Saturday, November 7, 2009

Memorable cassoulet

A fortnight ago, when the weather turned cool and damp, I had a sudden urge to carry out a cooking experiment. I wanted to see if I could successfully prepare the famous cassoulet dish from south-west France, which looks like this:

Back in my Paris studio in the rue Rambuteau, I often used to heat up canned cassoulet, but I had always imagined (wrongly, as it turned out) that only an expert chef could actually prepare this dish. I discovered, luckily, that the Leclerc supermarket in Saint-Marcellin stocks all the essential ingredients, including Toulouse sausages, garlic saucisson, ribs of pork (both natural and smoked) and the special white beans known as cocos (which actually come from the Paimpol region in Brittany where Christine and François live). The recipe is quite elementary, but the cassoulet needs to simmer for a few hours. It's best eaten a few days later, after being covered in breadcrumbs and baked in an oven. The results of my cooking experiment were excellent. Using minimal quantities of ingredients, I nevertheless ended up with four dishes similar to what you see in the above photo... and I kept three of them in the freezer.

Now, why have I got around to writing, today, about my home-made cassoulet? Well, this afternoon, I returned to the huge Leclerc supermarket to do my regular shopping, and I dropped in at the busy counter where they sell ham, sausages and cold cuts of all kinds. I was surprised and thrilled when one of the female employees, recognizing me, asked: "How was the cassoulet?"

In this kind of situation (which is not uncommon), I believe that shop employees whom I don't know personally are capable of remembering me, not so much because of my physical features, but as a consequence of the mixture of my accent and the actual words I use, which is somewhat unexpected, indeed weird. Somebody with a strong British accent like me would normally be expected to use relatively simple phrases, with limited French vocabulary, and the speaker might be forgiven for making mistakes. Instead of that, the lady found me making precise requests for various ingredients and insisting, for example, on the fact that I wanted the traditional sausage from Toulouse, pork ribs both smoked and natural, etc. In other words, I'm sure it's the unusual contrast between my accent and my actual language that renders me "memorable"... in the sense that an employee in a busy supermarket (at a counter where customers have numbered tickets, and wait in a queue) is capable of recalling that a guy with a foreign accent, a fortnight ago, purchased the ingredients for Castelnaudary cassoulet. Needless to say, a trivial happening of this kind is most pleasant for me.

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