I didn't mean to avoid southwest France for so long. But after I wrote The Cooking of Southwest France, published in 1983, I spent my time researching the foods of the Mediterranean. I finally returned to southwestern France in 2001 to update my book, which is being published this month. Sailing up the Gironde to the outskirts of Bordeaux, the regional capital, I remembered how good all the food here tasted, and how inspired the chefs were.
Back in the late '70s, when I began exploring the area, nouvelle cuisine was all the rage in France. There was no fruit or vegetable, it seemed, that could not be transformed into a terrine or mousse. Many chefs in the southwest were experimenting with nouvelle cuisine too, but there were others, like André Daguin and Lucien Vanel, who were intelligently updating the magnificent peasant cooking. Their food was modern yet honest and close to the earth—a true cuisine de terroir (of the soil). And the home cooking was wonderful. I was enraptured; I spent five years researching the region.
On my most recent return, I saw that quality and restraint still prevailed in restaurants, and the home cooking was as good as I remembered it. Artisans were still producing delicacies on a small scale, and the foundations of the cuisine remained the same: excellent wines, mushrooms, foie gras, truffles, game birds, fish and seafood, cheeses, confits and cassoulets.
Cassoulet in its myriad versions will always be the quintessential expression of southwestern French cooking. It was difficult deciding which versions to include in my updated book—the fava bean cassoulet, red wine cassoulet or the famous regional trio, all based on a variety of fresh and cured pork parts and the local white beans: the version from Castelnaudary, made with pork, hocks, ham, sausage and pork skin; the one from Carcassonne, which adds mutton; and the cassoulet from Toulouse, which includes garlic sausages and confit of duck or goose.
A cassoulet requires a considerable amount of hands-on work; it also demands planning and searching out of ingredients. But today you can easily buy many southwestern French ingredients that were not available when I originally set out to research cassoulet, such as verjus (the juice of unripe grapes), French walnut oil, duck fat and gizzards, confit, Tarbais beans and Toulouse-style sausages, to name just a few. Excellent sources include mail order and online venues like chefshop.com, dartagnan.com and frenchselections.com.
Making cassoulet is a project. But the reward is a sensational dish as authentic as any you would find in Toulouse or Carcassonne.