It’s all about the stickiness. That thick, viscous film that coats the mouth is what makes me go back fork after fork. It’s what makes this cassoulet so exciting.
But then there is so much to love about a cassoulet, a dish so vital to the culture of southern France that it is known as “the God of Occitan cuisine”. There’s the crust, deep and dark from hours of baking. There’s the creaminess of perfectly tender white beans, and the bite of a dense, fatty Toulouse sausage. And of course there’s the silken meatiness of confit duck leg and braised pork in amongst everything.
All of these elements are delicious, and they are all vital in making such an exiting dish. Though for me, the broth stands above as something special, not only because of the depth of flavour that comes from building it over multiple days, but because of the texture.
It is a lengthy process to make cassoulet, the best ones taking three days. At Chateau St. Martin, a beautiful stone restaurant outside of Carcassone, it all starts with those underutilized parts of the pig – the head, the feet, great swathes of the skin. This is simmered for hours, letting the fat and gelatin seep into the stock, creating the basis of that wonderful broth.
I get that not everyone will be as excited by this description as I am. A rich bean and meat stew made with a pork broth so gelatinous that it sticks to the top of your mouth is certainly going to be too heavy for a lot of people in these health conscious days. But it is known as one of the great dishes of the world, which is why I travelled to France and walked for an hour outside of the town to an empty restaurant just to try it.
I had to. I mean, it is on my bucket list.
The idea of a bucket list is pretty ridiculous, really. There’s something a little morbid about creating a list of things to do before you die, especially when they are, and almost should be, unnecessary activities. It is, however, a fun activity, if not taken too seriously. It allows you to think about the experiences that you really want to have, one day, when the opportunity arises.
I wrote my bucket list on a whim one day. When putting together an application for something I mentioned an activity as being on my bucket list. I decided that it made sense to actually create one, and to make it all about food. So I wracked my mind for things that I had read about or heard about, experiences that I imagined would be amazing, things to taste, places to visit, and skills to learn. Things that I wanted to do sometime in my life.
Then, as is often the case, I did nothing for a while. Even when I got to the UK, in visiting distance of so many of my items, I procrastinated and didn’t get around to doing any. So for my final trip home, I made sure to hit a few items. One of those was to try a real cassoulet in Languedoc, and I booked my train to Carcassonne.
Cassoulet was always going to be on this list, and not just because of my love of beans, pork and confit duck.
I have always been attracted to dishes with history. Ritualism and tradition are important when it comes to food, to contextualising what, how and why we eat. Cassoulet has more tradition than most, with a history of at least six or seven hundred years, and an origin story involving a siege in the Hundred Years War that is almost certainly apocryphal. There is a specific earthenware pot that it is cooked in, a particular bean that must be used, and some very particular rules on how to make it that are debated over in earnest depending on which city you come from, but that always include breaking the crust 7 times while it cooks. There is even an academy set up to protect the dish and its history, complete with annual processions wearing bright red robes.
But more even than this, to me cassoulet is representative of an entire school of cooking. People refer to it as peasant food, but that is a flawed concept, as what peasant could ever have taken three days to make a meal? What it is, though, is food of necessity that has, over hundreds of years, been refined into something beautiful.
In that origin story, when the English had the castle town of Castelnaudary surrounded and the townspeople were almost out of food, they threw together their last stores into a stew to share. That’s the whole point of cassoulet, that all the main ingredients – haricot beans, sausage, confit duck – are things that can last a long time.
But time and history and the romance and culinary brilliance of the Occitan people didn’t leave it there. They took this basic stew and made it one of the most celebrated dishes of France, a hearty counterpoint to the finesse of much of stereotypical French cuisine.
That’s why I love cassoulet. That’s why it was on my bucket list. And at the end of the day, despite all the craziness in getting there, it was absolutely worth it. Because, philosophy aside, it was delicious.
For those who are interested, here is my Culinary Bucket List:
- Drink a glass (or bottle) of Champagne in Champagne
- Attend a crawfish boil in Louisiana
- Eat traditional dumplings in Hong Kong
- Witness a tuna auction at the Tsukiji fish market
- Eat chaat on the street in India
- Visit the ancient Roquefort caves
- Hunt and eat a wild boar
- Indulge in a proper Quebecois poutine
- Smell and taste fresh durian
- Have the Canard à la presse at La Tour d’Argent
- Burn and numb my mouth in Sichuan province
- Eat seafood tostadas on the street/beach in Baja
- Make my own salumi
- Taste many a microbrew in Portland
- Have roast young suckling pig and drink rioja alta upstairs at Botin
- Go foraging in Scandinavia
- Eat pearl meat taken straight from the water
- Have the best of BBQ: brisket in Texas, and whole hog in NC
- Drink tea on a tea plantation
- Eat the best oyster in the world
- Taste real tequilas in Jalisco
- Try a real cassoulet in Languedoc
- Learn how to toss noodles by hand
- Hunt for white truffle in Northern Italy
- Make a pulled sugar sculpture
- Taste well aged fermented tofu
- Eat top quality Edo style sushi in Tokyo
- Dig into haggis, neeps and tatties in Scotland on Burns Night
- Take part in a saffron harvest
- Sit on a pristine beach, eating fish cooked over a fire, and drinking from a coconut