If you have never heard of Cassoulet, you are missing one of the greatest dishes of all time. I have always wanted to take a short trip to a specific location just to have the dish of the region. Last December, my wish came true. We left Belgium on a Saturday morning, flew to Carcassonne, France to have Cassoulet for dinner and returned home the next day. It was a fabulous adventure.
Cassoulet is, in simple terms, a stew of meats and white beans. That sounds way too simple...it is a rich, slowed cooked stew. This still sounds too simple. It is heaven in a cassole, the traditional earthenware bowl in which it is cooked and which gave Cassoulet its name.
Cassoulet comes from the Languedoc region of France, a rugged area of the country. It is a peasant dish believed to have been developed in the 14th century during the 100 years war in order to feed the French soldiers.
The town of Castelnaudary is known as the birthplace of Cassoulet but Cassoulet is also associated with the towns of Toulouse and Carcassone. Proper Montagni in "Le Festin Occitan" declared, "Cassoulet is the God of Occitan cuisine. The Castelnaudary version is God the Father, the Carcassonne version is God the Son and the Toulousian is the Holy Spirit."
Each town has its own version. Castelnaudary's consists of pork, pork rind, sausage and sometimes goose. Mutton and sometimes partridge are found in Carcassonne's while the Toulousian version has lard, mutton, local sausages, duck or goose. While there are different versions, one thing is constant: It is a meal for sharing.
My version comes from D'Artagnan. The speciality food online retailer makes it very easy. Order the kit and all of the ingredients are delivered to your door on the day you specify. They even include a recipe. The kit includes duck confit, garlic sausage, duck sausage, veal demi-glace, duck fat and the beans. How easy is that! For Christmas, Dear Husband presented me with the perfect gift - a handmade cassole. With the threat of snow, it was an excellent excuse to get cooking.
Let me digress back to Carcassonne. It is touristy. It is chintzy. It is a place that you have to put on your bucket list to see. It is the second most visited site in France after the Eiffel Tower. La Cite, the old city, is a beautifully restored fortified village that sits on the top of a hill over looking the new town, La Ville Basse (lower town). The walls encircle the castle and its buildings, the cobblestone streets are fun to explore after the tour buses depart and its Gothic Cathedral immerses you in the spirit of long ago. If you can, spend a night within the city walls. The Hotel de la Cite is an excellent choice.
We arrived in time for a light lunch. As it was December, it was not too crowded. We spent the afternoon touring both the lower and upper villages. For dinner, of course, we had a wonderful Cassoulet dinner. We were home by mid afternoon the next day. Now I could say, I have had Cassoulet in Carcassonne.
Back to Cassoulet: This is the perfect dish to make on a cold, snowy Sunday. It takes several hours and you must soak the beans the night before, so don't forget this part. Also, don't plan to serve much else with the Cassoulet. It is a hearty dish, so decadent and rich that it must be the star of the show. Place the cassole in the middle of the dining table; uncork a hearty red wine, light some candles and mentally travel back to another place and time.