Deconstructing cassoulet, the classic French stew
With more than one town laying claim to this bean-and-meat dish, its exact origins are unclear. But one thing is certain — it's a centuries-old French classic. With more than one town laying claim to this bean-and-meat dish, its exact origins are unclear. But one thing is certain — it's a centuries-old French classic.
In South West France, cassoulet is more than king: it’s God Himself. That’s according to the celebrated belle epoque chef Prosper Montagné, anyway — and almost a century after he said it, no one’s arguing. This humble bean stew is as much part of the cultural identity of the Occitanie region as rugby and red wine.
It’s nothing fancy — a slow-cooked dish of white beans and meat (three different types are apparently mandatory in every dish, according to the États Généraux de Gastronomie Française of 1966, a kind of Vatican Council for French food), flavoured with garlic and vast amounts of animal fat. It’s comfort food extraordinaire, but cassoulet worship isn’t all peace and love. As chef André Daguin puts it, “cassoulet is not really a recipe, it’s a way to argue among neighbouring villages of Gascony”.
Feathers fly about what goes into the pot (traditionally a glazed earthenware bowl called a cassole, made specially for the purpose in the village of Issel, in Aude), how it should be cooked and, most importantly, who should take the credit for its invention. As food writer Jeanne Strang notes, if seven Greek cities claim to be the birthplace of Homer, as many towns in South West France bill themselves as the home of cassoulet. However, according to Prosper Montagné, there are three main contenders. Although he was a son of Carcassonne, with its famous medieval citadel, the chef nevertheless allowed that the cassoulet of Castelnaudary, about 25 miles to the west, was ‘God the Father’, naming Carcassonne’s version ‘God the Son’, while residents of the regional capital of Toulouse had to be content to dine out on the ‘Holy Spirit’.
Thus, Castelnaudary, a pleasant enough place on the Canal du Midi (which connects Toulouse to the Mediterranean), but offering few of the tourist attractions of its rivals, is usually granted bragging rights. In truth, though, as the town’s Confrérie du Cassoulet — an organisation devoted to the promotion and defence of its traditions — admits, “to try to trace the true story of the origins of cassoulet is no small affair, given the inflamed passions it provokes”.
The cassoulet creation myth goes back all the way to the Hundred Years’ War, when the inhabitants of Castelnaudary, under siege from the English, pooled their remaining food to cook up a dish so hearty that their men were able to push the northern hordes back to the Channel. Stirring stuff, but almost certainly a fiction, because no such siege occurred. Edward the Black Prince simply ransacked the town on his way from Bordeaux to the Mediterranean coast, probably taking most of the food with him. More importantly, the Gauls were eating pork and lentil stews centuries before England came into existence.
The Confrérie suggests an interesting link to the ‘extremely sophisticated’ 13th-century recipe collection attributed to Mohamed of Baghdad, whose spiced mutton stews with legumes may well have influenced medieval French cooks. However, the white beans now synonymous with cassoulet can’t have put in an appearance until the 16th century, when they arrived from the New World with Christopher Columbus.
Before that, broad beans would have been standard, a tradition occasionally revived in local restaurants; indeed, a fava-based example reached the finals of the World Cassoulet Championships in 2018. Now, local haricot are favoured, with every chef attributing special qualities to their preferred variety. The tarbais bean, which has earned Protected Geographical Indication from the EU, is one of the most popular.
The meat element is even more contentious, although many gastronomic authorities pretend otherwise. The late Joël Robuchon, the most Michelin-starred chef in history, admitted a “lack of courage in choosing decisively between the three famous cities that have compelling claims to be the authentic home and guardian of this most famous dish of French gastronomic history”. But he did feel confident enough to explain the difference between each type.
According to his book French Regional Food, co-authored by historian Loïc Bienassis, Castelnaudary cassoulet generally contains confit goose or duck, Carcassonne’s has pork chops, and the Toulouse version uses mutton and the city’s famous sausage. “These distinctions,” writes Robuchon, “mask numerous others about the length of cooking and the addition of this and that ingredient.”
In actual fact, the distinctions themselves are hardly worth the paper they’re written on, because, as with so many things cassoulet related, no two sources seem to agree. Mutton, declares the encyclopaedic Let’s Eat France! (in direct contradiction of Robuchon), is only found in Castelnaudary and Carcassonne — where partridge sometimes puts in an appearance, too.
Three-starred chef Michel Guérard once told the US food writer Paula Wolfert that “to make a cassoulet without mutton is to be banal and, in my opinion, to commit heresy. Mutton is indispensable in a cassoulet.” Two years later, Wolfert wrote in her book, The Cooking of South-West France, that he’d changed his mind, swapping the mutton for confit duck.
Purists insist that using breadcrumbs is akin to sacrilege, that a crust should be stirred into the sauce seven times to get the texture right. Tomatoes, meanwhile, are either indispensable or absolutely inauthentic. A thousand other little details are also the subject of fierce debate. Indeed, there seem to be as many cassoulets as there are cooks.
The Tarn region to the east makes it with salt cod, seafood and saffron, while in Corbières they might add a pig’s ear and tail, and chorizo sometimes pops up towards the Spanish border. Guérard has dreamt up a lean cuisine version with a third of the calories, and these days the annual Grand Banquet in Toulouse’s Place du Capitole even features a vegetarian option in deference to modern tastes.
No doubt, in the past, cassoulet was often made without much in the way of meat, because at its heart, it’s a peasant dish, designed to bulk out relatively cheap cuts with even cheaper beans. However, in 1966, the États Généraux de la Gastronomie Française decreed an authentic cassoulet must be made up of 30% meat. Typically, the whole thing would be thriftily slow-cooked in the local baker’s oven (sadly not an option for most people today). It’s certainly not a pleasure that should be rushed: the 19th-century Parisian writer Anatole France even claimed to know a restaurant where a pot of cassoulet had been gently bubbling away for 20 years.
Lest that put anyone off trying to cook it, rest assured that it only takes an afternoon — and, it has to be said, tinned versions can actually be pretty good, too. The world’s first cassoulet factory, La Maison Bouissou, opened in Castelnaudary in 1836, and the town remains the epicentre of production today, responsible for 80% of the stuff on French supermarket and épicierie shelves. Whether it contains God Himself or just a very satisfying dinner, is for the diner to decide.
Recipe: Felicity Cloake’s cassoulet
This version is closest in consistency to the one I ate in Castelnaudary: loose and soupy, but with the Toulouse sausage and confit duck that are surely everyone’s favourite bits. It also contains slow-cooked pork belly — not loin, which tends to become rather dry with such long cooking.
Takes: 4 hrs 30 mins
1kg haricot beans, soaked in cold water overnight
1 onion, peeled and halved
1 large carrot, cut into chunks
1 garlic bulb, unpeeled, plus 4 extra cloves, peeled
2 sprigs of thyme
2 sprigs of parsley
1 bay leaf
600g slab of pork belly, bone-in
4 tinned confit duck legs (about 1.4kg), fat and jelly from the tin reserved
6 Toulouse sausages
300ml white wine
1. Drain the beans well and put them in a very large ovenproof casserole dish. Pour in water until it comes to 3cm above the beans, then add the onion halves, carrot, garlic bulb, herb sprigs and pork belly. Bring to the boil, then cover and simmer over a low heat for 2 hrs, until just tender but not falling apart. If it’s threatening to boil over, spoon out some water and top up again during cooking.
2. Meanwhile, add a little duck fat from the tin to two frying pans, and fry the duck and sausages separately for 5-10 mins, turning, until crisp and golden. (The sausages don’t need to be cooked through.) Set aside.
3. Once the beans are cooked, remove the onion, carrot and herbs, and discard. Scoop out the pork belly and set aside to cool. Once cool enough to handle, cut into chunks, discarding the bones.
4. Squeeze the boiled garlic cloves from their skins and mash to a paste with the fresh garlic cloves and 4 tbsp duck fat from the tin (make it up with olive oil if there’s not enough).
5. Heat oven to 160C, 140C fan, gas 2.
6. Drain the beans, reserving the liquid and seasoning it with salt and pepper. Grease the bottom of the casserole dish with a little of the duck fat mix, tip in the beans, the rest of the duck fat and all the meat, plus any jelly from the duck confit tin. Mix, then add the wine and reserved cooking liquid to cover.
7. Bake for about 2 hrs, keeping an eye on it — once a crust has formed, stir this back into the cassoulet. By the end of the cooking time, you should have a thick, golden top.
8. Allow to cool slightly before serving with a simply dressed green salad.
Taken from One More Croissant for the Road, by Felicity Cloake (£9.99, Mudlark/HarperCollins)
Food stylist: Amy Stephenson
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