The Legendary Cassoulet

The cassoulet in its cassole
The cassoulet in its cassole

Cassoulet is a legend here in the South West of France. Quite literally. It was supposed to have originated during the Hundred Years War when the English were besieging the nearby town of Castelnaudary in 1355. The story goes that the inhabitants cooked up what was left of their beans, bones, scraps of meat and dried bits of ham, then went out and beat the English!

Like many of my favourite dishes, I suspect it has its real origins in “peasant food”, namely cooking whatever is to hand, but over the centuries, it has become a complex and truly wonderful dish. It takes its name from the large earthenware pot in which it is cooked and served – “le cassole” – hence “Cassoulet”. When it’s cooked for you by my good friend, Philippe Seguier then it is, quite simply, probably the best cassoulet you’ll ever taste.

A couple of years ago, my friends Philippe and Nathalie asked myself and my son Harry round for dinner and Philippe cooked a cassoulet. We’d eaten the dish in quite a few local restaurants but Philippe’s version bore no comparison with the rather touristy meals we had eaten. It was a magnificent dish and Harry managed nearly three helpings!

Philippe explained that just about everything in it – including the bacon, sausages, and ham – had been prepared by himself and Nathalie from scratch, starting with the killing of the pig. I was so intrigued that I wangled an invitation to the next pig kill (see my post from February this year) and learned how to make sausages and ham.

Some of the meaty ingredients
Some of the meaty ingredients

Following our move into this new but very ancient house here in Soreze, Philippe said he would love to come round and prepare a cassoulet from scratch for a Sunday lunch so that my other son, Tom, could also get to taste this classic dish.

Just before nine on Sunday morning, two weeks ago, Philippe arrived bearing all the ingredients, including the pre-soaked white haricot beans which are called ‘lingots’ here in the south west. The deal was that in return for him cooking lunch, I would work as his ‘sous-chef/commis’ (and provide the wine) , while Nathalie’s mother, who was arriving with Nathalie later, was providing the pudding – which turned out to be a delicious cherry clafoutis.

The preparation and cooking took nearly four hours, but it was interspersed with much nattering and chattering, and preceded by the obligatory apéro when Nathalie and her mother arrived.

While chopping and cooking, Philippe told me he had learned to make cassoulet from his maternal grandparents, who lived in les Montagnes Noires, the region where I now live. Philippe’s grandfather had been a refugee from the Spanish Civil War who escaped from Franco’s army over the Pyrenées. He and his French wife lived in one of the mountain villages, and it was with them that, as a child, Philippe got his appreciation for simple peasant meals like pot au feu and cassoulet.

The lingot beans soaking in a small cassole
The lingot beans soaking in a small cassole

By contrast, on his father’s side, his grandparents were rather wealthy, so he also got the chance to eat out in restaurants on Sundays (a French family tradition) and get a taste for lobster and roast beef. I asked him which he preferred – he grinned and replied, “All of it!”. Which I think qualifies him as both a gourmet and a gourmand!

All the ingredients for a classic cassoulet
All the ingredients for a classic cassoulet
Cassoulet, enough to serve at least five hungry people. Preparation time 4-5 hours with soaking time the night before.

You will need at least three large metal casseroles or pans for the cooking and a large earthenware casserole to assemble all the ingredients.

Ingredients

The Meat
5 shoulder chops (échine in French)
5 ‘saucisse de couenne’ – these are a Tarn speciality. Made by Philippe and Nathalie on the second day of the pig kill, from pre-cooked morcels of the pig skin, mixed with minced pork and pig fat. A good substitute would be Saucisse de Toulouse or Cumberland Sausage. Philippe included one sausage per person.
5 pork ribs – which Philippe chopped into small chunks, so either buy a butcher’s chopper or get a good butcher to do this for you.
1 pig’s trotter, cut in half
A good quantity of uncooked pig skin, cut into small pieces
100gms of dried ham cut off the bone of the ham which had been salted earlier in the year (an equivalent would be some chunky pieces of air-dried ham).
50 grams of the skin of a dried ham, with the excess fat removed and cut into small pieces (probably only possible if you’ve got a whole ham hanging in your pantry!).
1.35 kg tin of 5 of ‘confit de canard’ containing pre-cooked legs preserved in duck fat (can be sourced online in the UK from Frenchclick.co.uk).

And… last but not least, Philippe’s joke for Tom – the pig’s penis, which just goes to show that the French don’t waste anything!

(All these ingredients, bar the duck, had been butchered and prepared by Philippe and Nathalie).

The Rest
500 grams of white haricot beans, soaked overnight in cold (not hot) water  (the authentic ‘lingots’ can be sourced here).
3 bay leaves
2 soup spoons of tomato concentrated purée
6 cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped
2 pork stock cubes
Dried breadcrumbs – Philippe used pre-prepared breadcrumbs (this is probably the only thing I would do differently by drying my own breadcrumbs in the oven).
Salt and pepper

Method

Drain the soaked beans, rinse and then place in a large saucepan, cover with cold water and slowly bring to a gentle simmer.

In a large metal casserole, start cooking the pig’s trotter, (the pig’s penis if you have one!), the raw pig skin, and the ham pieces until they are slightly golden.

Then cover them with cold water, add the three bay leaves, put on a medium heat and bring to a simmer. From time to time, you will need to remove the greyish foam that rises to the top of the water with a slotted spoon.

The foam rising to the surface
The foam rising to the surface

Meanwhile, in a large frying pan or heavy-bottomed metal casserole, start to cook the sausages, making sure that the skins don’t split (if possible). While they’re cooking, cut the chops into large chunks. Remove the sausages from the pan and then add the pork meat along with the chunks of ribs to the pan. You will probably have to cook the meat in two batches – the aim is to get it all nicely golden and sealed before putting in the ‘cassole’.

When all the meat is sealed, remove the pan from the heat, making sure to keep all the meat juices.

During this time, keep an eye on the beans which by now (approximately 50 minutes), should be cooked but still firm. Drain the beans and also drain the pig’s feet and ham, pig skin etc.

It’s now time for what Philippe calls “Le Montée” – where you assemble all the different ingredients in layers in a very large casserole. I used the largest one I have and it only just fitted!

Put a layer of meat and ribs on the bottom, followed by a layer of beans, then all the ingredients from the pig’s feet pan, followed by more beans and all the small pieces of air-dried ham, and finally the sausages. Crush the garlic cloves and sprinkle over the ingredients and then cover with approximately two litres of cold water. Add the tomato paste, mixed in with a little water, then the stock cubes (already mixed into some water). Then add enough water to cover all the ingredients – Philippe used nearly four litres in total. Then to finish, he added all the meat juices that had drained onto the plates and pans.

The meat juices being added to the pan
The meat juices being added to the pan

Put the casserole on a high flame and bring to the boil. At this point, adjust the heat down to a bubbling simmer (you might have to remove a little more froth from the top).

After about half an hour, preheat the oven to 180C and remove the duck legs from the fat in the tin of confit de canard. Heat gently in a frying pan in order to de-grease the meat and warm up.

After one hour on the hob, remove the casserole from the hob and check for seasoning. This is the point where you add salt if needed (bearing in mind the saltiness of the ham), and freshly ground black pepper.

Once seasoned, transfer all the contents to the earthenware cassole dish, including the confit de canard legs. Sprinkle a good thick layer of breadcrumbs over the cassoulet and put it in the oven.

The aim of this final stage is to heat through the duck with all the other ingredients, and to cook a crisp crusty layer on the top.

Nathalie serving out the cassoulet
Nathalie serving out the cassoulet

Nathalie and her mother arrived just in time for un apéro of sparkling Gaillac wine and we finally sat down to lunch just after one o’ clock. Tom was as happy as Larry – and got through two and a half servings of the cassoulet. It was just delicious – a rich melange of flavours and tastes, all melded with the haricots beans which were almost creamy in texture. By the time we’d finished (and don’t forget we had pudding as well),  there were only two options left – fall asleep or go for a walk. We very wisely took the second option!

Philippe finally takes his apron off
Philippe finally takes his apron off! Merci chef!

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