Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Cassoulet Dinner 2012, Part 2:  The Main Event

One of the great things about BettyLu’s Cassoulet Dinner---for the guests anyway---is the simplicity of it.  Not for BL or Lou, because it’s a major undertaking to make things look as simple as they are.  But for the guests, it’s the casual and easy chatting of old acquaintances you perhaps don’t see as often as you used to (or as you’d like), some outstanding wines and tasty bites to slide into the evening pleasantly, then a quiet segue into the formally set dining room.

So, Let Us Segue…
Ten is the right number for a dinner party, I think.  The room is filled, but not crowded.  The table is set to perfection, and not overcrowded.  And it’s manageable, without any feel of yelling over to someone at the other end.  It’s comfortably intimate.

Lou gets our attention with the first couplet he brings out, two pristine bottles of Bollinger Grande Annee 1985. Yes, brothers and sisters, I said 1985.  I doublechecked.  Tiny bubbles, in the wine, make you feel happy, make you feel fine. Tiny bubbles, make you glad all over…  A handsome wine, fully mature but not at all faded, still bright and lively but bronzing up beautifully, with that big, bold, fleshy Bollinger taste, slipping quietly and smoothly into light caramel and zesty orange, still prickly with acidity.  It recalls, in brief flickering flashes, some memories of some great times with the ’85 vintage, with Bollinger, always one of my favorites, and curiously enough with Charles Hiedsieck 1985 as well.  What a wonderful thing wine can be, to bring back the past, if even in passing, and to be able to revive pleasant memories.
Loveliness Is

There’s a bit of a hush in the room, as there should be for such a wine, I think; it’s definitely appreciated by all.  (Anisman may have appreciated it more than anyone, but Bree is not following far behind.)

And just as we’re getting acquainted with the Bollinger, the first course arrives, a silky smooth Lobster Bisque with a creamy, slightly spicy bisque studded with plump bits of lobster.  The Bollinger is a perfect foil for the bisque, cutting through the cream and the fat and leaving the palate clear for another delicious bite.

Bisque Business
 There’s no hurry to this meal; we’re all mellowed by the splendid wine and the bisque, so we chat and laugh.  All good meals should be as communally pleasant as this; really, this is what fine dining should be about, but often isn’t, either too formal or stilted or clumsy.  This is a pleasant and natural flow of an evening.

Jam, eh?
At just the right moment, when the empty plates are being cleared and we’re all catching our breath, Lou brings out two bottles of Cote Rotie Jamet, 1998.  Has it been so long we’ve been doing this that we’re up to the ‘98s?  I suppose it has.

The Cote Rotie is still tight, nicely structured and reluctant to emerge, but there are dried flowers and some decent tart fruit and just a touch of bacon fat, which of course makes it harmonious with the cassoulet. 

Bandol the run
There’s a backup wine to handle the seconds too!  (Not clear whether someone brought it or Lou just had it handy.)  It’s a Domaine Tempier Bandol 1993!  Big broad flavors with the moo of mourvedre, it’s  standard Catalan-Gallic bombast of Bandol, loaded with black fruit and licorice and tinged with dusty herbs and only slowly yielding its hidden secrets.
Both wines are remarkable companions for the star of the evening, BettyLu’s Cassoulet.  Since we’ve waited all year, there’s anticipation for what it will be---Has she changed anything?  Has she used any different ingredients?  Is the texture or the spice or the fat or the tarbais-toothiness intact?

The Cassoulet Arrives...
Cassoulet, First Helping
It’s obvious the garlic sausage of last year has made a comeback; the wafting aroma is mouth-watering.  And the chunks of confit and fat glistening sausages are irresistible; the beans are al dente as they should be, slightly chewy and sticky on the teeth and full and bursting with flavor in the mouth.  Cassoulet is such a satisfying dish, rustic in the sense of originating as a country farmhouse meal ‘from the provinces’, but sophisticated in its flavors and composition.  More than that though, there is a umami-ish fullness of aroma and flavor and texture from all the protein and fat you’re steadily consuming.  It’s about as high level comfort food as you can get,  And honestly, not just because I’m seeking favor so I’ll get invited back, but yes, that too:  BettyLu’s is the best, the finest, of all I’ve had over the years.

Years ago, one of my favorite chefs, Dean Fearing from Texas, while gobbling down a bean-based dish I did at a tasting/dinner, commented that “this is one of those really satisfying things people can, and should, do well at in their own kitchens, but they don’t.”   (Dean was a Kentucky boy and cassoulet-ish dishes were his personal idea of childhood heaven, but probably with squirrel or possum or such.)  He was right; they often don’t do this as well as it should be done.  BL does it about as good as it can be done.

The fat of the dish broadens out and softens up the tight knit Cote Rotie, coaxing  out the flavors, and the wine keeps the cassoulet from dominating and snaps the palate back for more.   The Bandol is simply more accommodating with its broader, more herby/fruity lavishness.  The Rotie is closer to the principle of contrast, austere but yielding; the Bandol to similarity, fat and rich on an equal plane.

It’s a tough call as to whether the Jamet or the Tempier perform better with the cassoulet, honestly.  I'd go with the Jamet myself, but it's close.  They’re so different, yet each has its individual appeal with the meal.  The Jamet is tighter, less yielding (in a Cornas sort of way, if that makes sense), but with infinite depth and finish to it.  The Bandol is fatter, glossier, friendlier and more amenable to the food without ever losing its black fruit and spice nature.  Hey, toss up.  They’re both great.

Several second helpings later (don’t they feed Anisman at home, or does he fast in preparation for BL’s Cassoulet?), the oohing and ahhing and pleasant clinking of silverware on china subsides and we all settle down into quiet murmurs, reflecting, lingering while we toy with the wine stems, sated for the moment.
But we bestir ourselves, for there is, of course, a cheese course.  Good, crusty, chewy homemade bread and three slices of rich and pungent cheese.  And then dessert.  Of course.

The Good One
Lou brings out the Port… it’s a Grahams 1983 Vintage. Oh, yay.

But wait, something is amiss!!!  There’s a bit of a perplexed frown creasing Alan’s brow, then one eyebrow slowly arches in quizzical fashion; glances are exchanged down at that end of the table.  First Alan, then Roxi, then Jason.  Throats are cleared. Jason quietly speaks up, for no one will gainsay his portliness on this matter (heh). That bottle of Grahams, it appears, is corked. 

Alan proffers a glass; yes, it’s so, and so sad too, for the other bottle is exactly what it should be, all silky and sinful.  Without a blink, Lou jumps up and is back with another wine, for this was the last of the Grahams 1983.  Fortunately there was enough in the one bottle for all of us to have at least a taste.  The backup bottle is no slouch either, of course, this being Lou’s cellar.
The Great One
Jason immediately brightens---this is one of his all time favorites, and he’s opined about it frequently over the years---and the loss of the Grahams is assuaged for him, and I think for the others as well, for this is a rare treat indeed.  It’s the Ferreira Duque de Bragança  20 Year Old Tawny Port!  This is truly one of the great ones, boys and girls.  It’s orange rind and apricot weathered wood and toasty brown sugar, with a whiff of caramel behind it, but really more of a maple bar donut kinda thing.  Mick Jagger could do a serious sticky fingers on this one (dooda doo doo, insert Keith riff), with a little hit of toffee and coffee and marzipan almond.  There’s a reason this is the benchmark of aged tawny port.  It's evident right here in this glass.
For the Lactose Tolerant

The Cheese and Port Interlude
The cheeses were---as best I can recall---a Bleu d’Auvergne, an English Stilton, and a Neal’s Yard Shropshire Blue Cheddar.  Since the Bishop of Norwich wasn’t there, Jason was happy.

Dessert To Bring It Home 

No, thank you. Couldn't possibly.
Oh, maybe one more.
Thank you.
BL was going easy on us this night; she and her sexy sous chef had prepared hand rolled truffle chocolates with crushed nuts, just the sort of nibbly and sensous indulgence we need at this point: tasty and rich but not too much.  And they’re small, so if we want to (we want to; we want to) eat a couple, we can rationalize it and it doesn’t add too much more weight than we’ve already taken on tonight.  Sinful pleasures are best when they’re sinful and you know you shouldn’t but you do anyway, right?

And finally, it’s time.  We’ve devoured all that was in front of us, we’ve chatted all night, the eyes are beginning to glaze and the eyelids are getting heavier by the moment.  We’re replete.  And everybody has to make it home (Jason and Lynn all the way to Berkeley!),  And so we all thank Lou and BettyLu for their splendid hospitality on this most perfect of evenings, and plan on meeting again next year, and say our goodbyes for now.

And so Goodnight
Kudos to the Chef, BettyLu, for the inspiration and the work.  And to Lou for the peerless wines.  And for having the good sense to marry BettyLu.  And Kevin for the faultless and friendly service which allowed BL to spend her time with us at table, being gracious.  The Kessler Cassoulet is always a highlight of the year for those who attend, and this year, once again, BL and Lou pulled it off magnificently.

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