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Cassoulet: A Brief History

P erhaps there is no dish in the Southwest France more iconic, cherished, and controversial than the cassoulet. The name cassoulet comes from the word cassole, referring to the traditional, conical clay pot in which it is cooked (and which the potters of the village of Issel perfected).

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Cassoulet was originally a food of peasants--a simple assemblage of what ingredients were available: white beans with pork, sausage, duck confit, gizzards, cooked together for a long time. And although it is essentially a humble stew of beans and meat, cassoulet is the cause of much drama and debate. Andre Daguin, a famous chef of Gascony says, “Cassoulet is not really a recipe, it’s a way to argue among neighboring villages of Gascony.” Much like chili cook-offs in Texas, cassoulet cooking competitions are held, not only in France, but now even in the United States.

The dish has developed an almost mythological importance to the people of Gascony and Languedoc. Legend has it that cassoulet was first created during the Hundred Years War. The story goes that as the British laid siege to Castelnaudary, its people gathered up what ingredients they had left for a large stew to nourish and bolster their defenders. The meal was so hearty and fortifying that the soldiers handily dispelled the invaders, saving the city from occupation. While likely not the true account of the origin of cassoulet, this story establishes the importance of the dish as the symbolic defender of French culture.

The origin of cassoulet is probably the result of more global interactions than the Castelnaudary legend would suggest. Some credit the Arabs for inspiring the dish. In the 12th century they introduced a mutton stew—perhaps the precursor to cassoulet. After Columbus’s voyage the white bean from the Americas was introduced to France and subsequently, Catherine de Medici, queen of France, facilitated the importation of the white bean, which started to be cultivated extensively throughout southwest France.

Since its composition is based originally on availability, cassoulet varies from town to town in Southwest France. In Castelnaudary, cassoulet is prepared with duck confit, pork shoulder and sausage. In Carcassonne a cassoulet will typically have mutton, and the Toulouse version has duck confit, Toulouse sausage, and is breaded on top. In Auch, only duck or goose meat is used, and crumbs are never added on top. Even the type of bean is a point of debate. In the southern areas, it must be the Coco, or Tarbais bean, a large and somewhat flat white bean that grows at the foot of the Pyrénées Mountains. A little further north they use flageolet beans. But everyone agrees that, come spring, the last and best cassoulet of the season is made with freshly picked fava beans.

The sanctity of cassoulet is taken so seriously that there is even a brotherhood--the Grande Confrérie du Cassoulet – that defends the glory and quality of cassoulet in Castelnaudary, in part by conducting surprise taste tests of the cassoulets offered by local chefs. And there is an Academie Universelle du Cassoulet, whose members promote the cassoulet and its significant cultural heritage (they even have a theme song).

Cooking
Originally the cassoulet was cooked in the hearth, or a bread baker’s oven, using residual heat. The low heat allowed the beans to break down and all the flavor and fat of the meat to melt into the beans.This can be replicated in the modern kitchen and the process will take only a few hours. Some think cooking a cassoulet is intimidating, but in fact it is quite simple. When making a cassoulet use as many confit meats as possible, which will impart the most flavor, but use only unsmoked bacon, like ventrèche. Don’t hesitate to cut open the upper crust to check if the cassoulet is drying out too much inside as it cooks. If so, add some liquid, like stock or demi-glace. The idea is to form a crusty top on the cassoulet, while maintaining a moist center, so breaking the film that forms as the beans cook is a good thing. Some cookbooks claim that it must be broken seven times to get the perfect cassoulet, but even breaking it and allowing it to reform twice will create a crusty and delicious finish on top (no crumbs needed).

Eating Cassoulet
This rich, heavy bean dish is best enjoyed in cold weather, with a group of family or friends. Part of the magic of a cassoulet is the conviviality that seems always to surround it at the table. Nobody makes just a little cassoulet, so it will generally feed a crowd. The satisfying flavors are complemented by the wines of the Southwest region. A deep-red Madiran is considered the ideal wine to drink with cassoulet, as they both resonate with the same essence of terroir—“sense of place.” One needs little else than a thick slice of country-style bread to accompany cassoulet. And plenty of the aforementioned Madiran wine.

As Julia Child, the original American who went to Paris and brought back a culinary revolution, memorably said, “Cassoulet, that best of bean feasts, is everyday fare for a peasant but ambrosia for a gastronome, though its ideal consumer is a 300-pound blocking back who has been splitting firewood nonstop for the last twelve hours on a subzero day in Manitoba.”

Of special note: cassoulet tastes even better a day or two old. Some kind of alchemy occurs when cassoulet rests in the refrigerator and is reheated, so don’t feel bad if you can’t eat the whole thing at one sitting. Enjoy the deepening flavors for days to come.