“That’s not from here, we make Catalan sausage! Catalan sausage is better!” exclaimed the butcher in Ceret when Lara asked for saucisse de Toulouse (Toulouse sausage), an ingredient of the cassoulet I was making for this series on The Dish. While the man had been happy to chat to her in broken English and French when she’d asked him a few minutes earlier about his duck confit, he changed his tune when he put two and two together and realised what we were making…
“You’re making this, aren’t you?” he asked, picking up a tin of pre-prepared cassoulet he had on the shelf. “This isn’t from here! It’s foreign. We’re Catalan!” and with this the red-faced butcher returned to the back room where he’d been slicing meat when Lara arrived. He wasn’t going to be selling Lara anything today, not even the innocent and more neutral duck confit.
So why did the notion of Lara making cassoulet send this man running back to his slicer – despite, ironically, him selling it in his own shop? Well, for anyone who sees themselves as Catalan, traditional French dishes such as cassoulet represent far more than just a stew of haricot beans, pork, sausages, and duck confit (just one of the versions of the dish). Cassoulet represents an ongoing form of French cultural oppression. And you thought it was just a casserole?
Castelnaudary, about 180km from Ceret, is the self-proclaimed capital of the dish which is named after the cassole, the earthenware pot it is often cooked in. Some 65km north of Castelnaudary, Toulouse is also a centre for this homely, filling dish. And despite what the butcher says, the dish is popular in southern France. There is a woman who sells it at the market every Saturday in Perpignan and the supermarket shelves would be far emptier in Ceret without the endless variations of cassoulet. Even a restaurant in Ceret specialised in cassoulet, although we never saw anyone eating it there and it had to be ordered in advance – never a good sign!
After a week of experimenting, I tried my final version out at a small dinner party we hosted in our holiday rental in Ceret for our new friend Carl from Perpignan and a Toulouse-raised local, Yvan, who told me that there was as many versions of cassoulet as there are villages in the south of France.
After looking at a million recipes I had decided to put into the cassoulet what I thought instinctively was right. Pork belly, pork and garlic saucisses (sausages), and duck confit were the main meat components of the dish. The haricots blancs (white beans, sourced from Castelnaudary) made up the base of the dish, and here there is no cheating with at all. The beans need to be soaked for 24hrs and then cooked to achieve the right level of softness, which I prefer to mean just firm enough to get a little taste of fibre as you bite into the bean, not soft and mushy like some I tried.
I found the sauce quite bland with some cassoulet I tried and one had way too much duck fat. To make a more palatable sauce, I used some tinned tomatoes, certainly not used in all cassoulets, but, look, even making cassoulet in Ceret is contentious! The other controversial issue is whether cassoulet has breadcrumbs baked on top. This is added when the duck pieces are added, near the end of a long cooking process. We didn’t prefer it either way and while the breadcrumbs added texture, it’s already a dish with plenty going on, so add them if you wish.
So, how was my final version received by the Toulouse native? “You’ve made a nice cassoulet with great flavour,” Yvan said, “but there’s not enough sauce for me. We like to soak up the sauce with some toasted bread with garlic and I also like boudin noir in my cassoulet.” Yvan also said that a cassoulet can be cooked for a whole day; way more than my few hours.
Despite these shortcomings, Yvan certainly finished his plate, and the rest of us thought that the dish was heavy enough without the addition of blood sausage. This is definitely a dish made for those with a huge appetite on a cold winter’s night or after a day skiing, hiking or chopping wood!
Below is my final recipe. You must use dried beans soaked for 24hrs and you need to judge the dish at several stages along the way – it’s best to start this dish mid-morning to have it ready that night for dinner…
- 300g poitrine salée (pork belly or streaky bacon), cut into bite-sized chunks
- 500g pork and garlic sausages, chopped into bit-sized pieces
- 4 pieces duck confit (some chefs cut this into smaller pieces too)
- 600g dried haricot beans, soaked overnight in plenty of water (they expand like crazy)
- 1 celery stick
- 1 white onion
- 1 large carrot
- 4 garlic cloves
- 1 400gram (14 ounces) tin peeled tomatoes
- 2 tablespoons of duck fat (you may have enough from the duck confit tin or jar)
- 1 bouquet garni
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 1 Dash of white wine
- Chopped parsley to make it look pretty when serving (optional)
- Drain the beans and place in a large saucepan. Add the bacon/pork belly and plenty of cold water. Heat until boiling and then put it on a slow boil for 30 minutes. Discard the water.
- Chop the celery, onion and carrot into bite-sized chunks. Remove the skin of the garlic and crush slightly with the heel of a knife. Using a good flame-proof casserole dish, add the duck fat and the vegetables and cook over a low heat until they start to colour. Add the sausages.
- If you’ve done this right and the sausages are now fragrant, neighbours will probably start knocking on the door inviting themselves over to dinner. Preheat the oven to 120˚C (250˚F)
- When the sausages are browned, deglaze the dish with a little white wine. Add the tomatoes and the bouquet garni.
- Add the beans and pork to the vegetables and sausages and add 1 litre (2 pints) of water. Bring to the boil, then turn off the heat. Transfer the cassoulet to the middle shelf of the oven.
- Cook for 2 hours, checking occasionally to see if it needs more water.
- You can stop the cooking process here if you’re making this for another night. Some would say this makes it taste even better – some argue that two days is better.
- If you’re serving the dish the same night, remove the cassoulet from the oven and place on a bench. Check the beans. That means eat some. Are they to your liking in terms of firmness? If they are, then you only need to cook the duck (the next step) for about 30 minutes. If not, when you add the duck, check the beans after an hour. If they’re too soft already, you’re probably using beans from a tin. You cheat, you lose!
- Place the duck confit pieces in the cassoulet dish, making sure to cover the pieces of duck with the bean mixture. This will stop the duck from drying out, confirming people’s suspicions that duck confit is dry – and we don’t want that! Return it to the oven.
- The duck confit usually take around 15 minutes to reheat when serving it on its own. But we want the flavours of the duck to go through the dish, so leave it in the oven for at least 30 minutes. If you want, add the breadcrumbs now.
- At this stage check the beans again. If they’re still too firm, may I remind you that I suggested making this at the start of the day. It can take another two hours!
- At this stage, the other thing to look for is whether the dish is becoming too dry. A perfect cassoulet has slow, thick bubbles at the edge of the dish, indicating the sauce is moist and thick. If it appears dry, add a little water.
- When the beans are to your liking and you have the slow, thick bubbles at the edge of the dish, it’s ready.
- Pour yourself a big glass of red. You’ve done well!
- Serve a piece of duck for each guest and a fair share of all the other goodies. Sprinkle some chopped parsley on top to make it pretty.
If you liked this, see my other posts in this series in which I search for and learn to make quintessential regional dishes, including a chocolate snack with a Michelin-starred chef in Barcelona, Rabo de Toro (oxtail stew) in Jerez, and Lamb Tajine in Morocco. We’ve just arrived in Paris, so suggestions for The Dish I should make here are more than welcome!