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December is the start of the ski season in France and the Alps in particular are a favourite destination for ski lovers. However, the French have a secret which is less well known here in the UK and that is if you are considering a skiing holiday, maybe you would enjoy your break in the Pyrenees.

The Pyrenees are to be found in the Midi-Pyrénées, one of the largest regions of France which has eight departments – Ariège, Aveyron, Gers, Haute Garonne, Hautes Pyrénées, Lot, Tarn and Tarn et Garonne.

Why would you choose the Pyrenees rather than the Alps? Well, for one thing they have more snow than the Alps and this is a factor well worth taking into consideration. It is also a cheaper option as it is a fraction of the price for a skiing holiday compared to the Alps yet the piste is set in beautiful countryside in an area much less crowded. They have twenty five ski resorts, also in the Aveyron department and the season is often open from the end of November until April.

From beginners to the most experienced skiers there is something for everyone and family holidays are fun and exciting. The weather is great in winter due to the proximity to the Atlantic coast with frequent falls of fresh snow and beautiful blue skies making it so pleasant and welcoming.

The people here are warm and friendly and have a lovely southern sing-song accent. They are also big rugby fans and this is what my rugby loving husband thinks is so special about this area! They are very passionate about their rugby which in some ways is more of a culture than a sport.

They love to socialise and getting together for a party or a good meal with friends and family is very important and part of the culture as in many regions of France.

If you travel about two hours away from the Pyrennes you will arrive at Toulouse the capital and the largest city in the area with about 439,000 inhabitants.  It also has the third largest university in France and is said to have a most excellent quality of life.

In December of course the traditional Christmas market with its little wooden huts is to be found in Place du Capitole in Toulouse and is worth a visit for its atmosphere, roasting chestnuts, mulled wine and the most beautiful Christmas gifts.

You can be in the midst of this buzzing city with all it has to offer and yet you are only twenty minutes away from the most beautiful countryside. Of course you also have the Canal du Midi crossing Toulouse which is one of the Heritage sites and a trip on a canal barge here is wonderfully relaxing or if you prefer, a bike ride is another option along its pathways.

No holiday in France can be had without good food and this region is no exception, for the food is truly wonderful with all the local produce available from the simplest yet tastiest of soups such as garbure (a soup of fresh greens and vegetables) to aligot (a cheesy potato dish), mountain cheeses, the finest fois gras, AOC mutton and the most heart warming of dishes the famous cassoulet which was once the staple diet of the region.

The cassoulet was a dish that the farmers’ wives would make for the farm workers and it would last all week for the family with the addition of more ingredients and simmered in the oven by the fire. You will be able to sample this traditional French dish in many places in the region and it is really satisfying so you will probably not want to eat a heavy dessert following it.

If you are longing to take a break for the Christmas holidays what better place to be than in France in the Midi-Pyrénées. There are many places that will welcome you for the season or for any of the winter months, for long and short periods, you will find them at www.frenchconnections.co.uk.

With this in mind I thought that you may like a taste of your own Cassoulet using the recipe here which is not quite as authentic but is very tasty none the less. I believe that the traditional recipe, if indeed there ever was an exact recipe, did not have tomatoes in it but here they are included and give it a good colour. I think the main thing about this dish is that you will need lots of patience as it is so much better when it has been simmering for a long period of time, however, you will love the aroma in your kitchen as it is cooking and it is well worth waiting for.

Cassoulet

Ingredients

  • 1 lb (about half a kg) haricot beans, soaked overnight
  • 8 oz (225gms) garlic sausage
  • 1 lb (about half a kg) shoulder of mutton or lamb
  • 4 oz (125gms) streaky bacon
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • 1 med onion with 2 cloves stuck in it
  • Small bunch of parsley
  • 2 fresh tomatoes de-seeded
  • 4 oz (125gms) breadcrumbs
  • 2 oz goose fat or oil if you prefer (enough to brown the meat)

And:

8oz (225gms) of preserved goose (confit d' oie) or if you cannot obtain this (from speciality food stores/or online) you can add more lamb or mutton, pork or even more sausage or a small duck! Use whatever you prefer or can obtain. The preserved goose does make a difference but it will still be fabulous!


Method

  • • Prepare the haricot beans by draining them, then place in a large saucepan with cold water and boil vigorously for 10 minutes. (instructions are usually on the packet). This is where I cheat and buy the canned beans!
  • Drain the beans and place in a heavy bottomed stockpot or marmite. Add enough cold water or to cover and bring to the boil, then lower to simmer.
  • Simmer for about 1 hour.
  • Now melt the goose fat in a heavy bottomed pan and cook the diced meat until it is brown on all sides.
  • Add the meat, the sausage, the tomatoes and the parsley tied in a bunch to the beans.
  • Add the onion stuck with the cloves and put a lid on the pot.
  • Simmer for about 2 hours.
  • Chop the garlic and streaky bacon together and add to the beans.
  • Cook for another 1 - 2 hours.

Now it is almost ready to serve.

  • If it has thickened too much, add a little more water.
  • Sprinkle the breadcrumbs over the cassoulet and put in a pre-heated moderate oven and cook for another 30 minutes.
  • As the breadcrumbs turn brown and crisp, break them up and allow the juices to mix in with them.
  • Allow the breadcrumbs to crisp again and serve immediately.

 Bon Appétit and a Joyeux Noël