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FOOD & DRINK

Is France’s cassoulet set to take over the world?

Cassoulet, the stick-to-your-ribs staple of French cooking combining beans and duck -- at least in the original recipe -- is spreading its wings as makers in southwestern France look to conquer the world palate.

Is France's cassoulet set to take over the world?
The drive to promote the dish rooted in the Hundred Years War is ambitious, according to Jean-Louis Male, the “grand master” of the guild based in the cassoulet capital, Castelnaudary.
   
For one thing, “every country already has a dish based on beans,” he said.
   
For another, cassoulet has a bit of an identity problem.
   
“There are as many recipes as there are cooks,” Male said.
   
“In Castelnaudary it's goose or duck, in Toulouse it's sausage or mutton, and when they're in season, Carcassonne partridges,” said Pierre Poli, head of the Universal Cassoulet Academy.
   
Now Poli's academy has teamed up with Male's guild to promote the dish around the world, working through France's diplomatic missions in countries including Canada, Belgium, Britain and Japan.
 
 
 
The hearty stew has already made inroads in New York, where it is served in around 30 restaurants, and it is gaining ground in Chicago and Houston.
   
In New York last September, 25 chefs competed in a “cassoulet-off” with Pierre Landet of the Felix restaurant triumphing in the category of authenticity.
   
“It's my duty to show French tradition,” Landet told AFP, dismissing a rival in Harlem as “too Jamaican” with his recipe featuring black and red beans and ginger-flavoured sausage.
   
But another chef, J.J. Johnson of the restaurant The Cecil, won the special public prize.
   
The true origins of cassoulet are lost in the mists of time but are irrevocably linked to the Hundred Years War, the 116-year religious conflict between France and England in the 14th and 15th centuries.
  
As legend has it, the residents of Castelnaudary invented the meal to combat famine while under siege by the British.
 
 
And the favourite dish of French people is...?
 
Virtual religion 
 
Proponents of cassoulet have made a virtual religion of it, with high muckety-mucks of the guild donning red robes and hats for special gatherings.
   
The guild – the Grande Confrerie du Cassoulet de Castelnaudary – even has a hymn in its praise sung in the local Occitan language.
   
An early high priest of cassoulet was Prosper Montagne, who in 1929 spoke of a trinity of recipes composed of Castelnaudary the Father, Carcassonne the Son, and Toulouse the Holy Spirit.
   
Purists reject variations on the original beans and duck, from pizza- and crepe-based concoctions to even cassoulet ice cream.
   
In 2011, Castelnaudary's market nearly erupted into violence when a mischievous British duo staged a stunt in which they professed to offer “genuine” cassoulet with flavours including orange marmalade and mint.
   
The name is said to come from the cassole, a large earthenware pot that the dish was originally cooked in.
   
Of some 85,000 tonnes produced each year, 22,000 are top quality, Male said, adding that Castelnaudary represents 90 percent of the best quality cassoulet.
   
Every summer Castelnaudary's five-day cassoulet festival draws some 60,000 people.

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FOOD & DRINK

Reader question: Exactly how many different types of cheese are there in France?

One thing everyone can agree on is that France has a lot of cheese - but exactly how many French fromages exist?

Reader question: Exactly how many different types of cheese are there in France?

Question: I often see a quote from Charles de Gaulle talking about ‘246 different types of cheese’, but other articles say there are 600 or even 1,000 different types of cheese and some people say there are just eight types – how many different cheeses are there in France?

A great question on a subject dear to French hearts – cheese.

But it’s one that doesn’t have a simple answer.

Charles de Gaulle did indeed famously say “How can anyone govern a country with 246 different types of cheese”, but even in 1962 when he uttered the exasperated phrase, it was probably an under-estimate.

READ ALSO 7 tips for buying cheese in France

The issue is how you define ‘different’ types of cheese, and unsurprisingly France has a complicated system for designating cheeses.

Let’s start with the eight – there are indeed eight cheese ‘families’ and all of France’s many cheeses can be categorised as one of;

  • Fresh cheese, such as cottage cheese or the soft white fromage blanc
  • Soft ripened cheese, such as Camembert or Brie
  • Soft ripened cheese with a washed rind, such as l’Epoisses or Pont l’Eveque
  • Unpasturised hard cheese such as Reblochon or saint Nectaire
  • Pasturised hard cheese such as Emmental or Comté
  • Blue cheese such as Roquefort 
  • Goat’s cheese
  • Melted or mixed cheese such as Cancaillot

But there are lots of different types of, for example, goat’s cheese.

And here’s where it gets complicated, for two reasons.

The first is that new varieties of cheese are constantly being invented by enterprising cheesemakers (including some which come about by accident, such as le confiné which was created in 2020).

The second is about labelling, geography and protected status.

France operates a system known as Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC or its European equivalent AOP) to designate food products that can only be made in a certain area.

As cheese is an artisan product, quite a lot of different cheese are covered by this – for example a blue sheep’s milk cheese is only Roquefort if it’s been aged in the caves in the village of Roquefort.

There are 63 listed AOC cheeses in France, but many more varieties that don’t have this protected status.

These include generic cheese types such as BabyBel and other cheeses that are foreign in origin but made in France (such as Emmental).

But sometimes there are both AOC and non-AOC versions of a single cheese – a good example of this is Camembert.

AOC Camembert must be made in Normandy by farmers who have to abide by strict rules covering location, milk type and even what their cows eat.

Factory-produced Camembert, however, doesn’t stick to these rules and therefore doesn’t have the AOC label. Is it therefore the same cheese? They’re both called Camembert but the artisan producers of Normandy will tell you – at some length if you let them – that their product is a totally different thing to the mass-produced offering.

There are also examples of local cheeses that are made to essentially the same recipe but have different names depending on where they are produced – sometimes even being on opposite sides of the same Alpine valley is enough to make it two nominally different cheeses.

All of which is to say that guessing is difficult!

Most estimates range from between 600 to 1,600, with cheese experts generally saying there are about 1,000 different varieties. 

So bonne dégustation!

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