Great War Fare & Cassoulet

April 5, 2014

All sorrows are less with bread.
~Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

This late summer and early fall mark the centenary dawn (1914-2014) of The War To End All Wars. Well done, humanity — as a species, we have been in global conflict and slaughter almost continuously since then.  Strife upon strife.

So, perhaps a few words about French grub on or near the front lines during The Great War are in order.  Much like with latrines and other necessities, les générals and les officiers (generals and officers) always fared far better than les poilus and les soldats (infantrymen and soldiers).  Fine cognac and haute cuisine in opulent estates away from the Front prevailed for generals, while pinard or plonk  (a cheap, low class wine) and often inedible or even missing rations were issued to the regulars who daily lost their limbs, minds, and lives on the Front.

Some background is deserved. Early on, both sides dug a network of trenches on the Western Front that eventually extended for nearly 500 miles each from the North Sea to Switzerland. Each side dug labyrinthine lines of zig-zagging trenches for some 24,000 miles (nearly the circumference of the earth).  As few expected the war to last past Christmas, the first trenches were hurriedly made scrapes and shallow pits in the ground — mere hollows dug by soldiers to protect themselves from the rain of metal from the sky, machine gun barrages and incessant snipers. These hastily constructed defenses often flooded and folded. When the front line later stabilized, trenches became deeper and were more elaborately constructed shelters, which became the troops’ home away from home, often far, far away.  The conditions in soggy trenches remained deplorable with rampant cases of dysentary, trench foot, trench mouth, diseases, hunger, rats, vermin, and body lice mingling with the horrific stench of diseases, decaying bodies, open wounds, human filth and open sewage. The trench reek alone made it difficult for many to even eat.

Because France’s armed forces expanded dramatically from peacetime to the onset of war, the Ministry of War undertook a staggering juggling act to feed the troops. While relying upon a loosely drawn network of foreign suppliers, limited local production, and meager tithes from abroad, the French not only provided for their own troops, but for some allies, colonials, and foreign volunteers.

Among other things, French troops were provided at basic training with a bidon (canteen), musette (haversack), gamelle (mess kit), quart and utensiles (cup and utensils). The soldiers usually received two meals a day, breakfast and dinner. While there was no standard time for when the meals were scheduled while afield, breakfast (PDDMPetit Déjeuner Du Matin) was usually served around 8 or 9 am, with coffee or wine sometimes served a tad beforehand. Dinner normally was served sometime in the early evening depending on the day’s conflict. Sometimes, both meals were received in the morning, with half slipped into mess kits as reserves for later. Of course, conditions at the Front sometimes prohibited meals from either being prepared or even delivered to the men. It was not uncommon for a soldier to exhaust his reserves, in which case he simply went without until food supplies were replenished from the rear. Front line troops had to subsist on bread, fruit, wine and sausages. Sometimes, troops survived on some form of soup or stew (la soupe or rata), a morcel of greasy meat, hard dry biscuits, and perhaps a cup of coffee.

Major mess kitchens were set up near supply railheads and other rear echelon trappings, such as hospital posts, rest camps and training areas. Soldiers who were line infantrymen might also be cooks or food laborers, with fatigue details assigned on a rotating basis. The concept of mobile field kitchens ensued with meals prepared behind the lines, which would then be hauled to the trenches in large food transport tins with carrying frames similar to backpacks. These kitchens were dubbed roulantes (“rollers”), and they rendered certain camping implements superfluous. Stationed in the rear or in support or supply lines, rollers were staffed by cuistots (“cooks”) who stayed with the kitchens to prepare the meals.

Though the food was prepared in field kitchens, the task of transporting food to the Front fell to fatigue men quasi-organized into ration parties. Variously called cuistots, ravitailleurs or hommes-soupes, they brought up the rations on their backs to their waiting comrades. Bedecked with stew pots, mess pans, canvas buckets, sacks, loaves of bread and dozens of filled canteens, the ration parties would usually depart during the night to ensure enough time for them to return by morning. Cooked food was placed in Bouthéon stew pots, a label morphed to bouteillon (“bottle”) due to pronunciation proximity. A large camp mess pan called the plat-á-quatre (“plate for four”) could also be used to carry food to the Front. Loaves of bread were carried either by stringing the loaves together with twine to make a bandolier or by impaling them onto a stake and hoisting them over a shoulder (see above). Canned foods were carried either in haversacks or large canvas distribution sacks. Though the food was hot when it was in the rear, by the time it arrived at the front it had already turned lukewarm or usually cold. The beverages, such as pinard, coffee and water were brought up in individual canteens as well as in the bouteillons or canvas buckets. Not only were these journeys tedious, the hommes-soupes details were often considered more hazardous than combat, as ground covered by enemy artillery fire and machine guns had to be traversed while adroitly carrying bulky equipment making it difficult to seek cover.

Food that arrived at the Front was generally chilly, of dubious nutritional quality, often soiled, sometimes spoiled, usually overcooked, greasy, and nearly inedible. Bread was usually carried without wrappers, coffee (le jus), pinard, and soups or stews with beans or potatoes were transported in open cans and the like. The overall quality and invariance of diet was a constant source of complaint among soldiers. Fine dining it was not, far from a beatific merger with “the All.”  Most troops would have been flatly elated at a deep platter of warm cassoulet — a rustic, one-pot meal from southwestern France.  Afterwards, death would be more embraceable.

CASSOULET AU CANARD

1 lb. dried white beans, such as tarbais, Great Northern, or cannellini, soaked overnight and drained
4 oz slab bacon, cut into 4 pieces
12 or so C water

4 t whole black peppercorns
2 t whole cloves
8 sprigs thyme
6 sprigs parsley
2 bay leaves

2 boneless duck breasts, with skin and gently, not deeply, scored in a crosshatch pattern
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/2 lb good quality duck or pork sausage

2 duck legs with drumsticks and thighs separated
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

10 fresh, plump garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
2 large yellow onions, peeled and thinly sliced
2 C duck or chicken stock
2 legs duck confit, skin and bones discarded and meat shredded
1 – 28 oz can whole peeled tomatoes, cut finely or puréed
3 T duck fat

1 C fresh bread crumbs (optional)

Baguette, sliced (and perhaps grilled or toasted)

Boil beans, bacon, and water in a heavy, large saucepan. Then place peppercorns, cloves, thyme, parsley, and bay leaves on a piece of cheesecloth, bundle with twine (bouquet garni) and add to pan. Reduce heat to medium low and cook, covered slightly, until beans are tender, about 1 1/2 hours. Discard spice package and transfer beans and cooking liquid to a bowl. Cover loosely and set aside.

Season duck breasts with salt and lightly with pepper and place breasts, skin side down, in a sauté pan already heated over medium high. Cook, without flipping, until fat is rendered and skin is crisp, about 5–6 minutes. Set aside on a board or platter.

Cook sausage, turning once, until browned, about 3–4 minutes. Transfer to a cutting board and slice 1/2″ thick on the bias.

Season the duck drumsticks and thighs with salt and pepper and working in batches and cook, turning as needed, until fat is rendered and the duck is nicely browned, about 5–7 minutes. Set aside on a board or platter. Add garlic cloves and onions to the pan and cook, stirring occasionally, until golden, about 15 minutes. Now return the sausage, drumsticks, and thighs to the pan and add the stock, confit, tomatoes, salt, and pepper, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium and cook until duck is tender, about 1–1 1/2 hours. Using a slotted spoon, transfer sausage, drumsticks, thighs, and confit to a glass bowl and reserve broth for later.

Preheat oven to 375 F. Rub a large, heavy Dutch oven with some, but not all, of the duck fat. Using a slotted spoon again, layer the beans, sausage, drumsticks, thighs, and confit and pour 1 cup of reserved broth over the top. Slice duck breasts 1/4″ thick on the bias and arrange over the top. Melt remaining duck fat in a small, heavy saucepan and sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Sprinkle optional bread crumb mixture over top of the dish and bake in the oven until the cassoulet begins to bubble, about 40 minutes (otherwise, just omit the bread crumbs). Increase oven heat to 450-500 F and cook until browned, about 3–5 minutes.

Let the cassoulet sit 10-20 minutes before serving with sliced bread. Bien mangé!

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3 Responses to “Great War Fare & Cassoulet”

  1. julie Says:

    Everything you do is amazing! I love your recipes and the stories you have to tell. Keep up the great work!!

  2. Alex Says:

    Julie-Well said

  3. alaycook Says:

    Thanks for the double team, even if it is home cooked.


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