If you drive north from Quebec City through Parc Jacques-Cartier and continue through another one hundred miles of spruce and balsam and mountain lakes, you will arrive at the town of Jonquiere, a suburb of Saguenay in central Quebec. The Auberge Villa Pachon is located there, on the banks of the Aux Sables River. Three years ago we read an article about the chef there, and the cassoulet he prepares. We drove seven hours from our home in the Adirondacks to try it.
You would be hard pressed to name a dish with a richer history than cassoulet, the savory meat and bean casserole of southwestern France. Food historians trace the origins of the dish to the seige of Castelnaudary in 1355, where the trapped occupants survived by keeping a pot simmering for the length of the seige, constantly adding whatever was left in the cupboard, and whatever happened by the pot – some mutton, some spices, a low flying pheasant. Two nearby towns also claim cassoulet as their own, Toulouse, which was the provincial capital of Languedoc – Roussillon, and Carcassonne, where you will find the Académie Universelle du Cassoulet, which awards accredited cassoulet chefs with the title Grand Maître Cassoulet. In North America, we have two such chefs who have been awarded this prestigious accreditation.
One is Philippe Bertineau, who up until this winter was the Executive Chef at Benoit, Alain Ducasse’s bistro on 55th in Manhattan. Bertineau left Benoit in December and last I heard he was recharging his batteries in Italy. On a recent visit to Benoit I was assured that Bertineau left his recipe with the kitchen. The other North American cassoulet ambassador is Daniel Pachon, a Canadian chef who emigrated from Carcassonne to Quebec. He runs Auberge Villa Pachon with his wife, Carole. The lodge is located in Jonquiere, two and a half hours north of Quebec City. Coincidentally, the rustic lodge was built by the Price family as a seasonal getaway. The Prices, wealthy Quebec indusrilatists that started as loggers in Saguenay two hundred years ago, also built the Auberge St-Antoine in Quebec City, which I wrote about in a recent post. This destination has been on our bucket list for years, but I did not realize that they had a common heritage. After spending the holidays at the Auberge St-Antoine in Quebec City this past December, we decided to make the two and a half hour drive north to Jonquiere.
I fell in love with cassoulet at our first encounter, at the legendary La Côte Basque in New York. The dish stared up from the table of haute cuisine classics like the proverbial brown suit in a room full of tuxedos. For a student of the cultural origins of ethnic dishes, cassoulet provides a compelling study. It is the quintessential rustic peasant dish, totally without pretense. At its core, it is nothing more than a bean stew, simmered with farm fare that you would find in any country larder (especially if you were a farmer’s wife in the Languedoc region of France). Traditionally it is made with tarbais beans, a white cannellini-like bean, and duck confit, some pork hocks and garlicky French pork sausage (ideally from Toulouse) – and sometimes mutton. It spends the better part of the day in the oven, simmering away. When presented at table, and the casserole’s crust is cracked open, the escaping aroma is the very essence of savory – redolent of Mediterranean herbs – rosemary and thyme and garlic – harmonizing with the earthy base notes of the beans. The hocks and the duck legs surrender to the day long braise, the meats falling into the casserole to bubble along with the garlic infused duck fat. For fans, nothing better comes out of the oven, and if you are not a fan, you just haven’t had a good cassoulet. A simmering crock of cassoulet sits high above its haute cuisine epicurean pretenders in the pantheon of culinary masterpieces. When the warden asks me what I want for my last meal, I will, without question, ask for cassoulet, if for no other reason than the fact that it can take the better part of a week to prepare if you count the duck confit.
There are many variations of cassoulet recipes, depending on the architect. I’ve seen goose substituted for duck, kielbasa for French garlic sausage, and lollipop lamb chops are a frequent “garnish”, hidden in, or placed on top of, the beans. Some recipes include tomatoes, some not (although a few dollops of tomato paste can work wonders). Some cooks, myself included, prefer to top the casserole with breadcrumbs. There are probably as many recipes as there are French cookbooks. Paula Wolfert’s “The Cooking of Southwest France” is one of the best and should be the benchmark for serious home cooks. You can see her recipe for Toulouse-style cassoulet here. The NY Times food editor, Sam Sifton, is a serious student of cassoulet, and the Times Cooking Section will walk you through the process with some video assistance.
In days of yore, we had many great cassoulet chefs right here in the Hudson Valley. Claude Guermont, who owned lePavillon in Pleasant Valley, always had cassoulet on his winter menu. Chez Marcel in Rhinebeck was a frequent destination, just for their cassoulet, as was Marcel’s in Esopus. Now, unfortunately, they are all shuttered, along with their recipes.
It is this ongoing quest for a good crock of cassoulet that prompts me to peek at the internets from time to time, looking for a new source. It was Sam Sifton’s New York Times article about Chef Bertineau at Benoit that turned me on to the Académie Universelle du Cassoulet, and the subsequent search for more cassoulet masters – which brings us back to the Auberge Villa Pachon in Jonquiere.
In my travels, I have met many passionate cassoulet fans. I think I am quite justified in saying that chef at Auberge Villa Pachon, Daniel Pachon, makes the rest of us look like casual observers. The man lives and breathes cassoulet. He built a kitchen extension on his lodge that is totally dedicated to cassoulet production. He makes his own sausage, noticeably, sans garlic. “What do they know about sausage in Toulouse?”, he asked. (Recall that Pachon is from the rival cassoulet town of Carcassonne!)
He imports his duck – only moulards, a Pekin – Muscovy hybrid, from France. He imports his tarbais beans from Argentina. He brought me into his walk-in cooler to show me his crocks of marinating confit – dozens of duck legs sitting in clay crocks of duck fat, just waiting for their turn in the casserole – the clay “cassole” from which cassoulet takes its name. When we told him that we had driven from New York to Jonquiere just for his cassoulet, he gave us a warm embrace and insisted we come into the kitchen. I asked if I could come back the next day with a camera to document the visit. The next morning he greeted us in pressed dress whites, and a toque as tall as he was, beaming like a Kardashian for the camera.
In anticipation of our cassoulet dinner, the chef brought us down into the cellar to rummage through his wine cellar. He blew past the Mouton and the Petrus and Haut Brion before arriving at his suggestion for the evening. Fully expecting, and fully prepared, to have a comma in the liquor tab after a trip this far for dinner, I was totally taken aback to be staring at the proffered bottle, a Chateau Tour Boisée – a syrah-grenache blend from Minervois, just east of the chef’s hometown of Carcassonne. $20 – tops. No grand crus for this dish, just a simple local wine to go with a simple rural dish. The lodge buys it by the palate to go with the six thousand servings of cassoulet that they prepare each season. It was every bit as enjoyable as any Grand Cru I have ever opened, but I assume the cassoulet and the company might have contributed to that.
Our dinner was served, in an otherwise empty dining room, by Chef Pachon himself, as his wife Carole was off celebrating the holidays with her family. I think he appreciated our enthusiasm as much as we appreciated his talents. It was one of the most memorable dining experiences that we have enjoyed anywhere. I don’t think I have ever met anyone as proud of his work as Daniel Pachon, and his restaurant and his cassoulet are a testament to that. Amazing what happens when you combine talent, passion, and pride, isn’t it?