We continue with our journey through French culinary history by uncovering the rich and passionate story behind the famous stew dish cassoulet.

What is cassoulet?

Cassoulet is named after the cookware it’s traditionally stewed in: a deep earthenware ‘cassole’ pot with slanting sides. This dish is essentially a rich, slow-cooked stew of meat and beans (white beans, or haricots blancs). The meats included in a cassoulet are usually duck, goose and pork (rind and sausage) and sometimes mutton or partridge.

In the beginning

Cassoulet originates from the region of Languedoc in the south of France. This area is now known as Occitanie (incorporating Languedoc-Roussillon and Midi-Pyrénées regions), but Languedoc’s historic identity is still important to locals and its cuisine was very much a part of that identity - with cassoulet having been a regional speciality since the 14th century.

There is some speculation as to the true origins of cassoulet, but a popular opinion among historians is that the first cassoulet came about after the siege of Castelnaudary led by the English in 1355 in the midst of the 100-year war. The village of Castelnaudary was all but destroyed, the villagers all but massacred, and somehow the survivors managed to gather all the remaining meats and beans they could salvage and stewed them in a very large cauldron in order to nourish the survivors and fighters. It began as ideal peasant family fodder, known to be cheap, rich and nourishing.

In fact, cassoulet is still thought of as a rustic, homely dish, despite the fact that its popularity and national importance has grown so much. The most celebrated French chefs have their signature versions and you can buy it in tins or jars of readymade cassoulet in every supermarket in France.

White beans were actually introduced to France around the 15th century after Columbus’ discovery of the new world, so earliest versions of cassoulet will have included ‘fèves’, which are broad beans or fava beans. It’s funny to imagine this today, however, as the white bean has become synonymous with cassoulet.

The legacy

This dish is so famous in the region, as well as the rest of France, that notable Carcassonne chef and food writer Prosper Montagné wrote in 1929: “Cassoulet is the God of Occitan cuisine. One God in three persons: God the father is the cassoulet of Castelnaudary, God the son is that of Carcassonne, and the Holy Spirit that of Toulouse”.

In August in Castelnaudary, they have a five-day ‘Fete du Cassoulet’, a festival celebrating this culinary treasure. There is even a special council for the dish, named ‘La Grande Confrérie du Cassoulet de Castelnaudary’ who organise the cassoulet celebration events and are there to ensure that the tradition is upheld and kept alive.

Cooking cassoulet

Generally, the traditional recipe includes beans and rich meats and is slow cooked from morning to serve for the evening meal with fresh bread, paired with a red wine from the region.

The beans are the foundation of the dish though they may have been first used in medieval times to bulk out the cassoulet when there wasn’t enough meat to go around. The beans should be of the best quality and ideally soaked overnight before cooking to ensure they are tender and absorb all of the flavours of the meats.

Depending on which regional version of cassoulet you make, select the very best pork sausage, rind, duck and goose or mutton. The stars of the show are generally the duck confit and pork sausages in most recipes, which is why the Toulouse cassoulet is so popular, due to the sheer perfection and distinctive flavour of Toulouse sausages.

Duck confit is a famous national dish in itself as well as being an essential component of a good cassoulet. It is rich, full of flavour and gorgeous textures, enhanced by cooking it in herbs, garlic and fat.

Our chefs delight in slow cooking our Cassoulet de Toulouse, which is topped with melted garlic butter and sourdough croutons to make that rich top crust as called for by the traditional Toulouse recipe. This is a perfect, hearty January meal that will warm you through and transport you to the country kitchens of southern France.

Brighten up a dreary January now and book a table at a Côte Brasserie near you for a delicious French inspired dining experience.