Roughly speaking, books about cooking (as distinct from books of recipes) fall into two categories.
One is the plainly insincere "wish you were here" genre, in which writers seclude themselves in an idyllic spot to recount stories about food the reader will never eat, views never enjoyed, drinking companions never met. Peter Mayle's works, set in his Pommified enclave in Provence, epitomise that sub-set.
At the other extreme lurked Anthony Bourdain. Instead of unctuously describing food you might hope to dine on in heaven, Bourdain offered the food-eater's apocalypse. He always remained eager to tell readers in the goriest detail about awful places he had visited and hideous dishes he had consumed there. In our home, we tell true horror stories about being served pigeon claws, dogs' balls and oozing deer's foot in saffron jelly. Bourdain would have been quite at ease sitting down to all that.
Sitting in the more sedate, comfy middle we might find Keith Floyd, glass in hand, or Rick Stein, bobbing up and down in a fishing boat. Reaching back in mind, Julia Child made that middle ground her own for a generation, educating while amusing us.
In their disparate ways, most of those writers have seem obliged to try to transmute their skills at the hot plate into celebrity status. That process might be labelled the Nigella effect. Excellent cooks may well tend to be eccentric and egocentric, controlling and awkward. Those are not the standard components for high television ratings.
Many food writers present cooking food as wish fulfilment. The cooks usually present dishes not quite beyond our capabilities, with only a few exotic ingredients, a stove with a couple of extra functions, and some sleek specialty items of cookware. The appeal of that vicarious, fantasy approach to cooking is one explanation for the remarkable popularity of MasterChef Australia in India, a country where few middle-class households ever prepare their own food.
By contrast, Sylvie Bigar writes largely about one person only, herself, and one dish alone, the cassoulet. A splendid book has already been written about cooking and eating the dishes of southern France. My reference is not to Elizabeth David's worthy French Provincial Cooking but rather to Deckle Edge's Duck Season. That records an exuberant voyage of discovery among the ducks of Gascony, tidied up with an exquisitely naughty recipe for duck skin crackling.
Plenty of other dishes contain more ingredients and entail more processes than the cassoulet. Many others may be more refined and delicate. In addition, southern France boasts two related meals which are first-rate, standard entries in recipe books. One is confit de canard, associated with the Dordogne and Gascony. The second is the daube, a dark, rich beef stew best eaten in Albi.
Nonetheless, cassoulet is more diverse, more succulent and more sustaining than either of those. Sylvie Bigar defines a cassoulet as "a slow-cooked carnivorous orgy of pork, lamb, duck, beans and herbs stewed in an earthenware tureen". That definition strips away any of the romance embedded in the dish - in its distinguished heritage (dating back to the Hundred Years' War), its embodiment of French terroir and its intricate preparation.
A better introduction to the cassoulet is provided at the end of the book, with 17 pages of recipes, including five versions of the dish of the hour. Bigar's own serves eight, taking 11 hours to prepare over two days. For less committed carnivores, Bigar slips in a simpler recipe for cholent, which is composed merely of beans, beef brisket and chicken legs.
Bigar is a Swiss-French food and travel writer based in New York. She commences this gastronomic journey in her family's capacious Swiss mansion, where she, as a child, was served at dinner by "our loyal Spanish butler".
Moving on to her adult career, Bigar pitches an article on cassoulet, then solicits the aid of the co-founder of France's Academie Universelle de Cassoulet.
That title typifies a French approach to cooking, eating and, indeed, to the world. "Universelle" is a proud boast for a dish identified with one region of one country. "Academie" connotes an earnest attempt to cherish traditions, true or false. Membership of the Academie entails a bit of dressing up, mysterious songs in the Oc language, and a haughty disdain for dumbed-down commercial knock-offs. France's wine regions indulge in similar pantomimes, but with a less appetising dinner to look forward to.
Bigar revels in convivial, collegial cooking. She also interweaves her own family stories, focused around her notion of home, her father's secrets and her Judaism.
The cassoulet, though, rather than the author, is the hero of this book. Anyone who could write that "each ingredient sang its own gustative melody" knows true love.
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