Cassoulet is a classic French dish from the Languedoc region of southwestern France which is traditionally cooked in an earthenware pot known as a cassole (hence the name). In essence cassoulet is a slowly cooked casserole of beans and meats, often topped with a gratin of crunchy crumbs. It is classic hearty peasant food which matches the earthy wines of the region perfectly.
There are said to be a trinity of true cassoulets: the Father, from Castelnaudary, where it is made with fresh and smoked pork products; the Son, from Carcassone, where mutton is preferred; and the Holy Ghost, from Toulouse where pork, sausage, lamb, and duck and goose confit is utilized. In some areas too fish cassoulet is popular. I prefer the Toulouse version, but I certainly don't tell this to someone from one of the other traditions, for I don't want to come to blows with them over the most delicious version of this wonderful dish.
Legends place the origins of cassoulet "far back in the history of greediness", as one website charmingly puts it, but there is much debate about exactly how far back in that history one must go. Some argue that cassoulet is of rather recent origin, as white beans were only introduced into Europe from the Americas around 500 years ago; before that Europe had only green beans.
However, Castelnaudary tales recount that the precursor bean-based dish dates from the time of the Hundred Years War (1337 - 1453). The story goes that a provost thought that preparing a dish with all the victuals from the town would give his besieged troops courage for a coming offensive. Finding plenty of beans, fresh and salted pork, geese, and sausages, the chef prepared a huge stewed dish and served it at a raucous banquet along with barrels of the local wine. After the banquet the soldiers, replete but emboldened, set off all their artillery and then rushed with a huge roar straight at their British enemies. The explosions were so loud and the soldiers so rowdy that the British fled in panic and didn't stop running until they reached the shores of the English Channel.
Another story goes that long before the discovery of the Americas, in the 7th century, the Arabs introduced white beans to the French and taught the local people how to cook them in a sheep-based stew.
Whichever story is correct, it is clear that cassoulet is an important part of regional French cooking, and a treat worth seeking out.
Traditional cassoulet is very time-consuming to prepare, for the ingredients are legion and traditionally prepared over days and weeks by hand: they include duck confit (duck preserved in its own fat); pork rinds fried in the fat from the confit; fresh handmade lamb or pork sausage; homemade broth; and dried beans which are soaked overnight, drained, blanched and drained again, and then cooked in the broth; all combined and baked slowly in the cassole.
I prepare a much simpler version using canned great northern beans and duck confit from my wonderful butcher, and I omit the pork rind; I can have the whole thing on the table in two hours. I'm sorry that I can't give you detailed instructions on how to prepare this dish, but I can't, both because I make it up as I go along and because I fear it would be sacrilege to even call my streamlined version cassoulet. But there are no shortage of recipes available in cookbooks and online. The inimitable Julia Child has a recipe that requires three days to make, but happily le Lingodoc family from Castelnaudary has a traditional recipe which isn't quite so complicated at www.lingodoc-riviere.com.