Today's stage from Revel to Ax 3 Domaines saw the race make its long awaited and much anticipated entry into the Pyrenées, for the first of four consecutive days of serious mountain climbing. Before reaching the mountains, however, the riders faced about 140k of twisting, rolling terrain through the Midi, along the western outskirts of the Languedoc-Roussillon.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of Le Tour's first passage into the Pyrenées back in 1910, perhaps the reason why the race organizers have put so much greater emphasis on the mountains of the Southwest versus the Alps.
I'd originally anticipated writing about (or having someone write about) the wines of Limoux, one of the westernmost outposts of the Languedoc, as today's route passed not far west (and, later, south, as the route bent to the east) of town. Sounds confusing, I know, but a look at the map above should help sort things out.
It's been quite some time since last I drank a bottle of Blanquette though, so after another look at the map of today's course, I decided to shift gears from wine to food. To cassoulet.
Cassoulet is one of those classic French dishes that instills fervid regional pride. There are well known traditional versions as far west as Gascony and east as Marseille, but it's perhaps the area surrounding Toulouse that can lay greatest claim to being it's true home. The town of Castelnaudary, located about 50k southeast of Toulouse, has done just that, proclaiming itself the "world capital of cassoulet."
I've adapted the following recipe, as best I could, from that put forth by the Grande Confrérie du Cassoulet de Castelnaudary. If you prefer, you can follow the recipe in the original French at the Confrérie's website.
Le Cassoulet de Castelnaudary
12-14 ounces of dried lingot beans
2 legs of duck or goose confit, cut in half
4 3-ounce pieces of Toulouse sausage
4 2-ounce pieces of pork shank or pork shoulder
9 ounces of pork rinds
1 ounce of salt pork
1 tablespoon of tomato paste
1 chicken carcass, or a few pork bones
Soak beans overnight in cold water.
Prepare the beans:
Drain the beans then place the beans in a saucepan with three quarts of cold water and boil for 5 minutes. Turn off the heat, drain the water and reserve the beans.
Prepare the broth:
To three quarts of water, add pork rind (cut into large strips), the poultry carcass or pork bones, a few onions and carrots (to taste). Season generously with salt and pepper. Simmer the soup for one hour then strain. Recover and reserve the pork rind.
Cook the beans:
In this strained broth, simmer the beans until they are soft still whole (approximately one hour).
While the beans cook...
Warm the duck or goose confit in a large frying pan to release some of the fat, then set aside the confit. In the rendered fat, brown the Toulouse sausages then remove and reserve. Finally, brown the pork shank/shoulder and, again, reserve.
Once the beans have completed cooking, drain them, reserving the broth and keeping the broth warm over low heat. Grind the salt pork and garlic cloves with a mortar and pestle, then add to the beans, along with the tablespoon of tomato paste.
Assembling the cassoulet:
Ideally, a "cassole," the earthenware dish (pictured above) for which Cassoulet is named, should be used. Alternatively, a flat bottomed earthenware casserole dish will suffice.
Line the bottom of the cassole with the pieces of reserved pork rind, add about one third of the beans, place the confit and pork on top, then top with the remaining beans. Place the sausages on top, pressing them into the beans but allowing them to remain visible. Pour on just enough of the warmed broth to just cover the beans. Generously sprinkle with cracked black pepper and add a tablespoon of the duck/goose fat used to brown the meats.
Bake in preheated oven at 300-325F for two to three hours. A golden brown crust will form as the dish cooks. Check periodically and, as the beans start to look dry on top, add a few tablespoons of the reserved broth.
Serve hot, directly from the "cassole," without stirring.
You'll want to double the recipe (at least!), as leftover cassoulet is a precious commodity. The only question remaining will be what to drink. I can think of many a fantastic option but I'd love to hear what your preferences may be.
Up next: Day two of four in the Pyrenées.