February 10 2010
As anyone who has ever delved into the origins of (to name but a few) pasta, crème brûlée, lobster armoricaine or croissants will know, the fact that the history of many dishes is hopelessly obscure does not stop people arguing about them; if anything, it makes the debate more intense.
Take the classic French peasant dish cassoulet. Just to confuse matters, it has three spiritual homes: Toulouse, Carcassonne and Castelnaudary, linked by the Canal du Midi but divided by culinary dogma. Among the points of dispute are the types of meat (pork, sausage, mutton, duck, goose and even partridge are involved); the type of beans (Tarbais, lingot, coco); the presence or absence of tomato; and, most controversially, the inclusion or otherwise of breadcrumbs.
London now has the cassoulet conundrum in microcosm. First, news reached me that Anthony Demetre, the estimable chef/restaurateur who co-owns Arbutus (pictured) and Wild Honey, was planning to serve cassoulet every Thursday at Arbutus; then, Bjorn van der Horst at Eastside Inn announced that he would be serving his cassoulet toulousain every Tuesday. Finally, I stumbled across a third version, cooked by Ed Wilson at Terroirs. His is available every day, cooked from a recipe taught to him by the chef at Brasserie Le Donjon, one of the few places in Carcassonne to give the local speciality the care it deserves.
The Eastside Inn version is based on Van der Horst’s French childhood and features silk-textured beans, crisp-skinned duck confit, belly pork, some inauthentic but deliciously smoky, garlicky saucisse de morteau and a crust of persillade: breadcrumbs, parsley and garlic.
The cassoulet at Arbutus is unusual in that Demetre likes the leg bone from his duck confit to poke through the crust, to pleasing effect. He uses the expensive but thin-skinned and voluptuously textured haricot Tarbais beans, a little fresh tomato, and a gentle crust of breadcrumbs. The meats include shoulder of mutton, Toulouse sausage and pork belly rind – a distinctly Castelnaudary touch.
At Terroirs, the philosophy is simplicity. Wilson purées raw onion before frying it gently in duck fat, which gives a smooth texture to the sauce: he includes Toulouse sausage, lightly salted pork belly and confit duck leg. He does not include either tomato or breadcrumbs. The “crust” is an appealing amalgam of sauce and fat; the heat of the oven frying the stew from above.
Which is London’s finest? Each displays an intelligent, passionate approach to the dish, and I urge you to try all three. Be warned, however, that whoever coined the phrase “full of beans” was clearly not a devotee of cassoulet.