My Father’s Beans
I need to speak of my absence. Not of my own blanks, my flaws, my bunks; I can take charge of those. Actually, I need to speak of his absence; the absence that alters you, that changes your life; the absence that one keeps quiet, into which one cloisters oneself, in total stillness.
A man’s life (and I mean a man’s life is the traditional sense of the term - some may call it “old-fashioned”) can unfortunately not escape one terrible, irreversible, sacred moment. This moment, the death of my childhood, was announced over the telephone, paradoxically by own son’s voice – grown-up, pure, and strong.
I won’t write about the dignified tears of a mother, the repulsive ugliness of the commerce of Death, the links that are re-kindled, or those that are unravelled…I would rather speak of that which perks us up; comforts and restores us; that which , of course, starts in the kitchen, around a fire.
In the South-West of France, from the Landes to the Couserans, as far as Albi, stews are often at the centre of funeral meals. Not a cassoulet, as tourists would call it, only a kind of mounjetado (bean stew), almost like a dish of abstinence. The haricots (not the heavy stuff from Argentina or China) are cooked in a pork broth that contains the reins, ears, tails and feet, together with any seasonal vegetables. Carrots, celery and leeks are of course often present; but fennel, sweet peppers, courgettes need not be neglected; the joyful tomato will make its appearance in the form of a coulis – homemade if possible. Do I need to mention garlic, the best, from Lautrec or Cadours; next to the priest or the minister, the venerable plant will be like a master of ceremonies. You will need about four bulbs for two pounds of dried haricots.
What makes this dish unusual is that pork is not added to it (though this is the right season!); neither are duck or lamb – but rather cod. So that, I repeat, the meal keeps a spirit of abstinence. I had bought the cod I used a few days ago from a little Portuguese shop in Barcelona, on calle Marià Aguiló, next to the Poblenou market; beyond this specialized shop, cod is usually better in Spain (as it is more popular) and cheaper than in France. For the same two pounds of haricots mentioned earlier, I include two pounds of fish, perfectly soaked, and I incorporate it to the mounjetado at the end, a few minutes before serving.
Chefs and historians have their version of this “tradition”. Lucien Vaniel, the eminent chef from Toulouse, notorious for his bad temper, taught me another recipe. In the wake of Escoffier, who cooked haricots in anchovy butter, his “cassoulet of the sea”, based on a fumet of rockfish, he used to include mussels and fresh scallops. I did not want to upset the protocol for my father’s funeral, and I used Barcelona cod only.
I had thought of this stew of mourning, exclusive to days of sadness yet full of life with its finish of Espelette pepper, only a few days before, as I was leaving the Tarn by way of the south, on this long, straight road that goes from Saint-Paul-Cap-de-Joux to Revel and Sorrèze, a tunnel of bare plane trees, enhanced by a strange winter light, both beautiful and terrifying. I was thinking about it for many reasons, in the end rational ones. Maybe also because the trunk of the car was full of the smoothest haricots I know, those that my father used to buy from a farmer in Marssac, between Gaillac and Albi: thick, dented beans, whose mad stakes play with the fine earthy deposits of a large vegetable garden that smells of love and good work.
The haricots from “the lady of Marssac” are a family legend. In August, she brings them near Albi Cathedral for the Saturday market. Some are eaten fresh, some are frozen (it works very well), the rest is dried. Their lacquered whiteness could be from Bigorre (one might call them Tarbais beans, to reassure oneself), they could be the cousins of the beans of the mounjetado from the silent mountains of the Couserans or the “corn” of the Landes; their skin is very delicate, more than the Soissons variety, even more than the fabas from the Asturias, so famous in Spain.
However, Madame Pons (the real name of “the lady from Marssac”) told me personally that the origin of her haricots is rather mysterious. Of course, she doesn’t buy her seeds from a merchant, even less so from Monsanto; surprisingly, her magic beans come from Egypt, from an organized tour to the River Nile, in a Frame bag. Who knows, maybe they are the heirs, the carriers of transmutations of souls that some Greek philosophers attributed to beans, seeing in them (brilliant empiricism!) the strength, energy and vitality of proteins.
The opacity of their origins, the ignorance of “the beginning of the beans” doesn’t matter much…Their elegant sweetness, contrasted with the marine flavours of the cod, gives birth to an invigorating dish. That Saturday in January, as the glasses of the villages were being filled with Cahors*, Gaillac** and Corbières, I saw faces relaxing, words being exchanged; thanks to my beloved Altesse, I even heard laughter. Good Lord, my father would have liked that!
I did not need a confirmation; in the end, I am only interested in this cuisine. A style of cooking that is generous, precise, rooted, that comes from the heart and speaks to the heart*** (ah – this fucking heart…); a type of cooking that does not look into the mirror every two minutes to check on its hairdo. People may say what they want; that it is not graphic, that it is only “nosh-out” belonging to cavemen; more than ever, I don’t give a damn.
To gather new strength, to try and steal some of the incredible clout of the beans’ stakes, the mad energy that make them climb towards heaven; to eat and to drink; to think, too, because death makes us moronic as well as dazed: we cry at the injustice whereas we know the rules of the game set by this wonderful bitch of a life. One only needs an IQ above that of an oyster or a football fan to know that however beautiful, however well-played, the game will come to an end. Some absences are as definitive as they are unavoidable; we need to learn to live with them.
Yes – to live; to live, to create, to produce, to wonder, to love, to move forward…to write, too. My father, filled with love and books, was my first reader. I believe that there is something of him in every one of my words. Please forgive the hesitant style of this chronicle dedicated to the reader that I have lost; it is the first text that I write alone. In his absence.
*I am so happy that, a few days before the end, he was able to taste the Clos Siguier 2011, just in from Montcuq. He was suffering silently; he put his lips to the glass and told us the story of an old man from Prayssac who, having knocked back a bottle of Cahors from the same origin on the day of his hundredth birthday, climbed the steepest slope of the Lot on his bicycle.
**It is a good thing that the Plageoles were there, in all their hues, and even with bubbles. A propos of Gaillac, we drank a beautiful, majestic red, Le Champ d’Orphée 2011, no doubt one of the best bottles I have experienced from there, apart from those produced by Robert, Bernard & Florent. A very big Braucol, sumptuously balanced and rounded, produced in Castelnau-de-Lévis by Stéphane Lucas; nothing to do with some concoctions shown here and there.
***Fashionable cuisine is only interested in the heart’s neighbour, the wallet. Its derisory argument is fashion, trend; thanks to these passing idiocies, a certain mundillo is apparently stuffing itself on pâté en croute, in spite of its chronic anorexia, having gobbled the equivalent of the world production of beetroot in less than a year, with a short passage via floury violet potatoes…
PS: il s'agit, vous l'avez compris, de la traduction anglaise de cette chronique (dont je remercie au passage Jacques Berthomeau et tant d'autres de l'avoir saluée). D'habitude, me direz-vous, la version anglaise ou américaine de mon blog, on la trouvait sur webflakes.com. Or, entre Noël et Nouvel An, ce site a malheureusement mis la clef sous la porte, alors, amicalement, Alex Limpach, son ex-responsable des traductions, m'a envoyé celle-ci.