“To the untrained American ear cassoulet sounds like some sort of ambrosia.” – Julia Child
For Americans in love with French food, cassoulet holds an almost magical significance. It evokes an unattainable ideal. Made with ingredients that are difficult to find or too expensive to afford outside of France – confit d’oie (preserved goose), haricots lingots (a French white bean), saucisse de Toulouse (Toulousan sausage), perhaps mutton – the American gourmand must settle for easier to find substitutes (Julia Child recommended kielbasa & lamb) or patiently wait for the next visit to France.
I first ate cassoulet in one of the cities frequently named as the birthplace for the dish, Carcassonne in the region of Languedoc. I was twenty-two years old and had never heard of cassoulet before, but my more sophisticated traveling companions found a restaurant within the ancient walled city that was renowned for the local dish. The stone casserole full of soft beans imbued with the mellow fat of the local Toulousan goose (raised for foie gras), pieces of goose, and browned plump sausages was so satisfying at such a primal level that I didn’t need to eat again for at least a day. It was so satisfying that every cassoulet I’ve tried since has seemed a wan imitation, the sauces too thin, the beans lacking flavor, the crusts lifeless, the meats dry. Even the cassoulet I special ordered from my favorite French place at home, which typically serves wonderful cuisine bourgeois, dashed my hopes.
Why do I and so many of my compatriots fetishize cassoulet? Julia Child reassures readers of Mastering the Art of French Cooking that the dish is just a French version of Boston Baked Beans; in fact she even titles her recipe “French Baked Beans.” (Although she undercuts her argument by introducing the recipe with “A Note on the Order of Battle.” It does not require a battle to produce a simple baked beans.)
The origin of the American cult of cassoulet appears to lie in recent history, despite the fact that we celebrate the dish as a symbol of France’s ancient food traditions. Before the twentieth century there were few mentions of cassoulet in any English-language texts. The earliest reference I found was in Jessup Whitehead’s 1889 Steward’s Handbook and Guide to Party Catering. Whitehead includes in his glossary a passage from the chef of the Café Voltaire in Paris, who defines cassoulet as a purée made from white beans, goose, fresh pork, pounded bacon, garlic, salt and pepper.
The growing popularity of cassoulet within the restaurants of Paris at the turn of the twentieth century seems to have been most responsible for introducing the dish to the American imagination. Popular French writer Anatole France, winner of the 1921 Nobel Prize in literature, included an account of cassoulet in his 1903 Histoire Comique, which was translated into English as A Mummer’s Tale. A character in the book entices a friend to lunch at Clémence’s restaurant on the Rue Vavin, in Montparnasse, where the chef makes a cassoulet in the Castelnaudary fashion (not to be confused with the Carcassonne cassoulet), involving “pickled goose legs, haricot beans that have been previously bleached, bacon, and a small sausage.” Clémence’s cassoulet has been cooking for twenty years without cease, France’s character promises.
The Americans who flocked to Montparnasse in the early twentieth century seem to have loved cassoulet as much as Anatole France’s character. In William John Locke’s 1926 novel Perella, the characters visit a Montparnasse restaurant called the Petit Cassoulet, on a little street off the Boulevard Raspail, which is “crammed with Americans and English.” This may have been the same restaurant France had in mind, considering that Rue Vavin is, in fact, a little street off the Boulevard Raspail. Rue Vavin also crosses Rue Notre-Dame des Champs, where Hemingway lived from 1924-1925. In A Moveable Feast, Hemingway mentions growing hungry while reading cassoulet listed as the plat du jour at a neighborhood restaurant in Montparnasse. This evocative passage has no doubt contributed significantly to the American obsession with cassoulet. One twitter user confesses “Today I spent four hours cooking a cassoulet because Hemingway mentioned a cassoulet.”
Today I spent all day cooking a cassoulet, and I spent half of yesterday working on it as well, because I wanted it to be amazing. The fact that it takes so long to make right probably explains why the supermarket across the street has an entire shelf devoted to canned cassoulet. Smart people with better things to do pay other people to make their cassoulets.
To cook a cassoulet, first you must choose a recipe. More than that: first you must choose a school of thought. Are you cooking a Toulouse cassoulet? a Carcassonne cassoulet? or a Castelnaudary cassoulet? The distinctions between them are somewhat ambiguous. American food writer Waverly Root proposed that the Toulouse cassoulet was based on goose, the Carcassonne on mutton, and the Castelnaudary on pork. But he conceded that this distinction did not stand up to rigorous inspection. Ultimately, he concluded, “cassoulet is what you find it.”
One thing I felt certain of, I was not going to make an American style cassoulet. The earliest American recipe for cassoulet I’ve come across is in the 1915 Pan-Pacific Cook Book, published in San Francisco after that year’s World Fair. The cook book, offering dishes from the many countries represented at the fair, includes two variations on cassoulet. The first, listed under starters, involves not only pork sausages and bacon but mutton livers and kidneys, the whole dish then sprinkled with cheese (variety not specified). I’ve never tried mutton kidneys before, and when I do, I won’t want them with cheese on top. The second cassoulet recipe in the Pan-Pacific Cook Book is based on chicken, which might be perfectly nice, but we can all agree that’s not cassoulet.
Julia Child’s recipe held little appeal for me either. In the attempt to make the dish accessible to American chefs, she leaves out the confit d’oie and substitutes great northern beans for the French lingots. These alterations to the classical recipe produced outrage and horror from her coauthor Simone Beck. “We French, we never make cassoulet like this!” the temperamental Beck shouted at Child. Child nearly withdrew from their partnership as a result of this argument. Ultimately cooler heads prevailed; Child’s recipe was printed, with an addendum directing adventurous cooks to search out confit d’oie and try it that way as well. Longtime New York Times food writer Craig Claiborne praised Child’s adapted recipe. And it certainly looks tasty on her television episode dedicated to the dish (skip to 4:00 to watch Child say “nom nom” as she spoons out a serving). But since I am living in Paris for the year and can more easily buy haricots lingots than great white northern beans, I decided to pursue a more authentic approach.
I found the list of ingredients that held the greatest appeal for me in a recipe for cassoulet Castelnaudary posted on the french website cassoulet.net devoted to the history, cooking, and eating of this famous dish. The most appealing thing about the list of ingredients was that I didn’t know what half of them were: couennes fraîches de porc? jarret de porc? coustelos de porc? vieux lard? (pork rind, pork hock, pork ribs, and old bacon respectively). The others that I did know fell squarely in the nom-nom category, including the contentious but essential confit d’oie and pied de cochon (pig’s foot).
I was able to find almost all the ingredients for my cassoulet at our neighborhood butcher. I went first to the markets on the upscale Rue Daguerre, near the entrance to the catacombs and about a ten minute walk from our apartment. But those refined butchers did not have the pork rind I was looking for. Our more shabby but eclectic butcher at the base of Avenue du Général Leclerc gave me the rind for free. He laughed at me when I asked for vieux lard, as I figured he might – but I had to try. We compromised on unsmoked fresh bacon. The only other substitution I made was duck confit for goose. I know, I know – for shame. But as Waverly Root says, “cassoulet is what you find it.”
Here are the results of my shopping expedition:
A note on the tinned duck confit: inside are four whole duck legs preserved in duck fat. Short of making the confit myself, which would have added an extra day to the dish, I think the tinned confit works well. In fact, I suspect that much of the duck confit for sale at the boucheries starts out in tins before it’s set out for display in the case (just as olive sellers unpack their fruits from large cans into pretty porcelain bowls). The toulouse sausage also arrived pre-packaged at the butcher. I know this because when I asked for a bigger piece than the one available in the display cabinet he went to a back room, brought out a new package, cut it open, and measured the meat out for me.
Once I had lugged my treasures home I put the beans to soak and set to work on my pork stock, which would eventually bind my ingredients together into one delicious whole. I suspect that most restaurant versions of cassoulet are insipid because they cheat on this essential step, substituting chicken stock or even the bean water for stock.
The next day, with the beans soaked and the stock prepared, I set to work on cooking the cassoulet. I blanched the beans, discarded the water, then cooked them in the stock until tender, adding a little tomato paste at the end. Next I browned the confit, then browned the pork ribs and the sausage in the confit grease. Finally I assembled the cassoulet in a stone marmite. The traditional dish used to cook a cassoulet is called a cassole. We found a good substitute for ten euros at an Asian market in the 13th Arrondissement (Paris’s chinatown). I began the dish by layering the cooked pork rind on the bottom of our adapted cassole. Next I layered in half the beans. Then came the confit, from which I had removed the bones and any excess fat. More beans followed, then the sausage and ribs, pushed down into the beans. I poured the pork/bean stock over the dish and sprinkled bread crumbs on top made from Poilane’s famous loaf mixed with duck cracklings leftover from the confit (my own invention). Finally I baked the dish in the oven for three hours, periodically breaking the crust that formed on top and letting the cassoulet’s juices rise to the top. Finally, voila:
I wish there were a smello-vision plugin for WordPress so that I could share with you the amazing aromas that these “French baked beans” have produced. The most challenging aspect of preparing the dish has been resisting eating it before we’re ready to have dinner. It came out of the oven a couple hours ago, since I wanted to let it sit and think about itself for a good long time before we dug in, following the advice of the final sentence of the recipe on cassoulet.com : “Préparer la veille pour le matin, le matin très tôt pour le soir” (make it in the evening for the morning or early in the morning for the evening). I confess to having tried a bean or two when I pulled it piping hot from the oven two hours ago. Maybe I even had a spoonful of broth with a little bit of crust on top – just enough to determine that tonight’s supper wouldn’t dash my expectations once again.
In the words of the immortal Julia Child, bon appétit, or should I say: nom nom!