Cassoulet sounds interesting, sounds good, and makes you think of something French and probably delicious. But what is it?
Historically it was a peasant dish of beans and mostly scrap meat which was put together in an earthenware casserole dish and cooked for the better part of the day. Some stories say that farmer women would put the dish together after the men went off to the fields. They would bring it to the baker’s shop and place it in the oven which was hot from the morning’s bake but not in use during the day and leave it there while they went to the river to do laundry and other daily chores. In the afternoon on the way home they would pick up their casserole dish and it was served for dinner when the men came home from the fields.
Cassoulet originates from the south west region of France and various ingredients are used depending on whether it is from Gascogne to the west, Toulouse in the middle or Carcassonne to the east.
Depending on the location, the ingredients vary from duck, goose, pork, lamb, mutton and various sausages and poultry. Beans and onions are universal.
I have had this dish in a southwestern French bistro in Paris and it was quite tasty and hearty.
The most memorable cassoulet however was in Carcassonne. This town is in the heart of the Languedoc-Roussillion region which is the home of cassoulet.
Carcassonne is a medieval town originally built by the Romans around 300 AD and added on to and fortified further through the centuries. The whole town is inside double surrounding walls with 52 towers. A real medieval fortress where you imagine the knights riding in the main gate and up the cobblestone streets to the central square.
Though the town itself is a historical and architectural gem, it houses a lot of souvenir shops and tourist attractions, however there are a number of restaurants within the walls that serve traditional fare from the region.
We popped down at an outdoor table at one of these establishments and surveyed the menu. It did indeed offer cassoulet as well as a variety of beer, Toulouse saucisse, onion soup and several other bistro classics.
An earthenware crock with a piping hot mixture of beans, pork and sausages arrived along with a tall glass of local beer. The creamy and almost sweet beans were swimming in the rich stock they had been baked in and were studded with pieces of tender, melt in your mouth pieces of pork and duck. We savored our lunch along with the refreshingly cold beer and surveyed the market square, buildings and walls. Just imagine that perhaps 500 years ago some knights were seated at this table digging into some delicious cassoulet and ale. I could just imagine hopping on my trusty steed which would have been tied up nearby and riding down the cobblestone street to the main gate and off into the fields.
Cassoulet is on one hand a simple peasant dish but on the other hand a good deal of work to put together. It’s also a dish more suited for cooler weather in the fall or winter as it is quite rich. Which is probably why national cassoulet day is on January 9th.
To make cassoulet in a traditional way, you should probably budget about 3 days.
- Day 1 – soak the beans and salt the duck legs.
- Day 2 – make the duck confit and cook the beans. Put together the dish in an oven proof dish and do the first bake. Chill and refrigerate overnight.
- Day 3 – bake it a second time and serve.
Since you do most of the work on day 2, it is a great dish for serving company as the day you actually serve it you only have to finish heating it and then serve it. It is also a good dish to serve a large group as you can easily make it for 6-12 people or more.