Tour de France nutrition, Medieval-style

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If a French rider has the yellow jersey during the first week of the Tour de France, and is feeling the pressure, his team chef might look to the history of south-west France for inspiration.

In 1355, during the Hundred Years War, the English lay siege to the prized town of Castelnaudary. Faced with starvation, the locals agreed to share food to make a communal dish.

Scraps of meat — duck, goose, pork — were thrown into a big pot along with beans, vegetables and herbs. Cooked slowly over a low fire, the resulting casserole not only kept the townspeople alive, it gave their soldiers enough energy to defeat the English forces.

Much better than an isotonic energy gel.

This powerful dish was originally known as suffocate, whose literal meaning is to suffocate. Perhaps this referred to suffocating hunger as much as suffocating the English invaders.

The modern name of cassoulet was only adopted in the 19th century, inspired by the simple earthenware cooking pots, called cassolo, used across the Languedoc region.
Like much of French regional cuisine, the debate about which ingredients constitute a ‘proper’ cassoulet is fierce.

Towns across the region lay claim to making the best version, though Castelnaudary has definitely won the battle to be the historical originator. Their version uses duck confit, sausage and pork shoulder. In Montauban a spiced tomato sauce is used. In Carcassonne the principal meat is mutton, while in Auch only duck or goose are allowed. Most versions have a sprinkling of breadcrumbs on top.

Cassoulet, a traditional dish from south-western France. (Photo: Andia/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Once the cook has made their choice (staying true to the dish’s origins this is not really a choice because the cook should be using whatever they have in the larder), the method for making a cassoulet is long-winded but simple. It starts the day before, when the cook makes a broth from the bones of whichever meat is being used in the dish (plus whatever other bones and salted pigs trotters are lying around the kitchen).

That evening the beans should be soaked in cold water. The Academy du Cassoulet recommends that if you are a heavy sleeper you should set your alarm to get up two or three times during the night to change the soaking water.

Remember, a good cassoulet is more important than a good night’s sleep. In the morning, drain the broth and beans. Chop any cooked meats. Melt confit meat in a frying pan. In the resulting hot fat, brown cubes of pork loin, then garlic and onion.

Blanch the beans in cold water, then simmer them for ten minutes. Combine all these ingredients in the pan, loosened with the broth, then tip them into your earthenware pot. Lay any duck legs and Toulouse sausage on top, pushing down into the mixture a little. Sprinkle breadcrumbs on top and cook on a low heat for at least two hours. Ideally, place the pot in a hearth where the log fire has just gone out. The residual heat will cook the dish to perfection. If you can bear it, leave the cassoulet for another day – it always tastes better reheated. If you choose to do this, have an isotonic gel to keep you going.

Though cassoulet can be found in expensive restaurants in Paris and New York, it is still essentially a humble, hearty dish.

Country food at its most nourishing. And if a deep bowl of rich meat and beans doesn’t appeal in the height of summer, don’t worry – cassoulet is best served in the depths of winter, in front of a log fire. After five hours on the bike. Then you might just about balance out the calories.

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