A Fortifying Soup From the French Mountains

Garbure, thick with smoked ham, white beans, and slow-cooked vegetables, draws rich flavor from humble ingredients
January 22, 2021 Updated: January 22, 2021

When cooking a pot of garbure, your ladle is your timer. Stick the ladle in the middle of the pot, and if it can stand upright on its own, the soup is ready.

Hailing from the southwestern province of Gascony, just north of the Pyrenees mountains, garbure is a rustic soup consisting of a smoked ham hock, beans, cabbage, and seasonal vegetables, all slowly stewed together until thick, rich, and full of smokey flavor. It’s a great classic of French mountain cooking, eaten year-round but best enjoyed on a blustery winter day.

Like many now-classic French dishes, garbure was once peasant food. Cooked and enjoyed in rural areas of the southwest of France, its recipe varied from one farm to the next, following the seasons, the produce available in their gardens, and the preserved meat available in their salting tubs.

Eventually, the soup became more popular and was adopted by many home cooks, not only farmers. The recipe remained quite adaptable, but always included cabbage, beans, potatoes, seasonal vegetables if available, and smoked meat—or sometimes confit, in richer households.

Today, garbure is considered a rustic dish, but it still holds a cherished place in the hearts of locals. For proof, look to La Garburade, a garbure world championship that takes place in the village of Oloron-Sainte-Marie every year on the first weekend of September. Dozens of teams compete to take home the coveted title of the world’s best garbure.

Making Garbure

The making of garbure is best suited for weekends, when you can devote a few hours to being home. It requires time, but not necessarily a lot of effort.

Here’s how to make it.

Building the Broth

A great garbure starts with building a good broth. No store-bought stock here! The broth is made from scratch by simmering a clove-poked onion, herbs, and a whole smoked ham hock for an hour. As the ham hock cooks, its collagen and fat melt into the broth, infusing it with that uniquely rich, smokey flavor.

Some like to amp up the flavor even more by adding prosciutto rind to the broth, but be aware that ham hock already has an assertive smokey, salty flavor.

The Right White Beans

The famous Tarbais beans, or haricots Tarbais, are traditionally used in the preparation of garbure. Grown in the Tarbais region of southwestern France, these white beans are beloved for their thin skin, creamy flesh, and ability to hold their shape while cooking. They are very popular in the south of France, and are the base of many local recipes, including cassoulet.

Since Tarbais beans are harder to find in North America, you can use any good-quality white beans. Dried beans, soaked overnight, are the way to go for this recipe. We want the beans to soak up all the flavor from the broth while they cook, yet still hold their shape; canned beans will likely end up mushy.

Take Care With the Cabbage

As with most mountain cooking, garbure was born from a need to adapt to the region’s climate and altitude. In the Pyrenees mountains, locals would make do with only what could grow at high altitudes—in this case, potatoes and sturdy cabbages.

Savoy cabbage is at its peak in the winter, and is especially great used in soups, as it doesn’t turn into mush, but retains a firm texture when cooked. My recommendation is to take the time to shred and blanch the cabbage before adding it to the soup. Blanching the cabbage will clean and soften the leaves, while keeping its naturally sweet flavor and nutritional value. It will also make the cabbage easier to digest—a good thing, since this soup includes both cabbage and white beans …

Add a Touch of Luxury

This recipe, which calls for ham hock as the only meat, is often associated with Béarn, located at the southern tip of Gascony in the Pyrenees mountains. This version is the oldest one, anchored in the tradition of simple, affordable peasant food. But if you travel today to the Landes, the western part of Gascony stretching along the Atlantic coast, often referred to as France’s duck country, chances are you will be served a fancier version of garbure including both ham and duck confit.

If you wish to include duck confit in this recipe, four pieces will be enough. You can buy confit pieces in specialty markets or try to make your own at home. Then, simply sear them in a pan to crisp up the skin, and serve each bowl of garbure topped off with a piece.

Since the duck provides additional meat, you can use a smaller ham hock (about 1 1/2 to 2 pounds) to keep a good meat-to-vegetable ratio.

Good to the Last Sip

With the last spoonfuls of this soup, you may be tempted to partake in the tradition of faire chabrot. This peculiar custom from rural France calls for pouring a shot of red wine into the last dredges of your soup, and lifting the bowl to your lips to drink it, elbows planted on the table. A great symbol of French conviviality!

As for the wine, choose a French tannat, as they do in Gascony, or a French malbec.

Classic Garbure

This recipe starts the day before, with soaking the white beans overnight. On the day of, the cooking of the soup takes up to four hours, but this only includes about 30 minutes of active time. For the rest, you can simply keep an eye on the simmering pot, while going on with your other leisurely activities.

This is a great dish for feeding a large table, or to keep in the fridge for leftovers for the next 2 or 3 days. In fact, some say garbure is even better reheated the next day.

Serves 8

  • 8 ounces dried white beans
  • 2 1/2 pounds smoked ham hock
  • 1 large onion, peeled
  • 8 to 10 cloves
  • 1 stalk celery
  • 4 bay leaves
  • 4 to 5 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 4 1/2 quarts (18 cups) water
  • 4 tablespoons duck fat (or butter)
  • 2 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 2 large carrots, peeled and cubed
  • 1 large turnip, peeled and cubed
  • 1 leek, cut in 1/2-inch half rounds
  • 1/2 Savoy cabbage, shredded
  • 3 to 4 russet potatoes, peeled and cubed
  • Red pepper flakes, for garnish

The day before: Add the dried beans to a bowl and cover with water. Let soak overnight, or at least 12 hours.

Garbure Soup - soak the white beans overnight
Soak the white beans overnight. (Audrey Le Goff)

Make the broth: Poke the cloves into the whole peeled onion. Add the onion, celery stalk, bay leaves, thyme, and ham hock into a large stockpot over medium-high heat. Add about 4 1/2 quarts of water, or enough to cover the ham hock. Bring the water to a boil, then reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer for 1 hour.

Garbure Soup - sautee vegetables in duck fat
Saute the vegetables in duck fat. (Audrey Le Goff)

In a large frying pan, melt the duck fat over medium-high heat. Add the garlic, carrots, turnips, and leek. Cook for about 6 to 7 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the leek is translucent (but not caramelized yet).

After the broth has simmered for an hour, remove about 4 cups of liquid. Add the vegetables and drained beans. Season with salt and pepper. Cover the pot and simmer for another hour.

In the meantime, blanch the cabbage: Bring a medium pot of salted water to a boil. Add the shredded cabbage and cook for 3 minutes, until the leaves slightly soften; they should keep their vibrant color. Immediately transfer the cabbage to a colander and pass under cold water to stop the cooking process. Set aside to drain.

Garbure Soup - savoy cabbage
Blanch the Savoy cabbage. (Audrey Le Goff)
Garbure Soup - blanch the cabbage
Blanch the Savoy cabbage. (Audrey Le Goff)

Finish the soup: After the broth has simmered for another hour, add the blanched cabbage, cover, and simmer for 30 minutes. Add the potatoes, cover, and simmer for 30 more minutes.

Remove the ham hock from the pot and transfer it to a cutting board. Remove and discard the skin and excess fat, and shred the meat with a fork; at this point, the meat should fall off the bone easily. Return the shredded meat to the pot.

Garbure Soup - fork-tender ham hock
Shred the ham hock. (Audrey Le Goff)
Garbure Soup - shredded ham hock
Shred the ham hock. (Audrey Le Goff)

Cook for 15 more minutes, uncovered, and adjust seasoning if needed. To test the thickness of the soup, stick a soup ladle in the middle of the pot: If it stands upright on its own, it’s ready. If not, continue simmering the soup until it thickens more.

Garbure Soup
Cook until a soup ladle can stand upright in the middle of the pot. (Audrey Le Goff)

Serve in individual bowls with a light sprinkle of red pepper flakes and big slices of bread on the side.

Garbure Soup
Serve with red pepper flakes and big slices of bread. (Audrey Le Goff)

Audrey Le Goff is a French food writer, photographer, and creator of the food blog, “Pardon Your French,” where she shares recipes and stories from her beloved home country, France. She is the author of the cookbook “Rustic French Cooking Made Easy” (2019). She currently lives in Niagara, Canada. Follow her on Instagram @pardonyourfrench