It’s funny sometimes how travel forces you to try new things. Whether you want to, or not.
In our case, a Sunday trip on tourist railway through the Ardèche region of France to the village of Saint-Agrève, introduced us to the French classic dish, Lamb and Beans.
The particular railway we were riding on conveniently dropped us in Saint-Agrève around lunchtime. Scott and I walked from the train station, which is located on the out-skirts of town, along a road lined with plane trees to the picturesque village.
Because it was a Sunday, the village was extremely quiet – almost everything was shut. Even the boulangerie was taking its lunchtime break. It looked like we’d be getting back on the train hungry.
As we turned to head back to the station, we realised we’d walked past what appeared to be a restaurant. Voices were coming from inside, which suggested it might be open, so we rather hopefully wandered over.
An Excellent Discovery
The establishment was packed with locals. I know this because as we were leaving a lady in her nineties stopped me to ask where I was I from. As a young woman she had taught French in England and she’d realised that our accents were neither English nor American. I guess Australians are a bit of a rarity in Saint-Agrève. We chatted for a while. Aside from critiquing my French, this energetic and friendly French woman told me that local families made a point of visiting the restaurant we’d stumbled upon each Sunday.
Anyhow, as we stepped in, all these locals stopped eating and chatting to look at us. When Scott tells the story, he suggests it was like we were in a scene from a cowboy movie. You know, when the hero pushes through the swinging door and a whole bar falls silent? The fact is, Scotty’s memory of that moment isn’t far from the truth.
The restaurant didn’t really feel like a restaurant. There wasn’t a menu board in sight. The room was nondescript. And if it hadn’t been for the table settings and white table cloths I might have thought we’d guessed wrong about being able to buy our lunch.
The place appeared to be run by two men – I’m guessing a man a bit older than us, and his even older father. The younger of the two came to greet us, speaking rapidly in French.
Thankfully, I’d only recently completed a week of French language immersion at Coeur de France Ecole de Langues and my French was at one of its stronger points. I was able to ascertain that we wouldn’t be making any choices. We’d be eating what we were given because the menu du jour only offered one entrée, one main and one dessert that day. And it was served with one choice of wine – which happened to be a rosé.
At least there was no need for a decision. And absolutely no chance of food envy. We took a seat at a table and waited to see what we’d got ourselves into.
It turned out to be something rather excellent.
The entrée was a delicious plate of Coquilles Saint-Jacques (scallops baked in theirs shells with a delicate cheese topping) and dessert was a perfect vanilla crème brûlée. Before dessert was served, there was also a cheese course. It arrived on a massive wooden board that was transferred from table to table.
But the stand out dish of that day was the main course. French Lamb and Beans. I’d never come across it before, which is a shame, because it means I’ve missed out on years of pure culinary joy. The lamb was all but falling apart and the beans were tender and full of flavour.
As soon as I was back in the vicinity of a decent internet connection I was checking out recipes for what I thought would be an extremely complex dish. After all, the flavours we’d encountered at lunch were truly sensational. I was super surprised when I realised how easy this French classic is to create. It’s reminiscent of Cassoulet, but without as much fuss.
If ever a dish was able to prove the point that quality ingredients blended with slow cooking make for fabulous flavours, it’s this one.
As is often the case when cooking rustic French farmhouse classics, the ingredient measures for French Lamb and Beans are rather vague. It probably has something to do with the fact that it was unlikely that there was ever a ‘real’ recipe in the first place.
This recipe is seriously forgiving. Don’t have fresh herbs or fresh garlic? No worries. Use the dried versions instead. No chicken stock? That’s ok – any packaged or powdered stock (other than fish stock, of course) works just fine. The magic of this dish is in the lamb and beans themselves, because it doesn’t seem to matter which supporting bits and pieces you choose.
Master A French Classic – French Lamb And Beans
- Dried white beans, rinsed and then soaked in water overnight*. I allow 100 grams of per diner.
- A leg, or half-leg, of lamb. The size you need will be is determined by the number of people you are feeding and how hungry they might be. I’d urge you to go larger, because the leftover meat is great.
- Splash of olive oil.
- Knob of butter.
- 2 brown onions, diced.
- 1 garlic clove, finely diced.
- 2 tablespoons of plain flour.
- Hot chicken stock. Enough to easily cover the volume of beans you are working with.
- Lamb friendly herbs. I like to use a mix of bay leaves, together with finely chopped thyme and rosemary.
- Chopped parsley, for sprinkling.
- Preheat oven to 160 degrees celsius.
- Drain and rinse the soaked beans.
- Place beans in large saucepan and cover with fresh water. Bring to a gentle boil and cook. Now for a little guess work. The amount of time you need to cook your beans for depends on the size of the leg you are cooking. A large joint will take a long time in the oven, so your beans will only need 20 minutes of cooking at this stage. If you are cooking a smaller piece of meat, cook your beans for at least 30 minutes here. That way, you’ll know your beans will be soft and flavoursome by the time your lamb’s cooked.
- While your beans are boiling, heat the butter and oil in a large, heavy based, oven proof dish. The dish needs to be large enough to hold the leg of lamb and the beans. Brown the leg of lamb all over and remove to plate.
- In the fat that remains in the pan, gently cook the onions and garlic until soft. Watch that they don’t brown too much. You are looking for soft and golden.
- Sprinkle in flour, stir to combine and cook for about one minute.
- Remove beans from heat and drain. Add beans and chopped herbs to the onion and garlic.
- Add enough hot stock to cover beans well, and stir together well.
- Place lamb on top of beans and put the dish into the oven.
- Cook slowly for between 3-5 hours depending on the size of your leg of lamb. You want the lamb to be meltingly tender. While the lamb is slow roasting, you might need to add a splash or two of boiling water to the beans, so they remain moist, and to ensure they don’t catch.
- Carve, sprinkle the lamb with parsley and serve it on top of the beans. A green salad or green vegetables work well as side dishes.
Have you ever tried French Lamb and Beans? Or discovered a French classic in an unexpected part of France? As always, I’d love for you to share your thoughts in the comments section below.
And until next time – au revoir.
*Cooking tip: There are SO many times that I decide to cook this dish on the same day I want to serve it. Which is fine as long as there are at least six hours between when I make the decision and when I plan to start cooking. This is because the beans are best with at least six hours soaking time. On the days when I don’t make the decision early enough, I take a tip from the inimitable Elizabeth David’s Cassoulet recipe in French Provincial Cooking and ‘hot soak’ my beans. This involves placing the rinsed beans in a large saucepan, covering them with cold water and placing them over high heat until they come to the boil. Once they reach boiling point, pop a lid on the saucepan, turn off the heat and allow the beans to soak for 40 minutes. Late decision problem solved.