magpie gathering

book and linen

Half the charm of the magpie system of shopping is that one comes across unexpectedly pretty and festive-looking things for so little money; in the window of the Empire Shop in Sloane Street there is a pyramid of white candy sugar in rocky lumps, so irresistibly decorative that one would like to hang them on the tree; and inside the shop, by-passing the chain-dairy goods which have somehow strayed in, are dark and dazzly genuine Indian chutneys, garnet-bright Jamaican guava jelly, English quince, Scottish rowan, and squat jars of shiny lemon curd.

The other day I was looking for a book on my cookbook shelves and found instead my beautiful Folio Society edition of Elizabeth David’s Christmas. It’s cover and interior decorations are by Sophie MacCarthy who makes brussels sprouts and sliced red cabbage look like jewels, not to mention Mandarin oranges and chestnuts. It was a good thing to read for an hour by the fire (I am still recovering from a cracked tailbone…), thinking of my own Christmas plans. I love the season, its capacity for plenitude and conviviality, and how it can bring out our best selves. The selves that are willing to suspend disbelief and to allow generosity and warmth into our hearts. Ours is not a Christmas of big ticket items. I remember once putting little soaps shaped like ducks and new mittens in the children’s stockings, along with oranges and chocolate, and how thrilled they were. And that has always been a kind of guiding spirit.

Just now I was thinking about the baking I’ll do this weekend and whether it’s too early to make buttercrunch (which has a way of disappearing far too quickly). I love the smell of shortbread, particularly the pans of trees with fresh rosemary. This year I thought I’d add finely grated lime zest too.


Elizabeth David’s books have been on my shelves since I was 19. Well, not all of them, but the ones I treasure: Summer Cooking, French Provincial Cooking, and this Christmas beauty. I don’t necessarily read them for the recipes but for the way she describes food, the way she praises a simple dish well made, and for her eye for what’s important. That Christmas shopping can be a magpie gathering: yes, that’s exactly how I do it. I buy small things and find ways to put them together. Pretty bowls from the Coombs market enroute to Long Beach in October will accompany jars of the olives I buy in bulk at the Mediterranean Market on Commercial Drive in Vancouver and marinate in olive oil, red wine vinegar, slices of lemon, lots of our homegrown garlic, and stems of rosemary from the pots on the deck. I love the linen tea-towels available here on the Coast, made in North Vancouver by Rain Goose Textiles. (They’re hard to give up because they’re so bright and original.) Jars of jams and jellies made in late summer when everything is ripe all at once. Old baskets or tins to carry them from our house to yours, with love.

the cassoulets of Carcassonne

I first read about cassoulet when I was 21, living for a winter in a beautiful house with Elizabeth David’s books on the kitchen shelves. Her descriptions of the dish in (I think it was) French Country Cooking were part of the reason I became so interested in food. A story of variation, of long slow simmering, of ingredients so passionately sourced and prepared. We had a lovely version the other evening and when I praised it, the chef (and owner) of Au Lard et au Cochon went into his pantry and brought out a big cloth sack from Castelnaudary to show me the dried beans he uses. They’re slightly longer than the ones I use in Canada, slightly more elegant. His cassoulet was fabulous.

Today we returned to the medieval city to explore some more and we had lunch at the same place as yesterday, the Maison du Cassoulet. We had other food yesterday but today we both had cassoulet. It was very good, slightly thicker, with a crust — no crust at Au Lard et au Cochon. And the Toulouse sausage today wasn’t quite as flavourful. Our host the other evening said his friend makes the sausage he uses. And there were also little morsels of pork belly (I think) which gave the dish such depth. Today we shared a half-litre of local rose which was the kind of wine you could get used to drinking as often as possible.

I made cassoulet this winter with what I had on hand (or in the freezer): confit of duck leg and homemade sausages from friend Jeffrey; double-smoked bacon; dried beans and garlic from the summer’s garden. It was good but now I have a few other ideas, or at least I will once I decode this flow chart…


Hopefully Jeffrey will share his bounty again. And tomorrow we’re going to Toulouse where I understand there’s a cassoulet brotherhood whose members wear hats shaped like the cassole, or earthenware vessel cassoulet is traditionally served in. Of course we’ll try at least one version there too. And maybe buy a cassole to bring home. All those years ago, reading Elizabeth David in North Saanich, I had no idea I’d be lucky enough to try cassoulet on its own terroir.