, 18 November 2011

Warming up in Montpellier

My first impression of Montpellier, at least based on what locals kept repeating to me, was that "there are no traditional dishes here" . And so for some time I gave up looking for one to report to you. But then I decided to go a bit beyond the city and explore the villages around it. After all it is a big place and traditions do get lost - it would be  a bit like asking what the typical dish in Paris is!

Carcassonne is only an hour away but its influence on the food and cuisine of the next door neighbours is very strong. Duck is the real queen of almost every dish. One night we even had it prepared in six different ways and served all on the same plate! And it was simply delicious! Of course you must be  a real meat eater and I suspect that vegeterians, to not mention vegans - who are they, extra-terrestres? have a hard life in France....

Possibly one of the most wonderful methods of cooking duck is plunged into this thick bean and sausage based sauce with a lot of pepper and a splash of tomato to give a pale pink colouring. THAT Cassoulet had nothing to do with what my sister in law used to give us at Christmas from Fortnum & Mason, which was excellent but this one had a completely different dimension.

Like many other dishes, its name comes from the utensil where the soup is cooked, the cassole, a deep, round pot with slanting sides. Despite the posh fashion, cassoulet is a paysant, poor dish. Thus all the leftovers and wastes were mixed in this earthy soup that was supposed to fill you and warm you up. And believe me, it does! I thought that in the South of France it never gets cold or rains. To my surprise the colours were Autumnal and we had water for almost the entire week we were there!


It seems that for generations families used the same pot over and over again and never fully washed it so that a greasy film of the previous Cassoulet got formed...

There are many variations of Cassoulet, of course!, but my absolute favourite is the one that combines sausages with duck. The duck meat has been cooking for such a long time and at such a low temperature that it becomes like butter. It melts in your mouth.

For 4-6 people

5 sausages
1kg duck (mainly breast and legs)
250g lardon (or pancetta)
1kg white beans (or cannellini)
1 onion (finely chopped)
1 carrot (finely choppped)
half celery (finely chopped)
2 tbsl tomato paste
1/2 glass red wine
bread crumbs
2 Bay leaves

Soak the beans if you have dried ones. Then cook them in enough water to cover them for at least 2-3 cm adding  a tbsp of salt. Cook them until almost tender.
Prepare the base with the onion, carrot and celery. Add some water and let it evaporate. Add the wine and then the cooked beans. Let it simmer.

The "soup" needs to cooked at low heat for at least 2-3 hours. It takes long but while it is on the cooker you can get down with all that filing accumulated during the week! With a good glass of wine, the comfort is guaranteed.
Then turn off the heat and let them soak for 2-3 hours and after that drain the beans in a colander.

Then in the flameproof casserole, heat the oil over a medium heat and brown the sausages, turning them occasionally because they need to be a nice golden brown colour on all sides – this will take 7-8 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the pancetta to join the sausages. Turn the heat down to medium, then in the juices left in the pan, soften the onions for 10 minutes, stirring from time to time.

While the beans are bubbling, add the duck in small pieces which you will have coated in bread crum twice (first in bread crumbs, then in beaten egg yolk, and then again with the breadcrumbs). Half way through the cooking, season to taste (the sausages are quite salted so you might not need as much), add the tomato paste and stir well.

Next put a third of the beans into the cooking pot followed by half the onions, sprinkle with a third of the fresh thyme leaves and season well with salt and pepper, then add half the sausages and pancetta, followed by a third more beans, thyme and seasoning, then the remaining sausages and onions and finally the rest of the beans and the remaining thyme, pushing sprigs of thyme and bay leaves in amongst everything. 
Measure 850 ml hot water, whisk in the tomato purée and pour this over the beans, cover with a lid and bake on the oven's centre shelf for 2 hours. Then take the lid off, sprinkle the breadcrumbs all over the top and bake (without a lid) for a further hour until the beans are completely cooked through.
This is very rich and hefty, so a green salad is really all it needs to go with it.


  1. Ah, cassoulet. The great cassoulet. Thank you Fran for starting my day with a smile. You know, there is also an English version...with baked beans!! No comment.
    Keep up the good work - I love the first & last photos. Really evocative.
    Now I feel like a game of petanque!

  2. Thank you for your kind comments. I wish I had cassoulet now...will make sure we have it next week! But perhaps without the baked beans...;D

  3. Really nice, Fran. Thanks! I love the way the trees are leaning in at an angle in the first picture - as though they are interested in something that is going on just out of shot! Recipe sounds a bit complicated though - and I'm afraid that with a 2-3 hour cooking time, that nice comforting glass of wine risks becoming a whole bottle!

  4. Mmmm. Cassoulet. I wish there was a crockpot version. But it wouldn't be French if you could just throw all the ingredients into a crockpot and leave them for a few hours! Hope you're staying warm... xx