Nights spent huddled by fires snapping and popping and providing respite from the howling winds and wolves, when you think of the dark and the cold and the danger, don’t you — all snuggled up in your down comforter or quilt passed down from your great-grandmother — feel a slight shiver? Of déjà vu? Not the cold.
Maybe that’s why you long for a hearty pot of vegetable soup laced with salted fatty meat when winter slithers through the pines and breathes heavily on your roof, shaking the shingles and rattling your windows, painting delicate lace patterns there. Is there cellular memory? Who knows for sure? Can it ever be known for sure whether or not those longings, cravings really, for thick potages, stews, and ragouts come some primeval place in your psyche?
But long for it you do. How interesting, when you think of it, this appetite for the thick roots and leaves that tolerate the relentless cold, that thrive in dark cellars.
A thick French soup similar to a potée, or food cooked in an earthenware pot, garbure originated in Gascony in southwest France. Garbure usually contained everything but the kitchen sink, relying on seasonality and freshness – the original locavore food! Garbure makes use of the region’s traditional staples of beans, goose, and pork.
A peasant soup, garbure might feature white beans or fava beans or whatever the cook stored in her larder (pantry). Larder is the right word, actually, because “lard” in French means “fat, streaky bacon,” a staple in every French manor house and lowly farmhouse. The “bible” of traditional French cooking, Le Grand Larousse Gastronomique, calls garbure a Béarnaise dish (from the Béarn region), but so many variations actually exist, including one using maize, called briscat.
What’s more, as a dish with roots in Gascony, garbure wasn’t garbure without a hint of confit or cooked meat preserved by covering it with the melted fat in which it was cooked. Once cooled, the meat is then encased with in a thick coat of congealed fat. Not very appealing to those of us conditioned to abhor fat, confit was certainly a literal (and ingenious) lifesaver for generations of people for whom the larder was the only grocery store around.
Garbure, to an English speaker, sounds suspiciously like garbage. There may be a distant relationship. French cooks used the word in Old French for the entrails of chickens and geese.
Linguist Simin Palay (La Cuisine de Pays) believed the word garbure most likely came from the word gerbe, meaning a sheaf or bunch, as in bunches of vegetables. An ancient provenance may come from the Visigoth language (Ward Burt, as the dish was called), in the view of French linguists Georges Ducos and Louis Laborde-Balen. Other pundits suggest another origin, garbías, stew or ragout. The first use of the word garbure appeared in 1750, according to the Robert dictionary, although gabeure appeared earlier in 1735.
Most recipes indicate that you should layer the ingredients, making a sort of lasagna, if you would, using rye bread. Early nineteenth-century cookbooks certainly followed this strategy, baking the dish with slices of rustic bread in between the layers. The test of a true garbure lay with a spoon standing upright in the dish. That would definitely happen if the cook layered bread with the vegetables.
No matter the details: Garbure, once prepared, cooked for a long time in a special pot called a toupin, freed up cooks to do all the rest of the countless chores that faced them every day.
Garbure is actually a cousin to another famous dish from southwest France: Cassoulet. It might not be pretty or the stuff of haute cuisine, but you can be sure of one thing: you won’t go hungry if you eat garbure.
To be especially authentic, pour some red wine into your bowl as you finish the dregs of the soup and drink it. This is called the chabrol.
And if there’s a more fitting end to a winter’s day than garbure, well, I know not what it could be.
Garbure Béarnaise (Béarn Country Soup)
1 pound navy beans
4 quarts water
2 leeks, cut julienne style
2 turnips, sliced
1 small carrot, sliced
1 small cabbage, coarsely chopped
20 green beans
6 potatoes, peeled and left whole
Bouquet garni (1 bay leaf, 2 sprigs thyme, and 4 sprigs parsley, tied together and removed before serving)
6 sweet Italian sausages or kielbasa
2 garlic cloves, minced
¼ pound salt pork (or bacon fat)
Salt and pepper to taste
Soak the navy beans overnight or at least for several hours. Drain and rinse them. Wash and prepare the vegetables. Pour water into a large soup pot and add all the vegetables except the potatoes, bouquet garni (bay leaf, thyme, parsley tied together), and garlic. Cover the pot and cook the soup slowly over low-medium heat for about 1 l/2 hours. Add more water as necessary.
Add the whole potatoes, herbs, sausages, garlic and bacon fat and continue cooking slowly for another hour and 15 minutes. At this point, taste the seasonings and add salt and pepper. (It may need very little salt because of the salt pork). Take out the whole potatoes, sausage, and pork and keep them in a warm place. Simmer the soup for 15 minutes, remove the bouquet garni, and then serve it hot, accompanied by slices of French bread.
After the soup, serve the potatoes and the sausages on a separate plate (1 for each person), accompanied by a fresh green salad and more slices of French bread (you may pour some vinaigrette over the potatoes).
From: Twelve Months of Monastery Soups, by Victor D’Avila-Latourrette (1998).
For more about garbure:
Courtine, Robert-Jean. La Cuisine des terroirs. Tournai: La Renaissance du Livre, 1998.
Rowley, Anthony (éd.), Les Français à table. Atlas historique de la gastronomie française. Paris: Hachette, 1997.
Summary (in French) of the history of garbure.
© 2011 C. Bertelsen