I started writing this in January, when temperatures were dipping low and I was itching for something hearty and soul-satisfying. The perfect answer to those cravings was cassoulet, the slow-cooked meat and bean casserole that hails from the South of France. It is April now. I am still making cassoulet. And, much to my delight, the French enjoy cassoulet well beyond the cold winter months as well. The Confrérie du Cassoulet celebrates the dish at an annual Festival du Cassoulet—in August.
I am convinced cassoulet was the forerunner to our more familiar pork ‘n beans—a staple at summer picnics—but meatier and not sweet the way Boston baked beans can be. The origin of this humble French concoction, though, is the subject of vigorous debate. Three towns in the Languedoc claim to be the Big Bang of cassoulet—Castelnaudary, Toulouse, and Carcassonne —each with its own variation, as described in a 2010 article in the French-language Slate. Each town also has a Maison du Cassoulet.
Cassoulet from Castelnaudary is made with white kidney beans (haricot lingot), pork, confit of duck (or goose, depending on availability) and Toulouse sausage (made with pork, smoked bacon, wine, and garlic).
The second variation comes from Toulouse. There is pork (loin, hock, and fresh sausage), duck confit, bacon, Toulouse sausage, and neck of mutton. The beans are regional varieties, such as tarbais beans–—“grown within sight of the Pyrenees.”
The third recipe, from Carcassonne, adds partridge instead of duck. In the past partridges were numerous in the region; old partridges had tough meat that turns into silk in the cassoulet. Since cassoulet production has exploded as it has become more popular, partridges have given way to additional mutton.
So which is the authentic cassoulet recipe?
Are the large white tarbais beans or the smaller kidney-shaped lingot beans essential or is it possible for cannellini or fava beans to step in? Must we layer the pot with pork skin and thicken the stew with pureed salt pork? Oh, I hope not.
What about the meats? Variations range from those with confit de canard (duck confit) and French garlic sausages to those that would not be considered complete without mutton. Bread-crumb crust or no? Must it be complicated to qualify as a true “cassoulet”? Julia Child’s recipe runs for six pages in “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” Paula Wolfert, author of “The Cooking of South-West France,” traveled from Toulouse to Castelnaudary to Carcassonne in search of the Gilgamesh of cassoulets.
These dizzying prospects make the quest to prepare an “authentic” cassoulet a Sisyphean task!
I believe we should tread boldly into the thick of this rhubarb. Use recipes as a guide, but create our own versions that will become our family’s “traditional, authentic” cassoulet in a few generations. And face it. We’re in America. No one will know.
Even with a pared down recipe certain things are essential.
- Use dried beans. The canned version will disintegrate and will not provide the toothsomeness of dried beans. I have used a variety of bean s but my current favorites are large limas.
- Include some smoked meats. A ham hock, bacon, and garlicky sausages, like kielbasa, but not too much. For cassoulet to be an unforgettable experience a ghost of smoke must be present in each bite.
- A small amount of tomato. This provides just enough acid to break down the beans so the ragout can penetrate their flesh. Some recipes call for a tomato, skinned, seeded, and cut into eighths, or the alternative—tomato paste.
- Duck confit. While a pork-and-sausage-only cassoulet is quite satisfying, adding a few duck legs that have been preserved in the “confit” method (slow cooked and stored in its own fat) turns a plebian dish into one that is guest-worthy—and “French.” Add the duck at the end, on top of the stew, so the skin will turn golden and crisp. Confit de canard can be found online but it is expensive. I bring cans of it back with me when I visit France, where it’s a more humble supermarket shelf item.
- Commit two days to the process. You don’t need two full days, but the ragout and the beans should be prepared a day in advance and refrigerated overnight. [Follow up note: One day, pressed for time, I just dumped everything in the slow cooker; it was delicious.]
- Long, slow cooking. The preferred (“authentic”) method is to use a low, flat casserole called a cassole (pictured in the photos above), made of terracotta Issel, a Lauragais clay mixed with other non-calcareous clay. Living in the 21st century I think it’s perfect for a slow cooker, but the amount of liquid will need to be reduced so you don’t end up with soup.
Whether the snow is piled high or spring rains have you locked inside, what better activity than to settle into a monastic state of contemplation over a pot of porky, beany unctuousness?!