Winter in Harpswell has its own rhythm. Up and down the Sound the boats are gone and the docks hauled up. The front yards of lobstermen hold mountains of empty traps. Ospreys and Eiders have left for warmer weather, leaving the Bald Eagle and the Buffleheads behind. Our experiment in aquaculture (bags of oysters, scallops, and quahogs) has been put to bed for the winter, below any ice it might bring. Days are short here near 44 North Latitude, so in late December the lights go on around four o’clock; but after New Year, the days begin to lengthen perceptibly.
With neither lobster traps to haul nor oysters to tend, we turn to other activities. There’s cross-country skiing nearby, and when mild weather spoils the snow, we turn to our local trails for hiking. There is usually a fire in the fireplace. And though we don’t have the summer’s bounty of vegetables from local farms, there’s plenty of do in the kitchen with meats, root vegetables, and baked goods ranging from breads to pies to rugelach.
For après-ski, we have discovered another Maine winter activity: time in the hot tub. Ours sits outdoors, on the deck above the Sound. For sixty-somethings who continue to ski and hike, it offers a valuable restorative for aching muscles and creaky joints. There’s nothing quite like a soak in 104 degree water with the wind blowing foam off the white caps on the Sound. When the temperature goes negative or nearly so, it can be brisk; but that’s why they make wool hats, which work just as well in the tub as they do in a snow bank. In fact, we enjoy the hot tub most in the coldest months.
Cassoulet may be winter’s greatest culinary gift. One of the best things about winter, in Maine or elsewhere, is the opportunity to serve this wonderfully rich concoction of beans, breadcrumbs, duck confit and other meats. We first encountered the dish near Carcassonne, an ancient walled city in Southwest France, on one of the many road trips during our year abroad. We were a little bit lost, having booked rooms in an old Chateau whose name loosely translated to “Chateau Ugly Mountain.” The light had long since faded, and no one could help us find the place. (If France, when you ask for directions to a local place, a negative response is more likely to be “ça n’existe pas” than “I don’t know”). When we finally pulled into the courtyard we rushed in to ask if the kitchen was closed. No problem, our host assured us. The Chevaliers of something or other were meeting there that evening. Cassoulet was on the menu and it would be a simple thing to prepare the dish for us as well.
The Chevaliers were well into their evening (about to the drinking song stage) as we were shown past them to our own small dining room in the underground cellars; and the kids’ eyes widened as we passed the door and saw men in tights wearing what might have been armor. We ordered some wine (“we’ll have what they’re having”) and when the Cassoulet came we were delighted. The next day in Carcassonne we went searching for the recipe, and so bought “Goose Fat and Garlic,” a collection of country recipes from Southwest France that has become a standby at our house. Cassoulet doesn’t require a lot of skill but there are plenty of steps to prepare the beans, sausages, pork, confit and other elements. We think it’s well worth the work, and try to make it at least once every winter.
As for the wine to pour with this dish, opinions vary. Many recommend a simple and fruity red, given the dish’s extravagant medley of flavors. We think this works fine, and are happy to reach for a Côtes du Rhône from the Domaine les Goubert, or a Cru Beaujolais from Monnet or Perrachon. The Mas Foulaquier’s wines also suit nicely, and have the virtue of hailing from the same neighborhood as Cassoulet. But if you want to open a nice Burgundy on the full-bodied side, go for it. To advance the research on this weighty question, we served Cassoulet to friends this week and poured both categories — simpler reds from the Rhône then a pretty fancy Burgundy from Nuits St. Georges. The diners offered lavish praise for the Rhônes, then sent us back to the cellar for more Burgundy. The bottom line? Make the dish, put a fire in the fireplace, seat a companionable group at the table, and the wine (and winter) will take care of itself.
This article is part of our February 2017 Notebook.