As an eternal optimist I’m not risk adverse, but more of a calculated risk taker. In the late 90s I was offered a year’s assignment in Northern California. I jumped at the chance. It was America, what could be risky about that? There was much muttering from my two younger daughters because they were being uprooted from friends and family, but the muttering didn’t last long as they soon adapted to the world of yellow school buses, western saddle riding and friends living on ranches. It wasn’t until the day before we left London that the husband of a friend professed his shock on hearing that I was planning to take the children to live on the San Andreas fault line. First, I had heard about it. The wooden deck house in Portola Valley we were renting was cute, airy and situated in a beautiful valley with seven other houses. Sour grapes, I thought, until my children started to return home from school with stories of regular earthquake drills and the fact that other parents kept store cupboards stocked with emergency rations. The 1989 earthquake that had rocketed the Bay Area had been a lesson in preparedness for all.
Nonetheless, the year passed without incident and I never did get around to stocking a store cupboard full of what the LA times outlined as ‘rumble rations’ which included sensible things such as plastic water containers, torches, loo paper as well as non-perishable or canned food.
I remembered all this recently when we were going through a major decluttering exercise of our house in Hackney. Man came across a tin he saved from the dissolution of his parent’s apartment in the Netherlands. A tin that his father had bought in a grocery store in 1961, as instructed by the Dutch government; rations to be kept in case the Cold War got out of hand. The A4 sized tin with its key carefully taped to the top had remained in his parent’s larder for well over 50 years.
We opened it with ceremony and some difficulty. The thin metal strip had rusted in several places and frankly since wind keys had been replaced by pull tabs we’d both lost the knack of winding the strip carefully around the key. There was the satisfying sound of a pssssh as the air was released. We knew then that the vacuum had not been broken for 57 years. As advertised on the tin, there were 78 biscuits inside, dimpled cream 6 X 5cm rectangles that broke with a snap as clean and crisp as the day they were baked. Five of these would provide you with 500 calories. They were thick and hard and it would take more than quite a while to consume all five, but the taste was bland but not unpleasant. We blind tested a couple of the crackers on friends, and neither of them remarked that they tasted at all stale. Although they didn’t offer to finish them once they discovered how old they were.
It made me think if I had to put together a cupboard full of emergency rations, what would I store? Then I remembered a Thelma and Louise road trip I had made with a girlfriend in 2005. We had tested out my first sports car with a drive to the South of France, at about the same age as Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis. We were irritated at an autoroute stop when we were berated by a German man for driving with the soft top up on our wonderful German car. We didn’t pull a gun on him but drove off tyres squealing in outrage, not bothering to explain that the back parcel shelf was so crammed with crates of wine that the top was incapable of being lowered.
Much later the same day, after an anxious few hours navigating our way to a friend’s house just north of Orange, we arrived, sticky, tired and very hungry, only to find our friend had just arrived back from London himself. We were very relieved to find we didn’t have to go out again to search for supper as our wonderful host had stopped at an autoroute stop on the way back to pick up supper from the shop. A supper of cans. No not beans on toast but a glorious Cassoulet, put together by opening a can or two of confit de canard, a can or two of beans in tomato sauce, a thin saucisson and a crusty loaf of baguette. The wine cellar was raided for a bottle or two of red and our evening was made. The French are par excellence when knowing what to stock for emergency rations.
It was with this ‘tinned’ meal in mind, that I raided my freezer and store cupboard when I had four unexpected visitors. I haven’t found a tinned confit in the UK that I like, as the only supermarket version I can source is on the salty side, but freezing the frozen version works perfectly well. I will stock up on tinned confit next time I’m in France, – a store cupboard must. On this occasion, I embellished the tins and chorizo, with lardons from the freezer, added in a handful of stew type vegetables found in the bottom of my fridge and breadcrumbed a stale bread roll. I don’t proclaim that this dish has much to do with any French cassoulet, but it wasn’t difficult to throw together and the leftovers next day were even tastier from a night intermingling their flavours in the fridge. If we had had French guests I would have served a crisp, lemony salad afterwards, but they were from the US and Yorkshire, so I served blanched and braised ribbons of cavolo nero on the side instead.
Cassoulet – Emergency Ration Style
400g tin of cannelinni beans
100g pancetta lardons
20 thick slices chorizo
4 frozen confit de canard
30g goose/duck fat – from a jar
140g dried breadcrumbs.
2 celery stalks chopped
1 medium carrot chopped
1 small onion, skinned and chopped
Garlic paste from tube
1 tsp dried thyme
2 dried bay leaves
2 tsp dried mixed herbs
2 tins of chopped tomatoes
Preheat the oven to 140C/fan 275F/gas mark 2.
Fry the sausages in a little goose fat until cooked – approx. 20 mins, then cut into thick slices. Fry pancetta lardons and chorizo in a dry pan until crispy brown. Then flash fry the confit de canard in 2 tablespoons goose fat turning quickly if it starts to catch. I also scrape of as much of the skin off as possible – but that’s my choice. Set all meats to one side.
Roughly chop the celery, onion and carrot. Heat the goose fat in and deep ovenproof casserole/pan over a low heat and sweat the celery, onion, carrot for 5 minutes then add two inches of garlic paste. Add thyme sprig and bay leaves and cook slowly for another 5 minutes). Add the sausage, beans, pork rind and lardons and empty over the two cans of chopped toms. Bring to the boil, then add the salt, pepper and a good sprinkling of Worcester. Sprinkle over half the breadcrumbs in a thin layer. Transfer the casserole to the oven and cook, uncovered, for 1hour. Whilst cooking mix the remaining breadcrumbs with another good two inches of garlic paste and a good handful of dried mixed herbs. Remove casserole after 1st hour and stir in the layer of breadcrumbs, check seasoning then add the remaining breadcrumbs/garlic and herb layer on top. Put back in the oven for another 1hr – 1.5hrs.
Next day I added a splosh or two more water to the cassoulet before heating it up in the microwave, as the breadcrumbs had soaked up some of the moisture.