'Cassoulet Confessions' Food Writer Sylvie Bigar's Exploration of a Culinary Passion - 27 East

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‘Cassoulet Confessions’ Food Writer Sylvie Bigar’s Exploration of a Culinary Passion

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Sylvie Bigar in the kitchen with her book “Cassoulet Confessions: Food, France, Family and the Stew That Saved My Soul

Sylvie Bigar in the kitchen with her book “Cassoulet Confessions: Food, France, Family and the Stew That Saved My Soul" and her version of the dish. THOMAS SCHAUER

Sylvie Bigar's book “Cassoulet Confessions: Food, France, Family and the Stew That Saved My Soul

Sylvie Bigar's book “Cassoulet Confessions: Food, France, Family and the Stew That Saved My Soul" is an exploration of the famous French dish. THOMAS SCHAUER

Sylvie Bigar, author of “Cassoulet Confessions: Food, France, Family and the Stew That Saved My Soul.

Sylvie Bigar, author of “Cassoulet Confessions: Food, France, Family and the Stew That Saved My Soul." COURTESY THE AUTHOR

authorAnnette Hinkle on Jan 25, 2024

Back in mid-January on a frigid night in Vermont, Sylvie Bigar, a food writer and part-time Bridgehampton resident, was hanging out in the warm kitchen of the Woodstock Inn. She was there, alongside chef Matthew McClure, to co-host a cozy dinner focused on one of her favorite French obsessions — cassoulet.

“I don’t want to offend, but we’re sort of laughing that we’re gonna kill each other,” admitted Bigar in a phone interview a few hours prior to dinner being served. “I met Matthew last year because I had an event in a bookstore. We decided to do something this winter and it’s tonight. We’re sold out with about 75 people.”

Who knew that cassoulet — the bean, pork and duck stew that is a staple of southeastern France — was so popular here? It certainly has become a way of life for Bigar. In fact, she wrote a book about it — “Cassoulet Confessions: Food, France, Family and the Stew That Saved My Soul,” which was published in 2022 by Hardie Grant Books.

Part memoir, part culinary mystery, the book follows Bigar as she travels the French countryside piecing together the history of the dish and various methods used to make it. Along the way, she also uncovers a good deal about her own family history and puts it all into context. She ultimately learns that cassoulet, like life, is not just the sum of its delicious parts — there is also a serious dose of terroir in the mix as well. Bigar learns this fact firsthand back in her New York kitchen when she tries to recreate the cassoulet that she came to know and love in southern France — with not entirely the same results.

On Saturday, February 3, cassoulet will take center stage in Bridgehampton when Bigar comes to the Hampton Library to speak about her book in “Cassoulet and Conversation” at 4 p.m. But it’s not all talk. In addition, Jason Weiner, owner and chef of Almond Restaurant across the street from the library, will be providing a delicious taste of the French dish to those in attendance.

“Jason makes a mean cassoulet. He takes it very seriously,” Bigar said. “It’s amazing how chefs get into this. Matthew got a whole pig last week, it’s crazy.”

Also somewhat crazy is the difficulty Bigar encountered in finding a publisher who would be willing to take on her book once she had finished the manuscript.

“It wasn’t easy. I got 50 rejection letters,” she said. “Editors said, ‘Cassoulet? Really?’”

Really, responds Bigar, who points out that many people fondly remember where they were when they tasted their first real (or favorite) cassoulet.

“Who knew an ancestral French dish could be so loved?” she asked.

A lot of people, apparently, based on the number of fans who turn out for events like the January dinner in Vermont. Before “Cassoulet Confessions” was a book, Bigar explained that it began its life as a magazine assignment back in 2008 when she was working as a food and travel writer based in New York.

“It was an assignment from Michael Batterberry, editor of Food Arts magazine, who was doing an issue on one pot meals — so he thought about cassoulet,” Bigar said. “He was a culinary scholar. He knew I was born in French-speaking Switzerland with a French mother and he gave me this assignment to go.

“I thought it would be a simple story,” she added. “What happened is, I became obsessed with this dish.”

Bigar’s love affair with cassoulet began when she met and spent time with the dish’s exacting chef Eric Garcia (not his real name) at his restaurant Domaine Balthazar near the historic walled city of Carcassonne in the Occitanie region of France. It was there that Bigar began to understand the art, culture, community and pride that goes into the crafting of a traditional cassoulet. In fact, in 1990, the chef had even co-founded the Académie Universelle du Cassoulet, an organization made up of avid chefs, vintners and foodies whose mission is to preserve and defend the ancestral dish, not unlike the Académie Francaise has, since 1685, sought to safeguard the French language.

“He opened the door for me to understand how important some of these original dishes are to the fabric of terroir and the land,” Bigar explained. “It’s the same here, especially in the South, with these casseroles and culture. It's like that in every country. Somehow, cassoulet captured my imagination. It’s so far from how we ate at the house of my parents.”

Much of cassoulet culture has to do with sharing it with friends and family. For Bigar, the sourcing and making of cassoulet represented everything that her own family did not. Bigar grew up in a grand house overlooking Lake Geneva in Switzerland where unsavory secrets were kept out of sight and under tight wraps — much like the food that was delivered on silver platters to the dinner table each night and served by the family’s butler, Joachim.

“Even though my grandparents on both sides were bon vivants, food for my parents was never something that was particularly joyful,” she said. “You just had to eat to live.”

But cassoulet is different — and it was the antithesis of how Bigar’s family approached food. A true communal effort, from the name of the dish — which comes from the cassoles, or terra cotta pots, in which it is traditionally cooked — to the specific nuances required in the sourcing of the correct beans, ham, sausage, duck and herbs that are required to make it properly, Bigar learned it all.

Bigar wrote the magazine story for Food Arts in 2008, and went on to take other food writing assignments. But she notes that for some reason, she always came back to Garcia and his Carcassonne cassoulet.

“I had a relationship with this man that became very deep,” she said. “My father had passed away, and there was a little paternal thing going on, though it was so different. [Garcia] made fun of me when I tried to make cassoulet in New York and got no crust. He said, ‘Are any of your guests French?’ I said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘Don’t worry, then.’”

Though she certainly learned the skills necessary to make a decent cassoulet, writing the book about it didn’t come entirely easily.

“It took me 10 years to write 154 pages. It’s pathetic, but the truth,” Bigar admitted of “Cassoulet Confessions.” “I couldn’t understand why this dish was so fascinating. I wrote about the beans, the shape of the clay pots, the profile of the chef, the duck farmer and all these things. Still, I couldn’t shake this.

“I took some time off, went to a writer’s retreat. I sat in front of the famous white screen,” she said. “Then it came to me. This is the opposite of how we ate in my childhood dining room, I unveiled how we ate, my sister’s epileptic seizures, how my mother ate. This bean and meat stew fascinated me.”

The chapters of Bigar’s book shift between her understanding of cassoulet through Garcia’s tutelage in Carcassonne and her own forays into reproducing the dish back home and an exploration of her family’s history and dynamics, complete with their hidden dramas and secrets. She explains that’s why it took her a decade to write.

“It was not easy to bring the book together. People would say, ‘Oh, that’s two stories – it’s one of those long format pieces.’ In fact, one chapter led to another,” said Bigar, who did what many writers do in plotting out their books — she listed each chapter on an index card and taped it to her wall, like a giant jigsaw puzzle. “I tried two or three different structures before I found one that worked. Some people are not interested in the foodie thing and they flip ahead. For others, it’s the opposite.”

Though Bigar is not a chef — and doesn’t pretend to be — she has a good deal of experience in the culinary realm having worked with New York Times food and wine writer (and East Hampton resident) Florence Fabricant, testing recipes for three of her cookbooks.

“I’m not sure how she thought I could that. She came over and I made an osso buco, and she said, ‘Can you test recipes for me?’ I said, ‘Sure,’” said Bigar. “I’m a writer with a good palate. I know what’s needed to bring a dish up, but I don’t have it for wine. There was a time when I wondered if I should go to culinary school and become a chef or go to Columbia and get a masters in writing. I did neither, I already had a masters and I was not young.”

These days, Bigar divides her time between New York City and her home in Bridgehampton. In fact, she wrote part of “Cassoulet Confessions” at the Hampton Library.

“I thought I should donate a book to the library,” she said. “One time, I had one in the car, so I dropped it off and told them I wrote it here. A few months later Lisa Michne, the executive director, said she would love to have an event. I said, if we have an event we need some kind of tasting, or else people will leave there starving after talking about the crust, and the garlic and bubbly concoction.

Cue Jason Weiner and his cassoulet from Almond.

In many ways, though Bigar still loves cassoulet, her book is now a glimpse back at a life that has transformed into something entirely different. After her mother died in June, the family home in Geneva was sold, ending that chapter for good. When asked what’s next for her, Bigar said, “My partner and I going to the south of Spain in the beginning of May, to a village in Andalusia where I’ll be working on my next book — a historical novel. It’s our writing retreat.”

“Cassoulet and Conversation“ is Saturday, February 3, at 4 p.m., at the Hampton Library, 2478 Main Street, Bridgehampton. Tickets are $35 and include a taste of Almond’s cassoulet and a copy of Sylvie Bigar’s book “Cassoulet Confessions: Food, France, Family and the Stew That Saved My Soul.” The event is a Friends of the Hampton Library fundraiser. Visit myhamptonlibrary.org for details.

Sylvie’s Cassoulet (Courtesy Hardie Grant Books)

Yield: Serves 8

Time: 11 hours over 2 days

Don’t be intimidated by the number of hours required to cook a cassoulet. This is not a complicated recipe to follow, and there is only about an hour of prep time. This stew, adapted from Etienne Rousselot’s, is all about slow cooking and, because every stew tastes better the day after it has been made, chefs and cooks recommend making it over two days. In this recipe the beans are neither precooked nor soaked in advance.

Ingredients:

2 pounds 3 ounces dried Tarbais or other large white beans

4 fresh ham hocks

3 large onions, peeled and quartered

5 thyme sprigs

1 1/2 tablespoons coarse sea salt

freshly ground pepper

5 ounces fresh pork rind cut into 2-inch cubes

1 ham bone

1 large garlic bulb, cloves peeled

1 tablespoon duck fat

1 pound fresh garlic pork sausage cut into 3-inch long pieces

4 legs duck confit

1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

Day 1:

1. Rinse beans thoroughly, discard little stones if any, then set aside.

2. In a large stock pot, place the ham hocks with one onion, the thyme sprigs, 1 tablespoon salt and a good grind of pepper. Cover with water and bring to a boil over a high heat. Reduce to medium-low and simmer, partially covered, for 2 hours. (While cooking, you may start step three). Remove from heat and allow to cool for about 15 minutes. Remove the ham hocks from the stock, tear off the meat and set aside. Discard the onion, thyme, skin, fat and bones. Reserve stock.

3. While the ham hocks are cooking, place the pork rind, the ham bone and one onion in a large, heavy-based pot. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, for about 20 minutes, or until the pork rinds become translucent.

4. Add the beans to the pork rind mixture, and enough water to cover (8 cups). Bring to a simmer and reduce heat to low until the beans are tender (about 1 hour and 15 minutes). Ensure the beans remain submerged; add water as needed.

5. Set aside to cool. You should have at least 4 cups of the bean cooking liquid. Combine with leftover reserved stock.

6. In a blender, add the last onion, the whole garlic cloves and ½ cup of water. Purée until smooth. Set aside.

7. Melt the duck fat in large skillet over medium-high heat. Cook the sausages, stirring frequently until browned, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic/onion purée and reduce heat to medium-low. Sauté, turning the sausages occasionally, for another 10 minutes.

8. Preheat oven to 350°F.

9. With a slotted spoon, remove and discard the ham bone and the onion from the beans. Then transfer half the beans with the pork rind to a cassole (a heavy Dutch oven will work as well).

10. Layer the ham meat over the beans, then the sausages and garlic puree and spread evenly. Arrange the duck legs on top.

11. Add the remaining beans. Season with the nutmeg and add just enough stock to cover the beans (about 3 cups). Reserve any remaining stock for later use.

12. Bake uncovered for about 1 hour, until the cassoulet comes to a simmer and a crust begins to form.

13. Reduce heat to 250°F, and cook for 3 more hours. Regularly check and press down the top with the back of a spoon to break the crust and bring fresh beans to the surface. Add stock to keep cassoulet bubbling around the edges.

14. Remove the cassoulet from the oven and allow to cool before refrigerating overnight, covered. Refrigerate any remaining stock.

Day 2:

15. Remove cassoulet from the refrigerator and allow to come to room temperature (about 45 minutes). Warm up the stock. Preheat the oven to 350°F.

16. Bake for 1 hour, until cassoulet comes to a simmer and crust begins to form again. Add stock as needed. Cassoulet should be bubbling along the edges and feel moist with a crust on top.

17. Reduce heat to 250°F and bake for another 3 hours, breaking the crust regularly with the back of a spoon and adding liquid as needed (if no stock remains, add water).

18. Remove the cassoulet from the oven and let it rest for 15 minutes before serving. Place the cassole at the center of the table and serve family style.

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