Wednesday, 29 August 2012

The hunt for perfect cassoulet: the Fête at night

We spent the final days of our cassoulet trip roaming around the region and ducking in and out of the Fête, and soon realising that the Fete du Cassoulet is about much more than one single dish. The quiet and sleepy town of Castelnaudary is filled with bands, bars, markets and thousands of revellers, who pile into huge tents to eat steaming pots of cassoulet; like Oktoberfest only with extra beans.

With all the action and merriment, the regional dish almost becomes secondary to the fun. Plenty of cassoulet is eaten, though it is not the best you can find or make. But to be honest, this is hard to fault. Local producers – largely wine growers, goose and duck farmers, bee keepers and charcuterie makers – line the streets selling fantastic stuff. A flotilla of handmade paddleboats - each representing a different local youth club - snakes down the river. Bolshy teenagers edge their way, one by one, down a horizontal flagpole over the river, trying to grab the French flag before throwing themselves into the water. And the drinking – there’s more than a drop of beer consumed, which leads to some pretty amusing dancing.

For the dedicated food-lover, there is still so much to enjoy in the region. The weekly food market at Revel (Saturdays) has producers and growers of the most incredible tomatoes, aubergines, garlic, goose, duck, honey, preserves, poultry, rillettes, charcuterie and of course lingot beans. Veer off the beaten track and away from the cassoulet tents, into a small, family-run restaurants where you can find very good, honest and truly local food at a tiny price. There’s a co-operative that takes in meat from all of the local farmers, selling it from a shop which has queues snaking right out of the door. And the unofficial bartering system is wonderful! Tomatoes are swapped for strawberries, whole lambs shared around the neighbours in return for a bit of help with shepherding. Gluts get distributed among friends and neighbours and it's nice to see that people are watching out for one another.

But what of the cassoulet? We’ve got a pretty good idea in our heads. Free range British goose, confit in rare breed pork fat, our own Toulouse sausages and fat cubes of Old Spot pork belly. We’re heading back to Blighty to have a play with the recipe – and we’d love your advice if you have any. Have you eaten or do you know how to make truly tremendous cassoulet? Go on, share your wisdom...

And here's what to do when you have so much veg that you can't eat any more.

Friday, 24 August 2012

The hunt for perfect cassoulet; Fète begins!

Day two begins with picking over the cassoulet recipe, and Ursula brings to the table a huge terracotta-coloured plant pot cassole, the vessel from which the dish gets its name. The wide, fluted top gives a large surface area for that all-important crust, while the depth allows for plenty of stew and bits of confit duck and sausage.

The recipe isn't a quick one, and as Ursula talks us through each step it's easy to see why people are so fiercely protective of their own method. Beans - lingot to be truly authentic - must be soaked overnight and then cooked in a homemade chicken stock, enriched by the skin and bones from pork belly. Toulouse sausage, belly and lardons are seared before all of the constituent parts are layered into the dish. Traditionally confit duck or goose is placed in the centre of the stew with the rest of the meat, however Ursula prefers to nestle the confit on top to crisp up the skin (we like her style). The cassoulet is then baked in a low oven for up to three hours, the surface crust stirred in each time it forms to add flavour and body. This should supposedly be done seven times, however three or four is all you can usually manage in the cooking time. Feeling well versed in the ways of cassoulet, we head out to lunch.

The first cassoulet of our quest is eaten at La Calèche in Peyrens, a small family-run restaurant in a village just north of Castelnaudary. The cassoulet is placed before us and we eagerly break the crust, and start to fish around for the best bits; out come pieces of duck and generous lengths of Toulouse sausage, though there's not an awful lot of pork belly (us, greedy?). The beans are creamily tender without losing their shape, but the stock lacks oomph, and black pepper has been added a little too liberally. A tasty, solid and respectable dish, but we think there's better to be found.

The fète isn't just a celebration of the region's best known dish, but also a chance for the area to throw a bit of a party. The main square is filled with marquees, which in turn are filled with bowls of cassoulet, but before any of that everyone cheers as the Président du Comité d'Organisation de la Fête declares the festival open, and bands, stalls and bars burst into life. The crowd is entertained by what sounds like a French Bryan Adams impersonator; still full from lunch, we slink home for salad and cider. Two cassoulets in one day is too much even for us. 

Official merchandise
Whatever the French for 'mariachi band' is

The official mascot

The view from the town's bridge

Thursday, 23 August 2012

The hunt for perfect cassoulet; a truly local dish

This week we're in Castelnaudry, just east of Toulouse, for the annual Fête du Cassoulet. Quite why this celebration of stew is in August - when temperatures can tip 40C - is a little baffling, but we've put on our sunhats to embark on a mission to find the best Cassoulet around.

Two very good friends of the Ginger Pig moved to the area nine years ago, and have spent their time immersed in the culinary history and identity of the region, as well as growing vegetables galore, and rearing ducks, chickens and two wonderful children. Chris grew up with Ginger Pig owner Tim, and it's fair to say that without Chris' wife Ursula, the Ginger Pig would not be the business it is today. Daughter of a renowned Swiss butcher and very able cook, Ursula's support helped us grow from a little stall at Borough Market to the five shops we run today, and she still comes back each December to help us at Christmas.

Driving from Carcassonne (because, obviously, we had to fly somewhere beginning with carcass) to Chris and Ursula's home in the hills, we get a taste of what is grown in the region. The agricultural makeup changes quickly as we move; at first vineyards, then sunflowers - heads bowed in defeat, almost ready to harvest - and then grains, pulses and legumes. The area is home to goose and duck farms too, a natural evolution stemming from the migratory path of these birds. Geese and ducks used the area as a resting spot as they flew south, and spilled grains from the September harvest provided rich pickings for the birds to fatten up to continue their journey. 

Over lunch - homemade bread and pâte de campagne, local ham and salads from the garden - Chris and Ursula set out why cassoulet is famed and fought over throughout the region. Although recipes vary from cook to cook, cassoulet is essentially a stew of white beans, pork belly, confit duck or goose and Toulouse sausage, a marriage of all that the region does well and a truly local dish. Many of the ingredients are preserved over summer and autumn to provide sustenance throughout the winter, and so cassoulet is not only a dish to make the most of the region's best produce, but something to rely on when fresh food is scarce. 

Predictably there's amicable contention over the true home and recipe of cassoulet, and this is all brought together for the Fête; the opening ceremony of which is tonight (move over Danny Boyle!).

The dish is yet to pass our lips, and so we'll leave you with some photos of Chris and Ursula's wonderful garden, while we work up an appetite for a cassoulet lunch.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Two ways with rump

Last week we sold cows and cows'-worth of our 55-day dry-aged rare-breed rump, but we kept a few back to see what an extra week in the hanging room could do. Phenomenally tender and oh-so tasty is what we got, and it's all in the shops from today. With regards to dry-ageing, we've got something *really* *very* exciting planned for autumn. It's a top secret for now, so you'll have to watch this space (and get your teeth around this in the meantime). 

Either buy it thick and sear it quick, or get chopping and make tartare; here's what to do with our 60-day dry-aged rump this weekend.

Size matters (that's an A3-sized piece of paper)
To BBQ or griddle

1. Get our butchers to cut you one nice thick steak; at least an inch, if not a couple.
2. Let it come up to room temperature, and get the embers white-hot or a griddle over the highest heat.
3. Cover the steak with a little oil, salt and pepper just before it goes on the grill.
4. Grill for 5-6 minutes either side on the barbie, a bit less in a griddle pan. If you don't like it quite so bloody, stick the steak in the oven at 180C for 10 minutes once it's come off the grill.
5. Once cooked, let it rest for at least 10 minutes. Trust us, you'll thank yourself for waiting when you've got steak juice dribbling down your chin.
6. Thinly slice, tuck in, share if you must.


1. Finely chop 150g steak per person, trimming off any fat or sinew as you go. Rump that has been hung this long as just as tender as fillet, but less than half the price and has bags more flavour. No flies on us, see?
2. Combine with chopped shallots, capers and gherkins, generous amounts of salt and pepper, a few dashes of Worcestershire sauce and some chilli sauce for a bit of a kick; we used a dash of The Ribman's Holy swear-word sauce, but Tabasco will do just fine.
3. Stir, taste, and add more of anything you think it needs.
4. Pile it onto a plate, make a hollow in the top, add an egg yolk, and eat with a bit of toast.

For an Asian twist on the French classic, use spring onions, fresh coriander, fish sauce, Sriracha and a little minced ginger. Season with salt to taste, omit the egg and serve with prawn crackers.

Friday, 3 August 2012

55-day rump, givvus a medal!

Move over beach volleyball, we've got the best rumps in town: Longhorn and Galloway beef, dry-aged for 55 days. Why? Because dry-aging lets moisture out of the meat, concentrating the flavour making for beef that is simply beefier than its younger counterparts. The natural enzymes get to work to break down the fibres and connective tissue, so as well as great flavour you get wonderful texture too (in your face, tender fillet!).

We'll clean 'em up for you good and proper, promise

Preferred steak of Ginger Pig owner Tim, rump should be cut fairly thick, seared hot and fast, well rested and served medium-rare. 

These ol' rumps are in our five London shops from today; get your 55-day steak on or a rump roasting joint before someone else beats you to it. Here are some recipes to get the creative juices flowing...