July 30, 2010
By Brian Berkman
Acholent is a hot dish usually cooked slowly for more than 15 hours. For those observing the Jewish religious laws of Sabbath, no cooking is permitted from before sunset on Friday until a little while after sunset on Saturday.
The same rule applies to many Jewish festivals too. The problem, especially for those Jews who lived in Eastern Europe, which would freeze in winter, is no hot food on Saturday. In those days, the cholent pot would be carried to the village bakery on the Friday afternoon and left in the cooling bread ovens until lunch the next day. A pot of cholent should feed a large hungry family. It still does. Every Jewish New Year, my aunt Babs Kantor makes a pot so large it takes two to carry it. It is crowned by a kugel or dumpling topping and inside is a thick stew of beans and beef brisket. I love to dig to the bottom of the pot where the bones have offered up their marrow to meld with the fat from the meat (some people even add goose fat to the already rich dish). It is sublime to eat.
Unhappy to enjoy such a dish but once a year, I waddled off to Savoy Cabbage for their version of cholent, the famous French Languedoc bean stew, cassoulet.
Savoy Cabbage Chef Peter Pankhurst and his team first make the confit duck (duck legs cooked very slowly in duck fat), the two types of sausage (the French will demand saucisses de Toulouse but you should know they make their own sausages and salami at The Savoy Cabbage) and the lamb stew. If you’re interested in the history of food, investigate the story of the first cassoulet being made as a communal meal during the siege of Castelnaudary in 1355.
I was fascinated to learn that an earlier version of the dish made with mutton and fava beans by the Arabs could have led to the dish we know today. A Spanish influence is also cited so I suppose it is possible, obviously without the pork sausage, so essential to its current incarnation that Kosher Cholent could have evolved from the same dish.
I forget what a fine restaurant The Savoy Cabbage is. Chef Peter, Caroline and Frank have been serving consistently superb food since they opened more than 12 years ago. Their cassoulet, at R155 a portion, could easily feed two hungry people yet I managed to eat it all myself. Each time I put my fork down; I’d be called by a glistening bean or the crispy bits of the bread-crumb topping clinging to the side, too untidy to return to the kitchen without cleaning up. It is as if this flaming hot stew of beans, confit duck, sausages and mutton has invoked 650 years of deliciousness since it was first served.
Although the cassoulet is on their winter warmers menu, my companion ordered the Black Bean and Chipotle Chilli Soup with Corn Chips (R65) which he said impressed him and the Fennel and Orange-dusted Veal Sweetbreads with Mushrooms and Lemon, and a Chive Sauce (R135), which I tasted and enjoyed though I prefer my sweetbreads a little less cooked. I love the sound of Fennel-dusted Warthog Loin with Bashed Neeps ’n Tatties, Red Onion Marmalade and Sour Fig Syrup (R165) and will return for it or the Risotto Nero with Line Fish, Calamari and Grilled Prawns (R145) now that my craving for cassoulet has been satisfied for a while.
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