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Food of the Sun: A Fresh Look at Mediterranean Cooking

Food of the Sun

By Alastair Little and Richard Whittington

Published 1995

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Beyond doubt the ultimate bean dish, there are three main variations on the cassoulet theme which are said to be based on the Languedoc towns of Carcassonne, Castelnaudry and Toulouse. In reality, there are certain ingredients without which it would be improper to describe the dish as a cassoulet - dried white beans, confit of goose or duck and pork sausage. You can buy ready-made confit and goose fat in tins; if making your own, however, substitute lard as the French do. The confit is best made days in advance and kept in the refrigerator.

This is a substantial dish, so no first course is needed and just a sharpish salad to follow, such as dandelion or rocket with a peppery vinaigrette.

If you are wondering why a dish so closely associated with South-western France should be included in a book of Mediterranean food, consider its key meat elements - notably corn-fed farmed duck, animal fat and pork. None of them are typical of the food of the sun. It is also a dish suited to a cool day. The logic escapes you? Well, think about it. (Answer at foot of the opposite page.)


  • 3 garlic cloves
  • 2-3 tbsp fresh white breadcrumbs (optional)
  • 900 g/2 lb pure pork sausages (i.e. 8 Toulouse-style sausages - I Camisa’s pork sausages are perfect)
  • salt and pepper
  • flat-leaf parsley or celery leaves, to garnish

For the Confit

  • 4 large duck leg and thigh joints or 8 legs
  • 2 tsp dried mixed herbs
  • coarse salt
  • 450 g/1 lb goose fat or lard

For the Bean Stew

  • 450 g/1 lb haricot beans
  • 1 pig’s trotter (optional)
  • 170 g/6 oz fresh pork rind 450 g/1 lb green streaky bacon in a piece
  • 2 carrots
  • 2 onions
  • 4 garlic cloves
  • 2 sprigs of thyme
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 celery stalks

For the Lamb Stew

  • 2 onions
  • 2 carrots
  • 2 celery stalks
  • 900 g/2 lb lamb neck fillet
  • 2 tbsp flour
  • ½ bottle (400 ml/14 fl oz) dry white wine
  • 4 garlic cloves
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 tsp dried oregano
  • 450 g/1 lb tinned chopped tomatoes


Preparation & Initial Cooking

A few days ahead: joint the duck for the confit and sprinkle the pieces with dried herbs and salt and leave in the refrigerator overnight.

Next day: rinse off the salt and put the duck into a pan, add 4 tablespoons of water and the lard and bring to gentle bubble. Simmer for about 3 hours, when it should be done. Check by pushing a skewer into the largest piece to check for tenderness. Transfer the duck to a tray and reserve. Pour the fat into a bowl and keep for roasting potatoes or to make confit again.

The day before serving: cover the haricot beans for the beans stew with cold water and leave overnight to soak.

At least 6 hours before serving: prepare the bean stew: if using, cover the trotter with cold water and bring to the boil. Boil for 5 minutes. Drain and refresh in cold water. Check its toenails are clean and, if they look unsavoury, give them a swift pedicure.

Roll up the pork rind and tie with string.

Bring the beans to the boil and boil fast for 10 minutes. Drain. This cuts down on flatulence at the table.

Put the beans into a large pot and add the trotter, bacon and pork rind. Peel and dice the carrots, onions and garlic cloves and add to the pot with a bouquet garni of the thyme, bay and celery tied with string. Cover with cold water by about 2.5 cm/1 in and bring to the boil. Then turn down to a bare simmer.

After 30 minutes, remove the bacon and reserve. Continue to cook the beans with the trotter and rind until the beans are tender. This usually takes about 1½ hours. Taste the cooking liquid and season as needed. Discard the bouquet garni, take out the pork rind and trotter and reserve. Drain the beans, reserving the liquid.

While the beans are cooking, prepare the lamb stew: peel the onions and carrots, trim the celery and chop all of them coarsely. Fry the vegetables in goose fat in a heavy frying pan until lightly browned. Transfer to the pan in which you will cook the stew.

Cut the lamb fillets across into 5 cm/2 in chunks and salt them. Turn up the heat and brown the lamb in the remaining fat. Then sprinkle with flour, add the wine, crushed garlic and herbs. Transfer to the stew pot, making sure you scrape in all the bits that will have stuck to the frying pan. Add the tomatoes with their liquid and the trotter, ladle over some of the cooking liquid from the beans and bring to the boil. Skim to remove excess fat and then turn down to bare simmer and cook uncovered till the lamb is tender. This will take about 1½ hours, but check after 1 hour as you do not want to overcook it.


Smash the 3 garlic cloves into a large, fairly deep ovenproof dish (traditionally earthenware, because you serve from it). Untie the pork rind, cut into squares about the size of postage stamps and lay them in the bottom. Then add about one-third of the beans.

Split the trotter, which by now will be a ragged-looking thing and falling apart. Remove the main bones and cut each half into three or four pieces. Arrange with the lamb to make an even layer.

Cover with a further one-third of the beans. Cut the bacon into bite-sized chunks. Arrange on the beans, cover with the remaining beans and ladle over broth and vegetables from the stew until it reaches the surface. If there is not enough liquid, then top up with bean liquor. (You didn’t throw it away, did you?) Now we come to the vital question: a crumb crust or not? This is the sort of debate where adherents, to the breadcrumbs get very indignant and ask you outside to fight if you say it is better without them. If you do decide that you are a gratin kind of person, then now is the time to dust the surface with the crumbs and spoon over 3 or 4 tablespoons of melted duck fat. If the cholesterol aspect freaks you, consider the longevity of the people of the Languedoc. Anyway, it is the fat which differentiates the dish more than anything else, so don’t be mean with it. Preheat the oven 220°C/425°F/gas7.

Final Cooking

The assembled cassoulet is now placed in a hot oven until bubbles begin to break through the surface, about 20 minutes.

At the same time, roast the sausages in a separate tin for that 20 minutes, remove them from the oven and reserve. At the same time, scrape excess fat off the duck and warm through in dry frying pan, skin side down, until crisp and brown.

Lower the oven to 150°C/300°F/gas2 and continue cooking for about 1½ to 2 hours. If you are following the traditional gratin route, then stir in the crust which forms at least three times during the final cooking, adding more crumbs and basting each time with bean liquor to keep the dish moist. Whatever you do, don’t let it become dry or you will end up with something to choke a brown dog.

Return the sausages and duck to the oven for 5 minutes to warm through.


Serve the cassoulet straight from the dish, accompanied by the sausages and duck and scattered with parsley or celery leaves.

Answer to the conundrum: although belonging strictly to South-west France, cassoulet may be enjoyed in Provence — and elsewhere — in the winter... culinary liberation rather than restrictive cartography

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