“Cassoulet is the God of the Occitan cuisine. The Castelnaudary version is God the Father, the Carcassonne recipe is God the Son, and the Toulousain is the Holy Spirit.” – Prosper Montagné, Le Festin Occitan. 1929
Cassoulet is first and foremost a question of tradition – of skills handed down from generation to generation. It’s OK to get a little misty when you break the top crust and scoop up a wealth of creamy white beans, cooked to perfection – tender but with a plush texture and a luxuriant, rich flavor, redolent of rosemary, thyme, and parsley. Dish up the chewy, silky duck and pork confit and ribbons of fatty and delicious pork rind (known as couenne in France). The couenne is the key to the magical symbiosis that binds beans and flesh. Just below the upper crust are links of garlicky Toulouse sausage. With your first bite, you experience the bouquet of forests, meadows and succulent meats.
That, my friends, is cassoulet – a celebration to be enjoyed! That is the reason that we traveled to Castelnaudary – the home of the best cassoulet in the world (in my humble opinion). Life is a cassoulet old friend, come to the cassoulet.
A little history (or is it legend?): during the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453), the English army was about to launch the final assault around Castelnaudary. To feed (and inspire) the defending French troops, the locals emptied their cupboards. Beans, herbs, pieces of pork, mutton and goose were cooked together. Cassoulet was born. And the English were repelled all the way back to the Channel!
The town (pop. 12,000) is the buckle of the French cassoulet belt, which runs 80 miles from Toulouse to Carcassonne. The cities are not only connected by cassoulet but also by a seventeenth-century man-made canal waterway, the Canal du Midi. Castelnaudary is the main stop on the Route du Cassoulet, created by an association of area restaurateurs. The town even has its own society, La Grande Confrérie (brotherhood) du Cassoulet de Castelnaudary, founded in 1972 to defend and perpetuate the dish. I mean, we are in Europe where there is a society for everything – right?
One of the distinctions between the cassoulet of Castelnaudary and other cities is the cassole (in Occitan, cassolo) – a pottery bowl that gave the recipe its name. Castelnaudary has a tradition of pottery and the Poterie Not Freres make cassoles in the same way that this shop did when they began in 1830. Cassoles are thrown with “official” red clay from nearby Issel which has a unique capacity to retain heat. The bowls can last up to a hundred years. I frequently kick myself for failing to buy a cassole when I was in the neighborhood.
The secret of great cassoulet, however, does not depend totally on the ingredients and pots. The crucial part is to take the time to make it right. It is a three-day process and local traditions say that the top crust should be punched down no less than seven times during the cooking.
Once we had determined to spend some time in southwestern France, I knew in no uncertain terms that I was going to Castelnaudary. As we drove past strip malls into the village, I was a little underwhelmed. Every shop front advertised cassoulet fait maison, ready to be enjoyed at home.
There were few people on the streets and although the main street was quaint, it was not really what I expected (to be honest, I’m not sure what I expected).
I had done my usual research and decided that we should stay and eat at the Hôtel du Centre et du Lauragais – arguably the best cassoulet in town and hence, the world.
We parked on the street and walked into the hotel. After checking in and hauling our luggage upstairs, we decided to check out the beautiful dining room and enjoy a glass of wine.
Our traveling companions showed up about that time so we upped the wine order to a bottle. A little while later, the owner walked in, noticed our party and began an animated discussion with our server (who later turned out to be his daughter). It was about 4:00 in the afternoon so we were too late for lunch and too early for dinner and he didn’t seem pleased.
After we made reservations for dinner at a more appropriate hour, he relaxed and soon became our jovial host.
After a glass (or two) of wine, we set out to explore the area. One thing I noted about Castelnaudary is that while the streets may have seemed deserted, the insides of the restaurants and cafés were lively, convivial, and looked fun and inviting. When the evening got cold, we headed back to our room to freshen up before dinner.
At dinner, we ordered (wait for it…) cassoulet! Since there were five of us, our server brought in one steaming crock for two and a second one for three.
Both bowls were enormous and came with a green salad (an addition that I recommend to balance the heaviness of the cassoulet). The beans were soft and bubbling gently around the edges. The broth was rich and thick with an intoxicating perfume. There was both duck and pork confit – the meat simply fell off the bone. We were assured by the owner that the sausage was homemade and it crumbled apart deliciously. And the top crust was laced with fat and crisped to a crunch.
It was amazing!
So, if you don’t plan to go to Castelnaudary this weekend and can’t wait to taste cassoulet, here is a recipe that is a pretty close approximation of the real dish.
Cassoulet de Castelnaudary
- 2 ¾ lb. Dried White Beans (lingot beans if you can find them)
- 2 Medium ham hocks (with the rinds removed and set aside)
- 1 ¾ lb. Pork sausage links
- 2 Large Onions
- 2 Carrots
- 3 cups Water for ham hock stock
- 2 Bouquet Garni
- 3 cups Homemade chicken (or duck) stock (strained)
- 2 stalks Celery
- 3 ½ oz Garlic
- 3 ½ oz Smoked bacon
- 4 TB Duck fat
- 2 pinches Quatra-épices (nutmeg, cloves, pepper, cinnamon)
- 2 pinches Nutmeg
- 2 pinches Sea salt
- 2 pinches Freshly ground pepper
- 8 Toulouse sausages
- 1 tsp EVOO
- 2-3 tsp Water (to deglaze sausage pan)
- 4 leg/thighs Duck confit
- Place the pork rinds, the ham hocks, the pork sausage, one peeled onion, and one peeled carrot, in a large pot, cover with water and simmer over low heat for 2 hours.
- After one hour remove the pork sausage and the pork rinds and refresh them in cold water, drain and keep cool.
- When the 2 hour cooking time is up, remove the ham hocks, refresh them in cold water, drain and cool. Remove the meat from the ham hocks, chop it coarsely and set aside. Strain the pork stock through a fine sieve and set it aside.
- Let all ingredients rest overnight refrigerated.
- Cover the beans in cold water and soak overnight
- On day two, combine the chicken and pork stock and heat.
- Finely chop the remaining onion, carrot, the celery, and the bacon. Saute in duck fat until they begin to soften.
- Pour over most of the combined stocks (retain about 2 cups) until the vegetables are covered. Add the spices and cook, uncovered, for 15 minutes.
- Drain the beans and put them in a large pot. Cover with cold water and bring them to a boil for 5 minutes. Drain them again and put them in the pot with the vegetables and the stock. Simmer, uncovered, for 1½ to 2 hours until the beans are very soft but not mushy.
- Once the bean mixture is cooked, let it rest overnight. Add more stock if all of the cooking stock has been absorbed.
- On the third day, heat the oven to 350 °.
- Cut the pork rind (from step 2) into strips. Cut the pork sausage into rounds.
- Line the bottom of a cassole pot (or a large Dutch oven) with the pork rinds and fill half way up with the beans. Add the sausage rounds and ham hock meat and finish filling with the remainder of the beans.
- Cover with stock and bake for 45 minutes. Punch down the mixture every 15 minutes. Add additional stock if needed.
- Brown the Toulouse sausages in a skillet with 1 tsp. of the EVOO. Remove the sausages and deglaze the skillet with water. Retain this liquid.
- Heat the duck confit.
- Remove the cassole from the oven, punch down the top of the mixture and add the Toulouse sausages and duck confit. Add more stock if needed.
- Return to the oven and cook for another 15 – 20 minutes to brown the surface.
- Remove and serve with crusty bread and hearty red wine.