Every year the wine shop/wine bar I work holds a dinner called "Cassoulet Night" that focuses on the Southwestern French dish of the same name. Although the title of the event leaves room for excitement, it is highly anticipated by hungry neighbors of the wine shop who start inquiring in September/October if we know what day Cassoulet will be served in February. Their fury, by the way, has only confirmed my long held belief that those craving the rich lushness of duck confit are a gastronomic force to be reckoned with. Our neighbors in particular start recalling the scent of slow-cooked duck in August and can't let go of the fevor until they sink their teeth once more into the sultry poultry in our cassoulet dish in February.
Normally a colleague and I split the cooking workload of our Supper Clubs. I'll sear the meat one Supper Club, and my co-cook will roast the pork loin the next. He'll (Matt) will cook the lentils for the salad one club, and I'll reduce the orange for the vinaigerette for the following first course. Yet the Cassoulet Supper Club is different.
I don't have the patience to cook the luscious cassoulet for 65 people.
Matt, however, does. He's a pretty patient guy who, when not making cassoulet, spends time running after his very active five year-old. Because of my lack of cassoulet stamina, what happens is that Matt cooks every step of the cassoulet for 65 people (I'm sorry, Matt), and I make the salad and the dessert. If you've every attempted to make cassoulet before, you know that I'm getting off easy. Three cheers to Matt.
Here's what he does to make this large batch of cassoulet: He cures the Liberty Farms duck legs weeks ahead of the event. Two to three days after curing, he renders duck fat and confits the duck on low heat in an oven for about five hours plus. Nearly a week later, he soaks cassoulet beans overnight. Then he refreshes the water, brings them to a boil, and drains them. Then, he cooks the beans again with seared hamhocks (in pot picture, above), bacon, and salt pork. At some other point he also purrees roasted garlic with herbs and other delicousness and adds it to the bean mix. On the side, he cooks sausages- those pictured above are the Toulouse variety from Fatted Calf. Before serving the cassoulet, he mixes all of the aforementioned food stuffs together, tops them with crispy breadcrumbs, and bakes the cassoulet until a supple crust develops over all the ingredients.
Personally, I'd pass out after hitting the thirty-person mark with Cassoulet making.
So after preparing the simple salad and flourless chocolate cake dessert, (see the amount of butter above used for 3 -or was it 2- of these gauteau au chocolates) my focus is to test the meal with wine. To figure out which wines will pair best with our courses. Matt and I normally do this together, but as he spends more time slaving away over a stove for this event than I do, I devote more time to thinking about wine pairing. Or maybe I just spend more time testing wines.
Anyhow, for Cassoulet Nights, we decided that to go with regional wine from Southwestern France. Something that the healthy French country folk- you know, the ones who eat duck confit and foie gras with dark red wine all the time who have lower counts of heart disease and cancer than Americans- would drink with cassoulet.
A grape that is dearly loved in Southwestern France, and at our shop, is Tannat. It's commonly used in the dark reds in the lower regions of France and Basque regions of Spain and is one the burliest wine grape in the world (yah, I'm talking to you, Petite Sirah), and it is oh so lovely with cassoulet. This rich, rich, rich dish dish can handle a rough, burly wine with big tannins. Something like this country grape of France.
We decided to go with two wines from Charles Neal- a great importer of le vin Francais. Both from Domaine Laffont, of the Madiran region. One wine, called Hecate was all Tannat. The second wine was a blend of Tannat and Cabernet Franc- just in case we had some wimps in the audience who were scared of the big bad grape. Most weren't worried about the potency- the Hecate was the best seller.
Because these were such big wines, we decanted them two hours before the event. This really helped to soften the tannins and oxygenate the wines so the dark cassis fruit could be released from the dark Tannat shell.
The pairing was pretty fabulous. My fav was the Hecate, because as my favorite saying goes, once you go pure Tannat, you can't go back. The strong Hecate broke down the fat molecules in the duck fat and reconstructed them so the protons were alligned with the bacon's neutrons and the breadcrumbs crisp glutonns, and really, it was just magic all the way.
Lastly, the Tannat grape is, to my surprise, also THE grape of Uruguay as well as Basque and Southwestern French lands. Apparently it does magnificently in Uruguayan soils, and I think that we all will be seeing a lot more of the deep grape from South America, at reasonable costs. If you're interested in a little history, insight of the grape down South, check out this video clip.
Cheers to Tannat, Cassoulet, Vin de la Table readers and participants, and for Supper Clubs at wine bars.