French cassoulet is basically a rich, slowly cooked bean and meat stew. It is named after the pot it is cooked in, the cassole, a deep earthenware pot with a flat bottom and flared sides. The foundation of cassoulet is dried white beans (haricots blancs, generally), duck/partridge or goose confit, and sausage. Additional meats are added in some versions. Then fresh tomato, garlic, onions, water, and wine may be added. The Toulouse cassoulet, for example, uses haricots blancs, poultry confit, the famed Toulouse sausage, and pork and/or mutton.
The birthplace of the cassoulet is a topic of some debate, though the origins of the current incarnation seem to be in the historical Languedoc Province in Southwest France. The trio of villages, Carcassonne, Toulouse, and Castelnaudary, each make a claim on the first cassoulet. However, it seems that Castelnaudary may have the most credence in that claim. It is there that we will focus our attention on the origin and evolution of today's French cassoulet.
Many feel that the true French cassoulet can only be found in the kitchens of the farmer's wives of the region. That, I believe, is the basis of the cassoulet. It was women putting together available and nourishing ingredients in an attempt to feed their families. These women, who had incredibly busy lives in their homes, planned ahead for a filling meal that would cook in the background of their day. They used what they had to create something that has become a bit of a legend in French cuisine. We can discuss the "traditional cassoulet" all we like; however, it is likely that, even within a region or individual home, the recipe varied according to the ingredients available at the time.
Limiting ourselves to the basics, one of the most interesting components is the idea that the cassoulet is simply refreshed from day to day, never completed. When the meal of one day is done, the cassole is left as it is, and tomorrow, the leavings will be deglazed into that day's dish. The remains are turned into the base for a richer, more flavorful meal with each preparation. Adding fresh water, beans, and meats, the spent meal is recreated from the ashes.
Another fascinating aspect of the cassoulet is the "secret of the seven skins." According to tradition, a cassoulet is only complete when it has developed a skin in the baking and has that skin pierced seven times. If a cassoulet is being cooked correctly, it will simmer, gently, and a skin will form on top. This must be pierced and incorporated into the cassoulet seven times and then the final skin must be allowed to blacken. Only then is the dish ready to remove from the oven. Only then will the flavors have had time to meld and the ingredients allowed to form their perfect union.
Are you ready to try a traditional French cassoulet in your kitchen?
Links provided to Toulouse Cassoulet (http://www.toulouse-visit.com/Interested-in/Gastronomy/Savours-of-the-South-West/Toulouse-cassoulet) and Traditional French Cassoulet (http://cs.smith.edu/dftwiki/index.php/Julia_Child's_Cassoulet_Recipe)