Back in 2008, writer Sylvie Bigar was assigned a story on cassoulet for the dearly departed publication, Food Arts. It seemed like a simple enough assignment, with the bonus of a trek to southern France.
“I thought, oh, I’ll go there, eat some beans, meet a chef, maybe taste something on the counter in a kitchen,” Bigar says. “I’d write my notes and start a draft of the story on the plane on the way home and move on to the next thing. In fact, that trip changed my life.”
So much so, she spent the last 15 years digging deeply into the dish and its intangible but no-less forceful tug on her life, all of which manifested in the book Cassoulet Confessions: Food, France, Family and the Stew That Saved My Soul.
“What I saw there, tasted there and the people I met there created some kind of a grip on my mind and my heart. I couldn’t shake thinking about it,” says Bigar. “I realized it was more than what it seemed. And, in fact, cassoulet was the thread that would somehow lead me to face some of my family history.”
Simply put, cassoulet is a French stew that contains a base of beans, several different kinds of meat, some vegetables and fresh herbs. But of course, there’s really nothing simple about the days-long-cooked classic, or Bigar’s wonderful, touching, relatable story.
She’ll spill the beans of her quest, as well as the intricacies of Occitane’s famed rich and layered stew Thursday, February 9th at Almond’s wonderful Artists and Writers series, co-presented with Stony Brook University’s Food Lab.
“It’s a great story worth sharing with our community, where eating locally sourced foods is an important part of our food culture,” says Judiann Carmack-Fayyaz, director of FoodLab education, whose mission is to reinvigorate the dialogue around food and agriculture. Carmack-Fayyaz became familiar with cassoulet and its deep connection to the agricultural world the dish is influenced by while living in France for three years. Like Bigar, she fell in love with the food there, especially cassoulet.
“Cassoulet is king. I was intrigued by Sylvie’s story and her discoveries about the dish,” says Carmack-Fayyaz. “Almond Restaurant was the perfect choice for this event as Jason and Eric have always been at the forefront of the farm to table[movement and] source as close to the restaurant as possible. The deal was sealed when Almond said that Jason made a mean cassoulet!”
Chef and co-owner Jason Weiner and chef de cuisine Andrew Mahoney have been scouring Bigar’s memoir for inspiration, which includes a healthy smattering of recipes: traditional versions from Castelnaudary, Toulouse, the go-to from chef Eric “Pope of Cassoulet” Garcia (for whom Bigar volunteered as a stagiaire), as well as Bigar’s own takes on the dish, which is typically days in the making.
“You can be sure it will have house-made garlic sausage, house-cured duck confit and house-smoked bacon,” says Weiner. “We’ll also being using beans from our East End farmer friends—specifically, Marilee Foster and Quail Hill Farm.”
In addition to the beans and meats, Bigar says another key (and often overlooked) ingredient to stand-out cassoulet is fresh herbs. “Dried are not the same thing. Out east, places like the Green Thumb in Water Mill on Route 27 provide the best organic fresh herbs that I’ve had in America—amazing mint, garlic, chives, rosemary,” says Bigar. “[In France], Chef Eric Garcia made a bouquet garnis as big as a baguette, and it gives the cassoulet this fresh, grassy taste. There’s no way you can replicate that with dry herbs.”
Beyond its irresistible components lies a much deeper, richer story—one worth spooning into. So what made Bigar cling to cassoulet? “I don’t want to give away the ending of the book. I want people to be surprised and get that soulful shock that I went through,” she says. “What I can say is I discovered that, in fact, cassoulet was much more than a stew for me. It’s a metaphor and a thread for this quest, and nothing could have prepared me for what I found.”
Tickets for the three-course dinner plus a glass of wine or beer are a pocket-easy $59 a piece, and Bigar’s book will be available that night, too (you can also grab a copy at BookHampton to ensure a signed copy the night of the event). Almond Restaurant is located at One Ocean Road, Bridgehampton, 631-537-5665—à bientôt!