Cassoulet Confessions by Sylvie Bigar

Cassoulet Confessions by Sylvie Bigar is an enchanting memoir which contains all of the ingredients necessary for a compelling and enticing adventure.   Mouth-watering descriptions of food are provided throughout, along with romantic settings and a varied cast of characters that include a loving-but-closeted-gay father, a sister who attempts to murder Sylvie, an elegant Parisian mother, and a doting staff, most notable of whom is a gardener who works in the nude.  The book also describes luxurious family estates in Switzerland and France and passionate, eccentric Michelin-starred, celebrity chefs working in the finest restaurants in Europe. 

Bigar is a food writer who specializes in researching the connections between locale and specialized traditional recipes. Deftly sketching her privileged childhood and early fascination with food, Bigar comments that “the world of food was completely woven into the fabric of society” in her context, and this understanding of the connections between culture and food set the course of Bigar’s career. 

While married with two children and living in New York, Bigar accepted a freelance writing assignment about the history of cassoulet, a French delicacy containing beans and meats and prepared over three days in a specialty clay casserole. Cassoulet has a storied history and continues to be a popular dish in Toulouse and Carcassonne.  Not only does this spectacular recipe have a fascinating provenance but also carries the distinction of having its own society.  Chefs must be inducted into this society if they wish to lay claim to preparing an authentic cassoulet.  When Bigar first experienced a cassoulet in Carcassonne, it was paraded into the restaurant: 

And this parade had a float.  A centerpiece shaped like a stretcher and framed by two elongated poles made of raw wood held a platform fashioned from planks.  From the side hung a red satin banner with gold fringes, emblazoned with the words Académie Universelle du Cassoulet.  Resting on the platform, presented with a pride ordinarily reserved for an infant prince, was a pair of gargantuan cassoles too big for me to wrap with my biggest bear hug.  Each end of the stretcher was gripped by a man in a robe…

As part of this pageantry, we also learn that the staff were singing a hymn to the cassoulet in the medieval romance language, Occitan. 

As Bigar continues her exploration of the dish, she sketches in a rarified world that many of us may never access.  We enter chateaus and small castles and meet a world-famous chef about whom Bigar says, “(h)is hands showed burns, cuts, and a lifetime spent cooking for others.” We also visit restaurants where there is a “ballet of elegant waiters carrying twinkling silver trays and steamy copper pans.” We learn about duck confit, jambon de Paris, Breton blue lobster, truffles, fois gras, pigeon, and many other gastronomic asides that will appeal to the secret gourmande in all of us.

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This memoir is not, however, entirely focussed on the elite world of food or eponymous restaurant experiences.  Rather, its brilliance lies in the delicate ways that Bigar flavours the text with her own experiences and seasons it with reflections about the role that food and travel have had upon her life.  Through the subtly recounted details, we gradually come to understand that Bigar is coming to terms with grief over the death of her father and the end of her marriage.  As she seeks to explore the history of cassoulet, she provides a window for the reader into her reconciliation with her own history and, ultimately, her eventual ability to embrace and celebrate her rich heritage.

This is a delightful, beautifully written, engaging and often amusing book.  For the ambitious cook, Bigar has included several recipes for cassoulet and cholent (a similar dish to cassoulet – and an emblematic dish in the Ashkenazi Jewish repertoire).  For readers who savour the experience of breaking bread with their loved ones, appreciate the experience of fine dining, enjoy time in the kitchen, or are passionate about travelling and trying new foods – this is a book for you.  You will relish the taste!  Highly recommended.    


About the Author

Award-winning food and travel writer Sylvie Bigar was born in Geneva, Switzerland, and lives in New York City. Her writing has appeared widely, including in The New York Times, Washington Post, Food & Wine, Forbes.com, Saveur, Bon Appetit, Edible, Departures, Travel & Leisure, and National Geographic Traveler. In French, Sylvie has contributed to Le Figaro, Histoire Magazine, Le Temps, and FrenchMorning.com.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ HG Local (Sept. 13 2022)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Hardcover ‏ : ‎ 160 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1743797966
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1743797969

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