A cassoulet is a rustic casserole of beans and meats from the south of France. Richard Olney, says in the preface to his book, Simple French Food, that the cassoulet is a classic example of a ‘simple food’. Indeed, the cassoulet is often described as peasant food. However, Olney also says that like so many simple historic culinary preparations, it also has complex aspects, mainly alchemical, where poor or vulgar elements can be transformed into something transcendental. So simple, not really, peasant, maybe, wonderful, yes.
I was first attracted to cassoulet from American childhood memories of tins of ‘pork and beans’. The addition of pork to the beans seemed to elevate the beans above the ordinary tins of beans (even though it could be hard to actually find any pork!) ‘Franks and beans’ is another American variation that includes frankfurters – or wieners – with the beans. Elsewhere, the Spanish fabada is a stew of meat and beans, the Portuguese feijoada is a stew of pork beef and beans, and there are many Arab variations on dried fava bean and lamb stews. Clearly, the idea of beans and meat is not new or distinctly French.
My current fondness for cassoulet is based on the delicious and transformative addition of duck confit to the beans. Although it is very common for cassoulets to feature confit of duck, not all cassoulets do. As Jenny Baker mentions in her book Simple French Cuisine, there is as much mystique surrounding the cassoulet as there is for the bouillabaisse – and with as many variations as there are cooks.
Elizabeth David, in her book, French Provencal Cooking, gives a recipe of the Languedoc, which includes garlic sausage, confit goose, shoulder of mutton and salt pork. Her recipe for cassoulet de Toulouse, is better known and includes Toulouse sausages, garlic boiling sausage, pork spareribs, shoulder of lamb and salt pork – but no confit of duck or goose. Whereas Julia Child, in her book, French Cooking (Volume One), says that Touloussains insist that a cassoulet includes goose confit (she presumes this is because of all the geese in the area providing the local delicacy, foie gras). She goes on to dismiss such talk of history and geographic provenance as historic background… since a good cassoulet can be made anywhere out of beans and whatever traditional meats are available: goose, game, pork, sausages, lamb, mutton. Though her recipe only includes confit goose as a variation (she also mentions duck as a variation, but fresh duck, not confit).
So where and when did cassoulet become synonymous with confit of duck? Perhaps it was the commercialisation of cassoulet, where it might have been easier to tuck the duck legs into the large tins of cassoulet. Or perhaps the drop in demand for foie gras, means there are not as many geese about? Either way, it is the preserved nature of either duck or goose that enriches the cassoulet. And for a devoted foodie, there can be no better challenge than making confit of duck legs in anticipation of making a cassoulet a couple weeks later…