Winner of the James Beard/ KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year 2000 and Winner of the Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food 2000.
September 29, 2023
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Mangia Bene

Cassoulet is a bean stew cooked in an earthenware casserole, hence the name. It is one of the classic dishes of the Languedoc, and of France. This famous bean stew--and “bean stew” hardly conveys the complexity of its flavors--is subject to much debate about what constitutes a “true” cassoulet. Cassoulet is a paradigm for a culinary understanding of the Languedoc, for there is a different recipe in every kitchen.

The history of cassoulet is a history of Languedoc. One legend places the birth of cassoulet during the siege of Castelnaudary by the Black Prince, Edward the Prince of Wales, in 1355. The besieged townspeople gathered their remaining food to create a big stew cooked in a cauldron. Apocrypha aside, a more appropriate historical question can be asked: Is the prototype of cassoulet the fava and mutton stews of the Arabs, as suggested by Julia Child and Paula Wolfert (but denied by Waverly Root)? Was the Languedoc the northern limit of the cooks, if not the commandos, of ‘Abd ar-Rahmān I and the yakhna bi’l-fūl? Etymology alone provides some circumstantial evidence pointing to the celebrated cuisine of the Arabs as the provenance of cassoulet, already having made its mark on the beans stews to the south in Muslim Spain of the twelfth century.

The word cassoulet derives from the earthenware casserole it is cooked in, the cassolle or cassolo, a special vessel made by the local potteries from the terre d’Issel, Issel being a village in the vicinity of Castelnaudary. The word cassolo comes directly from the Spanish. But where does the Spanish word cassa, meaning “a receptacle for carrying liquid,” from which it derives come from?  The explanation given in Alan Davidson’s Oxford Companion to Food, who used John Ayto’s The Diner’s Dictionary (Oxford University Press, 1993), claims the word casserole has a complicated history. It starts with a classical Greek term for a cup (kuáthos) progressing to the Latin word cattia which could mean both ladle and pan, and then becoming the Provençal casa that transforms into the Old French word casse that gives the words today cassolle or casserole. This is indeed complicated, too complicated and in fact incorrect. Although my Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary gives the same etymology, a more convincing explanation is given by Joan Corominas (1905-1997), Professor of Romance Philology at the University of Chicago and author of the definitive four-volume Diccionario crítico etimólogico de la lengua castellana. The English word “casserole” does indeed derive from the French word cassolle which in turn derives from the medieval Occitan word cassa. But this word is related to the original Spanish word cassa which also gives the modern Spanish word for the casserole, cazuela. All these words come directly from the medieval Spanish cassa, which is not derived from the Latin. Where does the medieval Spanish word cassa, meaning “a receptacle for carrying liquid,” come from? Possibly, Corominas argues, it comes from cacherulo, a Mozarab word meaning a casserole. Mozarab was the language spoken by the Christians living in Islamic Spain in the twelfth century. Cacherulo in turn is a word derived from the Arabic qascat, a large shallow earthenware bowl or pan. On the other hand, it may be derived from a proto-Hispanic word, but it doesn’t derive from either Latin or Greek.

In talking about cassoulet we also should not forget the proximity of Catalonia and the close historical association of Languedoc with the Aragonese-Catalan Empire. Cassoulet has much in common with the bean and sausage dishes of Catalonia’s northernmost province, Roussillon, with its l’ollada, that in turn is related to the escudella of Catalonia. This, of course, leads us to the olla of Castile and Cervantes. The bean in all these early bean stews must be the fava bean or hyacinth bean, because Phaseolus vulgaris--the white bean so closely associated today with cassoulet--did not appear in Europe until after Columbus’s second voyage in 1493, and one of the first references in Languedoc to this bean is in Clermont-sur-Lauquet in 1565, by the name monges.

The life of this famous bean stew begins in Castelnaudary. The cassoulet of Castelnaudary, a pleasant village in the Aude along the Canal du Midi, is certainly the oldest of the three cassoulets, the other two being from Carcassonne and Toulouse. Some authors speak of a fourth and fifth cassoulet, but in reality you can speak of three or a thousand. The Castelnaudary version is the most rustic, using only water from Castelnaudary and the produce of the Lauragais. In older times the cassoulet was simmered in a cauldron over an open hearth fire of gorse wood collected in the Montagne Noire of the region. During hunting season the Carcassonnais will throw several red partridges and some lamb shoulder or leg into their cassoulet. In Toulouse it is enriched with confit of goose, pork skin, and saucisses de Toulouse, a simple pork sausage with a distinctive flavor.

A proper understanding of the importance of cassoulet to local cuisine can be captured by a famous saying: Le Cassoulet est le dieu de la cuisine occitane. Un Dieu en trois personnes: Dieu le père est celui de Castelnaudary, Dieu le fils est celui de Carcassonne et le Saint-Esprit qui est celui de Toulouse. (Cassoulet is the God of Occitan cuisine. A god in three persons: God, the father, is that of Castelnaudry. God the son is that of Carcassonne, and the Holy Spirit is that of Toulouse). Anatole France, writing in the late nineteenth century, described cassoulet as having a “taste, which one finds in the paintings of old Venetian masters, in the amber flesh tints of their women.” He claimed in his Histoire comique that the cassoulet he ate at Chez Clemence on the Rue Vavin, a favorite establishment in Paris, had been cooking for twenty years, the water, beans and meats replenished daily.

Where does one find the best cassoulet? Undoubtedly the best will be found in the kitchen of a farmer’s wife. One French authority declared that a good cassoulet could not be a restaurant dish under any circumstances. Opinions of cooks and chefs are strong on the composition of a cassoulet. Some chefs say that mutton and confit can’t go together. Other cooks look down on the bread crumb crust, saying that it is a restaurant invention done to make it look better.

No matter which cassoulet you make, it is important to follow several important rules. Use the very best ingredients. If you are traveling in Languedoc, you couldn’t bring back a better souvenir than the best medium-size haricot beans you can find, such as the lingot de Lavelanet or the haricot beans of Mazères, Pamiers, or Cazères.

The water for a good cassoulet is quite important. It should be hard and calcareous, which allows the beans to maintain their shape better. Also, patience is required. There is much preparation, and the cooking is long, with the fire being adjusted if necessary.

Lastly, you should know about the so-called secret of the seven skins: a film develops over the cassoulet while it cooks. This skin or film must be broken seven times to make a perfect cassoulet, culinary folklore instructs.