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The History and Regional Variations of Cassoulet

Cassoulet a rich, hearty, slow-cooked stew which originated as a peasant dish in the region of the Languedoc in the south of France, is today considered one of the pinnacles of French cuisine and is known for its complexity of flavors and many different variations.

Cassoulet
Cassoulet
In this article, we explore the history of the cassoulet and its different regional variations from the towns of Castelnaudary, Carcassonne and Toulouse.

Brief History of Cassoulet

Cassoulet is a slow-cooked stew made with white beans and meat which typically includes pork, sausages, goose, duck and sometimes mutton along with pork skin. It originated in the region once known as the province of Languedoc especially the towns of Castelnaudary, Carcassonne and Toulouse.

The history of cassoulet has many legends and different theories based on the region's historical past and the influence of the Arab occupation and commerce in southern France.

Cassoulet in Toulouse by Bernd Gross
Cassoulet in Toulouse by Bernd Gross
According to one of the legends, cassoulet was born during the siege of Castelnaudary by Edward the Black Prince of Wales in 1355 during the Hundred Years War. The besieged townspeople of Castelnaudary are said to have gathered up all the different ingredients they could find and made a large stew to nourish and bolster their soldiers. The meal was so rich and hearty that the soldiers handily dispelled the invaders, saving the city from occupation.

While the legend from Castelnaudary makes for a good story, the origin of the cassoulet can be better understood by looking at its historical past since the evolution of food is closely related to the historical evolution of a region or country.

Influence of the Arabs

The first contact the Arabs had with France was in 712, when they crossed the Pyrenees after occupying the Iberian Peninsula and for a short period of time occupied the southern part of France. For 40 years, from 719, Narbonne was part of the Umayyad Empire, until Charles Martel at the Battle of Poitiers halted their progress and pushed them back to the Iberian Peninsula.

Muslim troops leaving Narbonne in 759 by Émile Bayard
Muslim troops leaving Narbonne in 759 by Émile Bayard
Over the following 300 years, besides the multiple forays by the Arabs into parts of the French Mediterranean coast there was significant commerce between the regions of southern France, the Arab regions of North Africa and Moorish Spain.

Benjamin of Tudela, a medieval Jewish traveler writing in 1160, describes Montpelier as a very good city for commerce where Christians and Muslims came from all quarters to trade and that the streets were thronged with merchants from North Africa and Syria.

Though cassoulet evolved into its own distinct food dish of the people in the Languedoc region, there are some similarities between cassoulet and the fava and mutton stews of the Arabs suggesting that the influence of the Arabs, and their settlement in the Iberian Peninsula may have played a role in the creation of the cassoulet.

Further historical evidence of the mutton stew in Arabic cuisine can be found in the Kitab al-Tabikh, an Arabic cookbook with highly refined recipes written by Muhammad bin Hasan al-Baghdadi in 1226. The recipes in the cookbook use a variety of spices, herbs, legumes and mutton.

One of the earliest reference to the stew in a French cookbook can be found in Le Viandier which is known to contain some of the best-known recipe collections of the Middle Ages. The cookbook was written in the late 13th or very early 14th century by Guillaume Tirel, also known as Taillevent, who was a cook to the Court of France. Some historians believe that Taillevent may have been inspired by the Arabic cookbook which was published in 1226.

Influence of the Cazuela

Cassoulet gets its name from the pot it's traditionally baked in, called the cassole which is a conical terracotta container, that is glazed inside. The name originates from the French form of the Occitan word caçòla.

The rustic stew was previously known as estouffet and it was during the 18th century, it got its name cassoulet.

Cassoulet pot from Carcassonne
Cassoulet pot from Carcassonne
According to La Grande Confrérie du Cassoulet de Castelnaudary, a group of culinary professionals, founded in 1970 to spread and defend the reputation of Cassoulet Castelnaudary, cassoles have been made in Issel since 1377, when an Italian potter settled in that area and established a pottery workshop.

Across the southern border of France, the cazuela, a clay cooking pot, is known to be one of the oldest cooking vessel that is still in use today in many Catalan and Spanish kitchens. It has been used in the ancient Greek and Roman periods to cook meat along with other available ingredients.

Cazuela is fundamental to the preparation of many different kinds of stews in Spain where it has been used for many centuries. Cocido, fabada, olla podrida, pote, puchero and escudella are some of the name of the stews from the different regions of Spain.

Influence of the Haricot Beans

The white haricot beans are an important part of the cassoulet which were introduced to Europe after the discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus in 1492. They are a particular variety of the Phaseolus arborigineus which have been known to grow in the area extending from Mexico to Peru and Colombia.

Haricot beans by Rasbak
Haricot beans by Rasbak
The haricot beans a member of Phaseolus vulgaris species were introduced to France in the 16th century as a gift from Alexander de Médicis to his sister Catherine on the occasion of her marriage to the French crown prince, later King Henry II in 1533.

As a Countess of Lauragais, Catherine is said to have played a role in encouraging the cultivation of the bean plant in the Lauragais, which over a period of time spread throughout southwest France.

Haricot beans have a smooth, buttery texture with mild flavor of their own and they easily absorb other aromas and flavors hence making them popular with stews.

Regional Variations of Cassoulet

Since the preparation of cassoulet is dependent on the available ingredients there are several different recipes for making the cassoulet and it varies from town to town in Southwest France.

Preparation of cassoulet
Preparation of cassoulet
The choice of the beans, different meats, quantity of fat or lard and the preference for adding breadcrumbs to the cassoulet varies across the different towns. Many passionately debate about the addition of mutton or sprinkling of breadcrumbs but regardless of the different combination of ingredients and personal preferences the cassoulet is a rich and hearty dish cooked over a slow fire.

There are three different regional variations of the cassoulet from the towns of Castelnaudary, Carcassonne and Toulouse, though other regions like Alsace, Castannau, Gascony and Perigord have their own distinct versions.

Cassoulet from Castelnaudary

In Castelnaudary, cassoulet is prepared with goose confit, pork shoulder and sausage.

The beans are partially cooked in a broth over a low heat until just tender, then a piece of goose, a piece of pork shoulder, some sausage slices are added along with flavorings that include garlic, tomatoes, herbs and spices. The cassoulet is slowly cooked in the cassole for hours.

An hour or so before serving, some prefer to sprinkle the cassoulet with breadcrumbs and grated cheese with little lumps of butter and put into the oven.

Cassoulet from Carcassonne

In Carcassonne, cassoulet is prepared with goose confit, pork and sausage. It typically includes mutton and sometimes the duck is replaced with partridge.

The beans are partially cooked in a broth and then added to the cassole with the pork rinds, pork leg, the goose confit and sausages along with the garlic and herbs flavored meat broth and cooked for a few hours.

Cassoulet from Toulouse

In Toulouse, cassoulet is prepared with goose confit, pork and Toulouse sausage and may also contain mutton shoulder.

The rest of the preparation is similar to the cassoulet from the other regions where the beans and the different meats are flavored with herbs and spices and then cooked in the cassole for a few hours.


References

A Baghdad Cookery Book by Charles Perry (based on Kitâb al-Tabîkh by Muhammad bin Hasan al-Baghdadi)

Life in Medieval France by Joan Evans

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