A cassoulet pilgrimage
I’ve just come back from 10 days in the South West of France and I’m already mourning the end of lunchtime drinking and river swimming. The weather hasn’t helped – flying back over the New Forest and seeing fields that were more puddle than grass wasn’t a welcome sight. I am pleased to be back in my own kitchen however, with plenty of holiday food inspiration, but all the benfits of sharp knives, a gas hob and the much missed coffee paraphernalia.
One of the highlights of the trip for me was experiencing real cassoulet in Castelnaudary. I’ve had the quite pleasant tinned version before and had a go at making my own a couple of times, but with all the various stages of preparation and hard to find ingredients, I’ve never gone for it 100%, either cheating with tinned confit or having to use a substitute for the Toulous sausages or lard sale.
On this trip we were staying in Mirepoix, less than 45 minutes away from Castelnaudary, the capital of cassoulet. Unfortunately we were just a couple of weeks too early for their cassoulet festival, though I suppose there’s only so much you can eat of a dish of this kind of heartiness, particularly in 37c heat. One lunchtime meal was probably festive enough. The friends we were visiting in Mirepoix told us about a pottery just outside of the city that makes the traditional cooking vessel, Le Cassole, so our pilgrimage started there.
The Poterie Not Freres in the tiny village of Mas-Saintes-Puelles looks like it hasn’t changed for hundreds of years. It’s in a beautiful setting by the Canal du Midi with all the stereotypical gorgeous old barges, plain tree avenues and glassy green-grey water that you could wish for. The machinery in the pottery is all powered by the river which makes the production wonderfully serene as well as sustainable. Everything is done in-house. Locally-dug clay is dried and milled on site to a fine powder before being reconstituted with water and kneeded to get it to the perfect consistency. Despite the large production, the pots are amazingly still thrown by hand on the 3 water-powered wheels. After gently drying out inside the building, they are hand-glazed and sun-dried before being fired.
Today the smaller pots such as the cassoles and gratin dishes are fired in 2 modern gas kilns, however the large garden pots and urns are still fired in the original enormous wood-fired kiln. It takes so long for the big kiln to come up to temperature and cool down naturally that they only produce one batch of gardenware a month. The cassoles are fired every day though and with each kiln at 6 metres long, that’s a lot of cassoles!
Our next stop was the town of Casteldaudary itself, an attractive market town approx. 50km southeast of Toulous and the main port on the Canal du Midi. While it isn’t the only town in the area to claim the origins of cassoulet, it is home to La confrérie de l’académie universelle du cassoulet (which roughly translates as ‘The Brotherhood of the universal cassoulet academy’) which I feel just gives them the obsessive edge over Toulous and Carcassonne. I must admit, I did wonder if in the middle of August it was only going to be tourists that were tucking in to such a rich stew at midday, but we seemed to be the only foreigners in the little family-run restaurant we went to and bar one man eating alone, everyone had a steaming cassoule in front of them.
We placed our order and sat nervously sipping our iced water. I often get this anxious feeling when seeking out the true authentic version of a dish – will it be as good as I hope it will be or will it disapoint? After all, a cassoulet is basically just baked beans with sausage and duck. How good can it get?
The answer, I’m pleased to say, is: extremely! There’s an incredibly satisfying rich depth of umami flavour that permiates the dish. The confit duck is shreddy and melting and the pork and Toulous sausage add some textural interest, but really the beans are the stars of the show. Cooked slowly for several hours, they have a smooth, creamy texture and have taken on all the flavours from the dish. The sticky toasted crust on the top that you can see in the picture is every bit as heavenly and concentrated as it looks. This is big peasant food that should probably be followed by an afternoon of manual labour, but we made do with a punt round the shops and a walk by the Canal du Midi.
This is my very roughly translated version of the recipe of La Grande Confrerie du Cassoulet de Castelnaudary:
1 duck carcass
250g pork skin, cut into thick ribbons
2 onions, halved
2 carrots, roughly chopped
400g haricot lingot sec (or dried haricot beans), soaked overnight in cold water
2 confit duck leg quarters, separated into thigh and drumstick
4 Toulous sausages
4 x 50g pieces of pork belly
4 garlic cloves
a little salted pork belly fat (lard sale in France or lardo in Italy)
To make the stock, put the pork skin, duck carcass, onions and carrots in a large saucepan with 3 litres of water and plenty of salt and pepper (if you have hard water, they sugest you use bottled water to replicate the soft water of Castelnaudary). Cook at a gentle simmer for 1 hour, then strain and reserve the stock. Discard the carcass and vegetables, but reserve the pork skin.
Meanwhile, drain the beans of their soaking liquor and put them in a saucepan with 3 litres of cold water. Bring to the boil and cook for 5 minutes then drain off the water and reserve the beans.
Cook the beans in the duck stock until they are cooked through, but still holding their shape – this should take around 1 hour. Drain the beans, but reserve the stock and keep it warm.
While the beans are cooking, put the pieces of duck confit in a large saute pan and cook over a low heat to render down the fat. Remove the duck from the pan and reserve. Turn up the heat and brown the sausages all over, then remove and reserve. Sear the pork pieces until well browned, then leave them to rest with the rest of the meat. Reserve the cooking fat.
Pound the garlic with a pestle and mortar with an equal weight of salted pork belly fat to make a fine paste then stir into the beans.
This is where the cassole comes in, but you can also use a terracotta or earthenware oven-proof bowl. Line the bottom of the cassole with the reserved strips of pork rind. Add about one third of the beans then arrange the duck and pork on top. Spoon over the remaining beans then press the sausages into the surface, leaving the tops just visible.
Pour over enough of the hot reserved stock to just cover the beans, then grind a little black pepper over the surface and add a dessert spoon of the duck fat that was used to fry the meat.
Cook the cassoulet in a preheated oven at 150c / GM2 for 2 – 3 hours. The Confrerie say that the golden brown crust should form and sink 7 times during the cooking. If the beans on the surface start to dry out, add a little more stock to keep them just submerged.
If you cook the cassoulet the day before, it should be reheated in the oven at 150c for 1 hour 30 mins before serving, but don’t forget to add a little more stock or water first. The cassoulet should be served bubbling in its cassole at the table and should not be stirred before serving.