Cassoulet’s ingredients and its authenticity are debated in minute detail. Are partridge and mutton admissible in a cassoulet? Yes, for the Toulouse version, according to Ann Willan and, long before her, to Samuel Chamberlain, the loving chronicler of French regional cooking in his Bouquet de France, a book based on a gastronomic tour of France, undertaken just after the war. Should goose or duck be used? Are tomatoes permitted? In truth, the cassoulet is properly a rustic dish of the Languedoc rather than the subject of academic discussion. When made in the hill villages of the Bas Languedoc, it will probably have lamb in it as an extra because sheep graze the hillsides; lowland villages will probably have pork in their cassoulets, both as sausages and as chunks of meat. Confit of duck or goose will add a touch of luxury. But none of these will be as important as the beans. As with most essentially peasant dishes, the meat is a seasoning for the staple. In times of plenty, the cassoulet would be full of meat; on lean days, it might not be much more than beans and a little sausage. Indeed, one of the names of the dish is las moutsetos de coucanho, the beans of Cocagne. A version of the dish which was common long before haricot beans were introduced from America, was goose and lentils, in which the small bluey-green lentilles du Puy were cooked in goose fat and stock with leeks, onion, carrot and garlic, before pieces of goose confit were added, which is why I have included the recipe here rather than in the meat or poultry chapters.
Put the beans in a large saucepan with the water, pork rind, bacon and breast of lamb. Peel and halve the onion, and push a clove into each half. Peel or scrub the carrot, and add the vegetables to the pan with the bouquet garni. Bring to the boil, skim any scum from the surface, cover and simmer gently for about 2 hours. Drain, reserving the cooking liquid.
Heat the confit gently in a frying pan to loosen it, and divide each joint in two. Pour the melted fat into a pot, and keep for another use. In the fat remaining in the pan, brown the meat and the sausage. Cut the sausage into 3 in / 7.5 cm pieces and the chops in half. The meat should still be in good-sized chunks.
For the next stage of cooking, discard the carrot, onion, pork rind, bacon and breast of lamb. Lightly grease a large earthenware dish with goose or duck fat.
With a slotted spoon, transfer half the beans to the dish. Arrange the pieces of meat, poultry and sausage on top, add the tomatoes, if using, and the garlic, and cover with the remaining beans. Pour on the wine and enough of the liquid in which the beans cooked, almost to cover the beans. Sprinkle half the breadcrumbs on top, and bake in a preheated oven at 170°C / 325°F / Mark 3 for l½-2 hours. Remove from the oven. Taste the liquid and season if necessary. Scatter on the remaining breadcrumbs, and bake for a further hour or so. Extra time will not harm it. The finished dish should be quite liquid with the meat very tender, and the beans remaining whole, with a crisp golden crust of breadcrumbs on top. The cassoulet is served from the dish in which it was cooked.
© 1995 Frances Bissell. All rights reserved.