Sunday, January 24, 2010

Handmade French ovenware

In my article of 7 November 2009 entitled Memorable cassoulet [display], I may have misled readers at the level of the illustration. It wasn't a photo of a cassoulet that I myself had actually prepared, but rather an image that accompanied the cassoulet recipe I had found on the web. If I refrained from showing you a photo of my own cassoulet, at the moment I wrote that blog, this was mainly because my production was stored away in the freezer in three or four Pyrex dishes.

The photo I borrowed was excellent in that it shows clearly the various ingredients: beans in a light tomato sauce, fragments of pork ribs, Toulouse sausages and pieces of duck confit. [Click here for an explanation of the latter product. If, instead of paying a fortune for duck confit in cans, you wish to learn from a US website how to prepare it yourself, then click here.] But that photo was slightly misleading, too, for a reason I shall now explain. The final stage in the preparation of a dish of casssoulet, just prior to its being served, consists of smothering it in bread crumbs and baking it until the sauce starts to bubble up through the crust. In other words, when the dish of cassoulet is placed upon the dining table, it's not particularly photogenic, since you can't really see any of its ingredients, which remain hidden beneath the brown crust of bread crumbs.

There's yet another reason why I preferred to borrow that photo I found on the web. It's almost sacrilegious to present diners with a cassoulet that is not served up in the familiar brown ceramic earthenware dish used traditionally down in Gascony. Here in the Dauphiné, I was totally incapable of finding this kind of cooking dish in supermarkets or crockery shops. It was only yesterday, after having used the web to track down a producer of ovenware, that I finally obtained several beautiful specimens of handmade dishes for cassoulet.

The pottery firm Digoin, located in Burgundy, dates from 1875... but they've never got around to dealing directly with retail customers. Besides, their French website [display] remains rather rudimentary. Here's a presentation of some of their typical earthenware products:

One of their specialties is this splendid old-fashioned vinegar jug:

Finally, I had to order my Digoin cassoulet dishes through a crockery shop in Saint-Marcellin. The amazing thing is that the beautiful handmade cassoulet dishes (each of which comes in its own unique shades of brown) were not particularly expensive: less than ten euros each. I'm amazed and thrilled to discover that ancient manufacturers of this kind still exist in the modern world.

Now, having said all this, I must point out that I'm still not ready to show you a photo of a steaming Digoin dish of Gamone cassoulet. The reason, this time, is that cassoulet is simply not on my personal menu for the next few days, since my refrigerator is stocked with lots of fresh food that I must eat before starting to take stuff out of my freezer. Besides, as you might have gathered, a dish such as cassoulet—combining beans, sausages, pork and duck—is primarily a tasty and tempting source of calories to be consumed (washed down with red Bordeaux) when it's freezing outside. Today, the weather at Gamone is quite mild: not nearly chilly enough for cassoulet.


  1. You have inspired me and I am going to have a go at a cassoulet - but I am simply not sure if I can get adequate substitutes for the appropriate authentic French ingredients. I shall see what I can do. And - my best cooking dishes are French and are fantastic.

  2. I think you'll find that it's not difficult to obtain the necessary ingredients in a sophisticated metropolis such as Vienna. In the recipe, there are two absolute musts: the dried white beans known as "lingots blancs" in French, and the raw pork sausages described as "saucisses de Toulouse". The beans have to be soaked in water overnight. After that, they don't take much initial cooking: about half an hour in boiling water. Then you drain them and place them in, say, a big iron pot ready for an hour or so of the simmering process that produces the final cassoulet. First, you cover the beans with cold water and add the contents of a tiny can of concentrated tomato sauce. Add bay leaves and thyme, salt and pepper, and apply a minimum of heat to start the simmering. Use a wooden spoon to stir the emerging cassoulet from time to time, and make sure that the simmering mixture is sufficiently liquid. If not, add water. The first meat to be added is slices (or chunks) of soft cold cooked pork garlic sausage, called "saucisson à l'ail" in French. This product, which has the texture (but not the taste) of salami, is usually sold in a plastic sheath. Then you add slices of smoked pork rib. After that, you gently cook slices of raw pork rib in a pan, with oil, before adding them to the iron pot. Finally, the Toulouse sausage (usually sold in France in the form of a long uncut tube, maybe 30 cm in length) must be cut into short lengths and browned in a pan (along with the above-mentioned raw pork rib) before being added to the cassoulet mixture. Avoid "contaminating" the cassoulet with surplus frying oil (which is best done by wiping the Toulouse sausages with absorbent paper). Towards the end of the simmering, the duck confit is optional... but a must for cassoulet purists.

    Cassoulet is ideally eaten among friends, washed down by red wine from south-west France (Bordeaux variety). Maybe it can be served up either before or after watching a rugby match on TV (not during the match, because guests are likely to spill sauce on their clothes). As you known, Gascony is the home of French rugby. I should add that cassoulet was no doubt invented long ago as a means of reviving starved rugby men after tough matches on chilly Pyrenean afternoons. Maybe this gastronomical secret could be passed on to the Wallabies...

    I put my head on a block by suggesting that it might be interesting to substitute Austrian varieties of pork sausages for the traditional Toulouse products.

  3. Great !!! This is so phenomenal!!!That is very impressive! Ovenware are gorgeous and the makeover is totally amazing. I love it. You really did a super job with the Pots & Ovenware! I use to do buy online Ovenware as its time saving.