Saint-Jean distilled

You may recall my post about the gourmet walk in Saint-Jean-de-Minervois – if you missed it you can find it here.  When I returned to the reception area at the end of the walk, there was coffee and a tasting of spirits from the Distillerie du Petit Grain in Saint-Jean-de-Minervois.  I did taste the gin from the distillery that day, which was wonderful, but with the heat, and after all the food and walking, I could not really do it justice.  

The occasion to go for a (proper) tasting presented itself this summer, when I had friends visiting.  My friends are connoisseurs of fine spirits, and so I called Patricia and Laurent Gaspard, the owners of the distillery, to make a date.

Patricia and Laurent are both teachers, and the distillery is a hobby for them.  They are both passionate about what they produce.  To visit the distillery and to discover their products is to share in their passion.  The distillery is installed in a former stable, right next door to their home.  On the ground floor, the old manger is still on wall, joined by the some very up-to-date stainless steel tanks, where the fermentation and maceration take place.  When I first visited in the summer, the apricots were in the process of fermenting!

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The smell was delightful – but unfortunately the picture doesn’t really convey that!  I had expected it to smell of alcoholic fermentation but it was more like apricot jam!

Very steep wooden stairs lead to the first floor, where the boiler and still are located.

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The still was made by Jean-Louis Stupfler from Begles, who is renowned for his unique stills.  The process allows remarkable spirits of great elegance and finesse to be produced by single distillation.  The copper boiler is encased in a stainless steel base, and is heated by a gas burner located directly underneath the copper.  The copper columns to the left of the boiler separate and concentrate the alcohol.

All parts of the still gleam and shine – lovingly (and no doubt laboriously) polished by Laurent!  The wooden crates in the picture below hold glass demijohns or carboys, which are used for storing the spirits between distillation and bottling.

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Patricia and Laurent’s production is 100% artisanal – everything is done by hand.  To them, the quality of their spirits is everything, and they go to great lengths to capture the flavours of the fruits which go into making their eau de vie.  Not long before my visit, they had carefully sorted through 1000 kilos (that’s a ton!!) of apricots, using only the perfectly ripe fruit, from which they removed the stones.  Laurent had to return around 200 kilos to the producer, as the fruits were not ripe enough!  When they prepare the Williams pears they remove the stalk and blossom end from each fruit before cutting it up, and of course only perfectly ripe pears are used.

The results are worth all that work!!

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The apricot eau de vie has an amazing smell and taste of apricots, and the same goes for the pear eau de vie.  The taste of both lingers in the mouth long after you have swallowed the alcohol, and develops and changes with time – just like with a good wine.

Two gins are produced:  one with locally collected herbs and aromatics and the other with citrus fruits.  To my mind, both of them are far too good to mix with tonic water, but then why not?  It would make for an outstanding gin and tonic, no doubt!  The muscat eau de vie was out of stock at the time of my visit 😦  I’m not a great connoisseur of spirits, but these were delicious.  I came away with the very last bottle of apricot eau de vie from the 2014 production :D, and it has been the delight of my dinner guests ever since.

I was very intrigued by what Patricia and Laurent were doing with the distillery, and asked them if I could possibly come along on a day when the still was in operation.  They kindly agreed, and I went to Saint-Jean-de-Minervois again on a beautifully sunny but cold day in October, to watch the distillation of pear eau de vie.

Laurent had already fired up the boiler, but the alcohol had not yet started to flow when I arrived.  It wasn’t long though, before the first stream of clear alcohol started to pour from the spout.

Laurent caught some in a glass and held it out for me.  “Smell this”, he told me.  I had a bit of a cold and my sense of smell was deserting me, but I could detect a distinctive smell of acetone.  “That’s right”, he said, “that’s the poison!”.  He explained to me that this was the “head”, the most volatile of the alcohols, and that it was not to be used in the eau de vie.  Instead, he uses the “head” for rinsing out the demijohns, before rinsing them with filtered water.

Laurent kept sampling the alcohol, and every so often he would hold out the glass for me to sniff.  Sometimes he would instruct me to taste as well.  From time to time he made adjustments to the still, cooling it to increase the purity of the alcohol.  All the while a steady stream of alcohol was running into a large jug.

Here is a video for you – e-mail subscribers, please visit the website to see the video.

I am so sorry that this is not a “scratch-and-sniff” post, the aromas were really wonderful!

After about an hour or so, Laurent detected a change in the alcohol and told me that he had now arrived at the “tail” of the distillation.  Some of the tail gets mixed in with the spirit.  The remainder is not used for the eau de vie, but added to the next batch of fermented pear pulp.  After another 15 minutes or so, Laurent turned off the gas, emptied a valve to drain the contents of the boiler, and started to unscrew the brackets which hold down the top of the boiler.  First, the pipe connecting the boiler to the still was removed and carefully placed on brackets on the wall.

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After that, a kind of clip was fixed to the hole in the lid, and the lid carefully winched up – it was all very hot – think of the boiling contents inside!!  Patricia was holding on to the lid to stop the agitator from hitting the sides.  The agitator is the blue part on the right of the lid.  Think of it as a type of immersion blender, designed to keep the contents of the boiler moving about.

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Once the boiler was empty, it was carefully rinsed clean.  Laurent then added some water, lit the fire once more, and filled the boiler with fermented pear pulp, which Patricia was pumping up from one of the tanks downstairs.

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Here’s another video for you:

And that was the start of another batch – kind of “here’s where we came in earlier”!!

Before I left, Laurent showed me the tanks with the fermenting pears.  I was amazed at the colour of what was in the tank – whenever I prepare pears they go brown almost immediately, and these were beautifully white!  Apparently it’s all to do with the fact that oxygen is excluded during the fermentation.

In one vat, Laurent had to mash the crust which had formed on the top, so that the batch would ferment evenly – afterwards it looked like a lovely pear puree, really yummy!!

There is a lot more technical detail, but I’ll leave it to Patricia and Laurent to explain that to you when you visit them.  Do remember that they both have full-time jobs, so contact them before you go to Saint-Jean-de-Minervois!!  You can find their contact details here.

 

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A gourmet walk

The small village of Saint-Jean-de-Minervois is home to one of the oldest AOCs of the Languedoc region.  AOC stands for Appellation d’Origine Controlee – a geographical quality certification.  The wines of the AOC Saint-Jean-de-Minervois are sweet wines, produced from the muscat grape, with a high amount of residual sugar.  Fermentation is stopped by adding alcohol, before the yeasts have had time to consume all the sugar.  The result is an amazingly fragrant sweet wine, which should be well chilled before drinking.  The growers also produce a number of other wines, such as dry muscat (white), rose and red wines, which are not classified under the AOC Saint-Jean-de-Minervois.

On June 7th, 2015 the winegrowers of Saint-Jean-de-Minervois organised their second Balade Gourmande, a gourmet walk; last year (2014) was the first time they had organised this kind of event.  A Balade Gourmande is a walk with a number of stops along the way, where you eat and/or drink, allowing you to enjoy the countryside without having to schlep the picnic!  Numbers were limited to 300 persons, and for this year’s event, the participants were assigned a time to depart in groups of around 30.  A guide or two led each group, to ensure that nobody got lost on the walk through the vineyards.  I had booked with a few friends and we had been assigned the first departure at 11am.  Somewhat early, I thought, but as it turned out it was perfect!

reception area for the walk

The reception area for the walk

The reception area was just across the road from the cooperative winery in Saint-Jean-de-Minervois, and there were plenty of parking spaces.  Upon registration every participant was issued with their walking “kit”:  A yellow hat, a glass with a kind harness to hang around the neck (very important 🙂 ), a book of vouchers for the food we were to eat along the way, a pen, a set of cutlery, a napkin, and a booklet giving details of all the food and wine, along with prices of the wine, and contact details of the domaines.

Soon everyone was wearing their hats and getting quite excited!

Getting ready for the walk

Getting ready for the walk

 

Our guides were Anne and Karine, both of them winegrowers with an intimate knowledge of the terroir.

meeting our guides

Meeting our guides

The walk was about 6km long, and there were stops approx. each kilometer, either for something to eat or…

So off we went:

The vineyards at the start of the walk

The vineyards at the start of the walk

The trail was well signposted, just in case anyone struggled to keep up or had to take a little break.

Signpost along the way

Signpost along the way

Our first stop was for a welcome drink:  a glass of sparkling Muscat sec.

After a brief rest, we followed our guides as they led us down little known tracks – only someone who had spent their entire lives here could be truly familiar with them all!

Walking along the vineyards

Walking along the vineyards

I could not resist this lovely clump of poppies along the way:

poppies along the way

Poppies along the way

You’ll notice the white rocks surrounding the poppies.  The area of the AOC Saint-Jean-de-Minervois is on a limestone plateau, and the sun bleaches the rocks to an almost pure white.  It is quite a dazzling sight!

We next came to another dazzling sight – one of the canyons which cross the plateau:

Canyon crossing the limestone plateau

Canyon crossing the limestone plateau

And here is a vineyard with the typical “white” look.

A typical Saint-Jean-de-Minervois vineyard

A typical Saint-Jean-de-Minervois vineyard

Before long we reached our first Etape Gourmande, a food stop!  This was where we would eat the starter:

First "Etape Gourmande"

First “Etape Groumande” – starter

A tent had been set up, in what seemed to be the middle of nowhere, and the chefs from Les Cuisiniers Cavistes in Narbonne were hard a work to prepare our starters:

The starter was named Du Causses a la Mediterranee” – a crispy puff pastry base covered with sheep’s cheese (from the Causses), topped with crunchy vegetables and pieces of home-smoked fish (from the Mediterranee).  The whole was dressed with a vinaigrette prepared with vinegar made with Muscat.   It was a very delicious morsel!!

"Du Causses a la Mediterranee"

“Du Causses a la Mediterranee”

Wines from Domaine Montahuc, Domaine de Barroubio, Clos du Gravillas, Domaine Marcon and Cave le Muscat were there to accompany the starter.

Nicely chilled wines

Nicely chilled wines

After this very pleasant break we continued on our walk.

Walking through the vineyards

Walking through the vineyards

Our next stop was a Halte Artistique, a break to rest and enjoy some art.  In this case it was music:

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I took a video for you also – e-mail subscribers, please remember to visit the site for the video.

There was chilled water available, both still and fizzy.  Suitably refreshed and rested, we headed off to find the next stop! 🙂  On the way we passed a wonderfully fragrant spot – Spanish broom was flowering all around us, almost intoxicating us with its beautiful fragrance.

A wonderfully fragrant spot

A wonderfully fragrant spot

Before long we reached the next stop – the second Etape Gourmande, where we were to be served our main course.

2nd "Etape Groumande" - main course

2nd “Etape Groumande” – main course

The installation was very impressive – a covered seating area with big kitchen area behind, AND there were toilets!

The title of the main course was “De L’Aubrac au Causse”.  The Aubrac region is famous for raising high quality beef and we were served a piece of beef filet with a sauce prepared with Grenache (wine) and veal jus, accompanied by spring vegetables.  The beef was perfectly cooked and ever so tender – I’m salivating at the memory of it!!

Main course being served

The main course being served

Looking through my pictures I realised – horror of horrors – that I do not have a picture of the main course!!  “Oh no” – I can hear you say – “how could that have happened??”  Perhaps I was too distracted by the lady who was singing popular French chansons whilst accompanying herself on the accordion.

Accordionist

The accordionist

Wines were provided by all the wineries previously mentioned, plus in addition, Domaine du Sacre Coeur.

After this wonderful interlude, our guides led us to a marvellous spot.  From the top of one of Karine’s vineyards we had the most wonderful view over the whole area covered by the AOC Saint-Jean-de-Minervois.

View towards Saint-Jean-de-Minervois

View towards Saint-Jean-de-Minervois

We were now well past lunchtime, and you can see a bit of a build-up of clouds in the above picture.  Over on the far left it started to look a little black, but the sun was still shining!!

Our next stop was another Halte Artistique and there was more music.  In a shady copse, benches, deck chairs and even a hammock had been set up, so we could rest our weary legs and relax with some music.

relaxing music

Relaxing music

Here is a video for you:

After the rest and relaxation we were ready to walk onwards to our next Etape Gourmande: the cheese course!

3rd "Etape Gourmande" - Cheese

3rd “Etape Gourmande” – cheese

A selection of three cheeses were accompanied by Muscat from Domaines Barroubio and Montahuc and Cave Le Muscat.

Cheese Course

Cheese course

The two goat’s cheeses were from Combebelle near Villespassans; the blue cheese was a Fourme d’Ambert and served with a muscat jelly.  Below is Anne Camelot from Combebelle with a helper.

Cheese course being prepared

Cheese course being prepared

It looked as though the storm building in the distance was headed our way, so we needed no encouragement from our guides to get to the next and ultimate Etape Gourmande: Dessert!!

Final "Etape Gourmande" - dessert

Final “Etape Gourmande” – dessert

The chefs were busy putting the final touches on our desserts.

Desserts being prepared

Desserts being prepared

The title of the dessert was Quand St Jean devoile son exotisme”.  Dessert was an exotic composition of tender sponge cake, mascarpone with passion fruit, and roasted mango and pineapple, served with a mango and passion fruit coulis.  With that there were three different muscats to choose from – perfect harmony and sheer bliss!!

Exotic and tasty dessert

Exotic and tasty dessert

All too soon it was time to move on and return to the reception area and the car park.  On the way I photographed the remains of the windmill near the Cooperative winery in Saint-Jean-de-Minervois.  The light was extraordinary!

Ruined windmill in Saint-Jean-de-Minervois

Ruined windmill in Saint-Jean-de-Minervois

Back at the reception area there was coffee and a tasting of spirits from the Distillerie du Petit Grain.  I was lucky and did not have to drive that day.  Their Gin is absolutely exquisite!  All of the wines we had tasted throughout our walk could be bought at the end.

end of our gourmet walk

The end of our gourmet walk

What a wonderful day!!  The storm which brewed in the distance, and which made for such dramatic skies, stayed in the distance, and we didn’t get wet!!  🙂  I came home with some wonderful wines, and I am planning to sign up for next year’s walk!!  Why don’t you join me?  If you want to stay close by, you can rent L’Ancien Cafe in Saint-Jean-de-Minervois

Food and wine

A friend recently told me of a cookery programme she had watched on UK television.  She was intrigued by a recipe for a flan made with Muscat de Saint-Jean-de-Minervois wine, and she was very keen to try it out.

We made a date for us to cook this together, and I watched the video, to see what it was all about.  The recipe comes from Hairy Bikers’ Bakeation (pronounced like vacation?), and was first shown on Television on April 24, 2014.  The show featured recipes for an apricot tarte tatin, brioche sausage rolls, praline brioche, and the flan de Saint-Jean-de-Minervois.  Out of those recipes, I will definitely try the apricot tarte tatin, next year when apricots are in season again.  I will include the video of the flan at the end of this post, and I’ll get to our flan experiment in a moment, but first a little about the Muscat de Saint-Jean-de-Minervois wine.

As its name implies, the wine is made from muscat grapes.  The Muscat de Saint-Jean-de-Minervois is produced in a small area around the little village of Saint-Jean-de-Minervois, which is located 12 km south-west of Saint Chinian.  The vineyards are on a limestone plateau at an altitude of 220 to 270 metres.  The grapes used in the production are a variety called petit grain, and indeed the individual grapes are very small.  As you approach the village, you’ll notice the vineyards where the plants seem to rise from a white soil.  The white colour comes from limestone rocks, bleached by the sun.  It is one of the many aspects of the “terroir” for this wine.

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Harvest of the muscat grapes usually takes place during the first half of September, and I was very lucky to catch some of it.  The vineyards above had already been harvested, so there were no grapes left.  But just past the cooperative winery in Saint-Jean I spotted a tractor and several people in a vineyard.

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All of the picking of the muscat grapes is done by hand.  I imagine that the grapes are too delicate and small to be picked by machine, although an engineer could probably find a solution if that is the problem.  Still, I like the fact that it is all hand-picked!

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The view of the trailer full of grapes was delicious, and the smell….  I leave you to imagine that :)!  The grapes were perfection, with tiny little spots of brown, typical for this grape variety.

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The lady in charge of the vineyard insisted that I take some grapes with me.  She fetched some secateurs, and proceeded to look for some choice bunches of grapes.  The very small, shrivelled up grapes were the ones I enjoyed best.  They tasted like sun-dried raisins, only better!

Next I went to the cooperative winery, where I quizzed the lady behind the counter.  The Cave Cooperative produces three different kinds of muscat wine. The Cuvee Petit Grain is the entry level muscat, with a nose of ripe fruit (apricot jam) and lime flowers, and a honey like finish. This wine is good with grilled chestnuts, blue cheese and apple tart.

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Next up is the Cuvee Selection, blended from the best batches of muscat of any one year.  The colour of this wine is somewhat paler than that of the Cuvee Petit Grain, and it has a strong nose of fresh fruit (mango and litchi) and thyme flowers, with an aftertaste reminiscent of fresh figs.  Just so you don’t think I’m making this up, the information comes from the official tasting notes :)!  This wine goes well with foie gras, melon, strawberry soup, and braised turnips from Pardailhan.

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The top-notch muscat is called Eclat Blanc, and of the three is the one I like best.  It has an incredibly pale colour, and a nose of lime flower, acacia, citronella and clementine.  There is a wonderful balance of sweet and acid, and it has great freshness and finesse.  Apparently you can drink this wine with your whole meal.  I don’t think I would though, as at 15% alcohol it is rather strong.

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The reason the muscat wines are so strong lies in their vinification.  The fermentation of the wines is stopped at a certain point by adding alcohol, which preserves some of the sugar present in the grape juice.  If the grapes are harvested a little earlier, and the wine is left to ferment naturally, you end up with a Muscat Sec, a dry muscat wine, which has the wonderful floral notes on the nose, but none of the sweetness when you drink it.  The cooperative winery produces a number of other wines apart from muscat, including a sparkling wine made with muscat sec, and red and rose wines.  The picture on the left shows a selection of bottles of muscat from the winery through the years, and the display in the picture on the right shows all wines currently for sale.

By now you’re probably wondering if we will ever get to the flan!  Yes, we will – we’re starting right now!!  The ingredients are simple:  milk, eggs, sugar, muscat, lavender honey, and orange zest.

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The muscat we used came from Domaine Sacre Coeur in Assignan – there are a number of independent producers of Muscat de Saint-Jean-de-Minervois, in addition to the cooperative winery.  None of the preparation of the flan is very complicated.  You will find the entire recipe here.  Having watched the video and read the recipe, I’m relieved to see that they do not specify a non-stick pan for making the caramel in the recipe.  To my mind using a non-stick pan when cooking sugar is a total no-no – the temperature rises far too high, potentially damaging the non-stick finish, and releasing who-knows-what in the process.

First of all we made the caramel – in a heavy stainless steel pan.  The trick with caramel is to keep your nerves: it has to be a good colour, since it won’t get any darker during the cooking process which follows.  At the same time, it will continue to cook somewhat, once you have poured it into the tin, so you have to catch it at the right moment.  Here’s what mine looked like:

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Immediately after I took the picture I poured the caramel into the waiting brioche tin, and swirled it around.  The tin did get quite hot, so oven gloves or a cloth to hold the tin with are a very good idea.  And don’t get any caramel on your hands!

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At the same time as the sugar was cooking, we heated the milk and infused it with the orange zest and the lavender honey:

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And when the caramel was cooling in the tin and the milk sufficiently infused, we cracked the eggs into a bowl, beat them well with the muscat wine, strained the infused (and slightly cooled) milk onto the beaten eggs, and then poured all of it into the prepared brioche tin.

The tin was placed inside a cast iron casserole, and boiling water poured in to a height of two thirds up the side of the flan tin.  The flan required five minutes more cooking time than the recipe indicated, and it was covered with tinfoil part way through the cooking.

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A couple of days later I had dinner with my friends, and we had the flan for dessert.  Un-moulding it was a little nerve-wracking – would it come out OK and in one piece??

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The caramel showing around the tin is a good sign – it means that the flan has released.

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But will it be all in one piece and looking pretty??  Find out:

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Yes!!!  We did it 🙂  And I think it looks even prettier than the flan on the TV show, but then I am biased!!  The texture was lovely and silky, the taste was good, but I could not taste the muscat, and I felt that it could have been a little sweeter.  All in all it is a great dessert, and very easy to prepare once you have mastered the caramel.

I took a piece of flan home with me, since there was too much for the three of us to eat at one meal.  I ate it a couple of days later, and felt that the flavour had improved.  If you are tempted to make this, do plan ahead and leave it to sit in the fridge for a few days, I would say up to four days is good.  I will certainly make it again!

And here is the video (e-mail subscribers, please visit the blog site to watch the video):

Centennial Celebrations!

When I posted last week’s article about the Canal du Midi, WordPress told me – much to my amazement – that I had published my 99th post!  Which makes this the 100th post on this blog – and a centenary calls for a celebration!!

But first of all, my thanks to everyone who has been reading, liking and commenting, to my partner for his unwavering support, and to Annie for her dedicated proof-reading!!  It’s been highly enjoyable for me and I hope you’ve enjoyed it too!  I love reading your comments and if there’s anything you would like me to write about then please let me know!

Now, how about celebrating with some Cassoulet??  It’s a typical winter dish from the Languedoc, and it is very special!  According to some sources, making a “proper” Cassoulet takes three days, and I can well believe it.  We’ll have our Cassoulet at  L’Auberge de l’Ecole in Saint Jean de Minervois – Brigitte makes her Cassoulet the way her grandmother taught her, and it is delicious, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it!

L’Auberge de l’Ecole is in the former schoolhouse of St Jean de Minervois, and we’ll find the menu written on an old blackboard, which can be tilted in the direction of our table.  The fireplace at the other end of the room is great for cooking a steak or lamb chop on, and the fire is always a cheery sight on a cool day!

Before we start our meal, here is Brigitte’s recipe for Cassoulet:  she starts by soaking the beans in water overnight, with a pinch of baking soda.  The following day she rinses the beans well, brings a pot of water to a boil and adds the beans.  She then lets the water come to a boil again, drains the beans; brings fresh water to a boil and adds the beans again; she repeats this once more, then simmers the beans until tender.

Brigitte also makes her own confit de canard, pieces of duck simmered slowly in duck fat.  It is an interesting process, but unless you can buy fat ducks readily it’s best to buy your confit ready-made, in a tin.

Once the beans are cooked and the confit ready, Brigitte assembles the Cassoulet:  in a large casserole she slowly cooks chopped onions in duck fat until they are golden but not browned.  To the onion she adds some tomato paste, garlic, herbes de provence, lardons (diced streaky bacon) and the cooked beans.  Brigitte then seasons this and leaves it to simmer until the beans are impregnated with the flavours;  halfway through the cooking time she adds the pieces of confit – as the confit is already cooked she doesn’t want it to get cooked to the point of disintegrating. Before serving, she puts the Cassoulet in a nice gratin dish, sprinkles it with breadcrumbs and grills it until the top is crisp and golden.

So there you have it – this is Brigitte’s recipe!  One thing Brigitte seems to have left out is the sausage!! I know that whenever I have her Cassoulet, there is always a nice piece of Toulouse sausage in it, in addition to the confit.

But now you’ve been salivating long enough – it’s time to sit down and eat – à table!!  What shall we have as a starter before our Cassoulet?  How about some starters to share?  A platter of boudin noir (black pudding) with apples, and some foie gras (this one made with duck liver) – both very delicious!

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And now for the Cassoulet – one dish per person!!

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Will you have room for dessert?  In case you do here is some home-made pear tart.

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If you had eaten all that food you would certainly not want anything for dinner tonight, but seeing that this has been a virtual lunch you might be more hungry than ever?!  All the same, I hope you’ve enjoyed our little celebration!!  Thanks for coming along and à bientôt, I hope.

If you’d like to spend more time in St Jean de Minervois have a look at www.midihideaways.com/anciencafe