In our world where loss is measured in the passing years and hope, rests not with experience but the next new thing, the term well preserved summons as much misgiving as respect. To say that a friend is well preserved is a compliment, but also a way of noting that the person is older than oneself. Likewise, at the table, eating homemade preserves on toast is reason to celebrate. But try announcing that dinner tonight will be preserved meat and see the reaction that you’ll get.
Blame the youth culture or the march of history, in which food went from pickling and smoking to industrial canning to flash freezing. Whatever, the cause, in the modern mind, fresh means good food. Preserved is for tin can people and only in an emergency.
Like any bias, fresh has its limits and nothing reveals that better than the rapacious winter appetite. In the face of a craving for robust flavours and serious heft, fresh alone falters. It needs the well preserved be it vinegar, wine, cheese, bacon, ham, or confit for substance, for contrast, for soul.
In the current culinary climate, confit could be the cook’s new best friend. From the French word confire, meaning to preserve, confit is meat that has been salted to draw out moisture and condense the flesh. It is cooked, ever so slowly, in fat, preferably its own. It is then stored in the fat, sealing the meat and protecting it from the air and ambient microbes that could hasten decay.
Some traditional recipes use herbs or spices: garlic studded with cloves, bay leaves, onions or shallots. But the seasoning is secondary. At its best, confit is meat preserved in itself, and therefore it becomes more of itself. Its flavours become more pronounced and unified, and it becomes heartbreakingly tender. Indispensable to traditional cassoulet, the white bean dish of Toulouse, confit can also be pan-seared and served with potatoes, white beans or lentils, wild mushrooms, cabbage or bitter greens. However it is deployed, confit changes everything. It delivers a taste of gentle maturity to a dish. There are limits to the glories of age: confit is safe for up to three months, if well sealed and refrigerated. Though rare on the modern table, it is proof that the best is yet to come.