By guest-writer Felicity Cloake

Describing cassoulet as a bean stew is a bit like calling a croque monsieur a cheese sandwich, or Napoleon a French soldier – it’s true, but nevertheless, it’s not quite the whole story. Indeed, down in the Languedoc, an ancient region in France’s South-West wedged between the Pyrénées and the Mediterranean, it’s something closer to a religion; as local two-Michelin-star chef André Daguin observes, “cassoulet is not a recipe, it’s an argument”.

In theory, the lines of this particular argument are clearly drawn: like our own casserole, the dish takes its name from the cassole, the earthenware vessel in which it is slow cooked, preferably over a wood fire. What you put in it depends on where you’re from: there are, authorities claim, three different versions, one from the “pink city” of Toulouse, another from Carcassonne (a place you may recognise from Robin Hood Prince of Thieves, where the fortified city stands in for Nottingham Castle) and a third from the pretty canal-side town of Castelnaudary.  

You can tell where you are, these culinary experts say confidently, by what’s under the cassoulet’s golden bubbling crust: the simplest recipe comes from Castelnaudary, where the dish was (allegedly) invented, consisting of beans baked with a rich mixture of pork, ham, sausage and pork skin. In Toulouse they use all this, but add lardons, goose or duck confit and their own famous sausages as well, while in Carcassonne they eschew such things in favour of mutton and, in season, wild partridge too.  

Smoked meat is sometimes used to give a little extra depth of flavour (the Côte version uses smoked duck wings for just this reason), tomatoes are either canonical or heretical depending on who you talk to, and while many chefs scatter the top with breadcrumbs for extra crunch, purists insist you’ll only get a proper crust by stirring the stew seven times during cooking… or eight if you live in Castelnaudary.

Personally, if you’re lost in the Languedoc, I think you’d be better off relying on a good old-fashioned map: I’ve certainly had cassoulet in Castelnaudary with goose, and enjoyed a Toulouse sausage in Carcassonne – and even the relatively straightforward matter of the beans isn’t quite as clear cut as it appears. Though the vast majority of cassoulets contain white beans, ideally the exceptionally creamy Tarbais variety favoured by Côte chefs, broad beans were the legume of choice before these arrived in Europe from the New World and can still be found on the menu at Le Lochebem in Toulouse, runners up in last year’s World Cassoulet Championships. Basically, as the American journalist Waverley Root notes with a certain weariness in his masterwork The Food of France, “the conclusion that must be drawn is that cassoulet is what you find it”.  

I wouldn’t say that to a local though, because, as you may have worked out by now, they take such distinctions extremely seriously. Languedoc boasts an official 180km long “route du cassoulet” tourist trail, a rousing hymn in Occitane dialect singing the praises of the stuff, and even a brotherhood dedicated to “serving its prestige and sharing and defending its traditions and its quality”. The knights of this brotherhood (who include many women) boast magnificent ceremonial robes in brown and yellow (signifying the colour of the pot and the beans) and hats in the shape of a cassole, all on parade at their annual cassoulet festival – which of course, includes a fiercely contested cookery competition.  

In fact, passions run so high around cassoulet that there are regular cook-offs as far afield as New York, where chefs sweat it out over the stoves in a “cassoulet war”, often playing fast and loose with tradition by using ingredients such as kale (generally regarded as animal feed in France), chorizo, and even making a vegetarian version with mushrooms and butternut squash which, one senses, would raise a few eyebrows in the goose-fat loving Languedoc. 

But perhaps the pride cassoulet arouses in the French patriotic breast is understandable; legend has it that the dish first saw the light of day during the Hundred Years War, when the pesky English laid siege to Castelnaudary, and the town’s inhabitants were forced to pool their resources in one communal meal to avoid starving to death. The hearty result gave them the strength to drive the English right back to the Channel – unfortunately, however, it was so delicious we’ve been coming back for more ever since.