Food & Drink: Rough foreigners we have grown to love

THERE is much to be said for a cassoulet. And it was Elizabeth David who, in the early Fifties, with her enthusiastic appreciation of such enormous, hearty, pungent dishes, did much to open up our national taste to the grossly foreign.

In her own way she was an explorer, because such dishes as a cassoulet or her beloved daubes were relatively unknown before the war, even to French household cooks. They were almost completely unknown to, if not disparaged by, the French or French- trained cooks who catered for those wealthy enough to maintain a kitchen staff.

These were crude, peasant dishes that neither travelled well (since the ingredients were not readily available outside their zones of origin) nor were much appreciated in a cuisine that stressed refinement (primarily of sauce) and 'delicate' flavours. My mother's blessed Muriel, Cordon Bleu that she was and well-travelled as she came to be, never made us a cassoulet - nor would my mother have permitted it, being Italian, classical and rigorous in such matters.

Two observations spring to mind: first, that in a relatively short time (my lifespan and then some) we have acquired such a taste for the 'foreign' that all sorts of dishes that would rarely have been encountered outside their native regions have been adopted - in some cases even naturalised - by us; and second, that with restricted staff, smaller kitchens and less time for preparation, we have also adapted ourselves to a kind of single- dish main-course cuisine that was unthinkable in the pre-war era.

Had you served a cassoulet at a representative dinner in my mother's London house, you would have been thought quite mad: ingredients were kept apart, savoured for themselves, not for the combinations that could be made of them. Indeed, since one of the major ingredients of a cassoulet is white beans, such a dish would have been considered in bad taste. Why? Because beans are known to cause flatulence, and one would probably be at the dinner table for at least two hours.

Elizabeth David described a cassoulet's virtues so well that it would be superfluous to try to offer one's own description. To read her on the subject is an exercise in nostalgia, recalling pleasant hours in the Fifties spent 'discovering' the kinds of food she so loved.

'The cassoulet is perhaps the most typical of true country food,' she writes in Mediterranean Food, 'the genuine, abundant, earthy, richly flavoured and patiently simmered dish of the ideal farmhouse kitchen. Hidden beneath a layer of creamy, golden-crusted haricot beans in a deep, wide, earthen pot, the cassoulet contains garlicky pork sausages, smoked bacon, a wing or leg of preserved goose (in shops you find this as confit), perhaps a piece of mutton, or a couple of pig's feet, or half a duck, and some chunks of pork rind. The beans are tender, juicy, moist but not mushy.'

I refer you to her admirable book for a recipe that is good and works, because she always knew that one might not find the real thing and therefore gives adequate substitutes. But my subject is somewhat different, in that J P Gene in the French daily newspaper, Liberation, last week argued a point that shows just how much of an 'eater' (as against a connoisseur) Elizabeth David was. Mutton in a cassoulet? Duck? Which? Where? Is the cassoulet just a kind of hotpot with beans, into which you throw whatever is at hand?

No, there are three distinct traditions for a cassoulet, and when I ate my first, in a dirty, dusty, hot back street of Toulouse in 1952, I did not know that the other two - the 'classic' version, which is from its place of origin, Castelnaudary, and the one from Carcassonne - existed. And believe me, there is debate and acrimony among the three.

Prosper Montagne called that of Castelnaudary 'God the Father', that of Carcassonne 'God the Son', and that of Toulouse 'God the Holy Ghost', and that is not bad taxonomy. In the first, the cassoulet is made of fresh pork, pork hocks, ham, pork sausage and fresh pork rind; in Toulouse, yes, lamb is added (boned breast or neck), lard from the breast of pork, the famous local saucisse de Toulouse, thick-cut and pungent, plus the preserved goose now mainly associated with the dish; in Carcassonne, chunks of leg of lamb are added and sometimes, in season, game such as partridge.

Nor is there any agreement about which beans are to be used - the white beans of Pamiers or Cazere, the Soissons bean or that from Tarbes. And here we come to the heart of the matter. Mr Gene unearthed a pair of knowledgeable local purveyors who insisted on those of Tarbes - and so, if you could, would you.

Here is how one of them described the right kind of bean. It should be thick, flat and very thin- skinned, and 'when you put your hand in the sack, it's like silk'. She went on to add: 'It has nothing in common with the Spanish flat bean or the Soissons, with its rough, thick skin.' Ah, had we but world enough and time] Those 'correct' beans were planted among sweetcorn and grew up the stalks; they were picked as they ripened (near the top); they were sun-dried on cloth, then hand-sifted to eliminate any with the evil weevil spots.

Naturally, the varieties of corn no longer lend themselves to serving as a trellis for beans, nor does the labour-intensive picking exist any longer. In the late 19th century in Tarbes, 40,000 acres were devoted to the bean; today, there are barely 80. Miscegenated Elizabeth David's cassoulet may have been (it reads like a combination of all three, and tastes delicious), but I suspect she was, as I was, one of the last lucky ones, and ate the real thing. Like silk.