Cassoulet is one of those dishes over which there is endless drama. Like bouillabaisse in Marseilles, paella in Spain, chili in Texas, it is a dish for which there are innumerable recipes and about which discussions quickly turn fierce. It was over 30 years ago that I set out to explore this quintessential dish of Southwest France. As an outsider, I felt I might be able to settle some questions: Which regional version of the dish is really the best, and who serves the best restaurant cassoulet in France?
It did not seem too difficult a task. Waverley Root, Larousse Gastronomique, and the food critics Henri Gault and Christian Millau have all defined the war over the three "genuine" versions of this casserole dish of meats and haricots (dried white beans such as Tarbais, Lingots, and cocos), one from each of three towns in the Languedoc.
In Castelnaudary, the legend goes, the dish was invented, and therefore a "pure" version is served. The haricots are cooked with chunks of fresh pork, pork knuckle, ham, pork sausage, and fresh pork rind.
In Toulouse, the cooks add Toulouse sausage and either confit d'oie or confit de canard (preserved goose or duck-see pages 213 and 201-203); while in Carcassonne, chunks of mutton are added to the Castelnaudary formula, and during the hunting season, an occasional partridge, too.
There would be many variations, I knew, but it seemed a simple matter to travel to each of these towns, discover where the best cassoulets were served, taste them, and decide which one I liked the best. What I did not count on was that these regional distinctions have been completely blurred and that cassoulet is not as simple as it seems.
Take mutton. Not one person in any of the three towns would admit that mutton could go into a local cassoulet. Whether my expert was a chef, a waiter, or just a citizen on the street, he or she would point in some other direction and say: "Oh, they use mutton in Toulouse [or Carcassonne, or Castelnaudary, or some other town that came to mind]. They don't know any better."
Take partridge. Some people said they'd heard of putting partridge in cassoulet, but no one could say he 'd actually seen it done.
Take bread crumbs. "Never! Impossible!" many people proclaimed, but the woman who cooked the best traditional cassoulet I ate used bread crumbs without a qualm.
And what about breaking the crust-seven times, as some cookbooks proclaim? People laughed, but some agreed the crust could be broken and reformed twice to get some texture into the sauce. No need to go on. These technical matters diverted me from my mission. When I found the best cassoulet, I'd find out how it was made.
After a few hours' recuperation from jet lag in Paris, I ventured out to Lamazère, a restaurant where cassoulet in the style of Toulouse is a specialty of the house. Though the portion of meat was parsimonious, the cassoulet was very good, the beans enveloped in a thick creamy sauce, the preserved goose superb, put up the traditional way in stoneware jars for a minimum of six months. I returned to my hotel happy at last to have the taste of a good cassoulet in my mouth. Alas, I had not counted on the aftereffects. Requiring heavy doses of Alka-Seltzer to get to sleep, I was reminded of the famous tale of Prosper Montagné-how one day he came upon a sign on the door of a bootmaker's shop in Carcassonne: "Closed on account of cassoulet."
A few days later, on a cold and rainy night in Toulouse, I tried one of that graceful town's better-known cassoulet establishments, called, not surprisingly, Le Cassoulet. Arriving early, I was intercepted by a friendly drunk. "Go someplace else," he warned me; "in ten years they haven't changed the menu here."
My first cassoulet of Toulouse was crusty and wonderful, bubbly and aromatic, very subtle in regard to garlic. The confit literally melted in my mouth, and the Toulouse sausage (actually made for the restaurant by a charcutier in Castelnaudary) was extraordinarily fine. The charming and opinionated owner, Monsieur Bonnamy, held forth while I ate: "I'm from Provence, and I tell you that there is more drama here concerning cassoulet than anything I ever saw over bouillabaisse. In Toulouse, everyone talks about cassoulet, everyone cooks it, everyone eats it, but very few make it well. They use canned confit, even canned beans, or sometimes, God help them, they eat the whole dish from a can. Bread crumbs? I never use them! Mutton? It has no place in the dish. Put mutton in a pot with some preserved goose, and the mutton eats the goose alive! You ask me about the cassoulet of Carcassonne? It's just beans with a load of charcuterie! You say Michel Guérard says mutton is 'indispensable'? A comment typical of a person who lives in the Landes-they have so many sheep there, they're always trying to think up things to do with them!"
Early the next morning I paid a call on the then most famous chef in Toulouse, the kind, brusque, estimable, inventive Lucien Vanel. His restaurant, which was called simply Vanel, was a magnet for all gastronomic travelers to Toulouse. But Vanel was adamant-he would not cook cassoulet.
"I'm from the Quercy," he told me. "This is my adopted town, so I leave cassoulet to the native chefs. There are restaurants here that specialize in it, and I have arranged for a friend to cook you a good homemade version [see Cassoulet in the Style of Toulouse, pages 317-319]. But I do have something for you today."
There then appeared a twinkle in his eye as he told me he 'd prepared his cassoulet de morue, something I thought he 'd dreamed up for journalists-his satire on the most famous dish of his adopted town. (I learned later that such a dish actually exists.) His conceit must be recounted: In a casserole of white beans, he cooked salted cod (his "preserved goose"), a seafood sausage (his "sausage of Toulouse"), and large juicy mussels (his "chunks of pork"). The stock is a saffron-flavored fish soup, bound with mustard, egg yolks, and cream. The dish was a marvelous spoof on a real cassoulet, and, like everything chez Vanel, a treat.
I tried more restaurant cassoulets in Toulouse, Castelnaudary, and Carcassonne, then returned to Toulouse for the homemade version arranged for by Vanel. My hostess was Madame Pierrette Lejanou, wife of a potato broker, descendant of an old Toulouse family, a gastronome, and an excellent cook who learned to make cassoulet at her grandmother's knee.
What can I say about her version except that it was the best traditional cassoulet I ever ate! Madame Lejanou was so precise in her choice of beans, so careful about her cooking, so firm in her commitment to andouillettes (chitterling sausages), so intent on achieving a crust, so particular about her pork fat being just ever-so-slightly rancid, and so careful in her selection of meats (she puts up her own confit, as a good Toulouse cook always does) that her cassoulet was simply great.
A charming woman, effervescent in her approach to food, generous in the tradition of the Languedoc, she feasted me and instructed me until I was overwhelmed. The secret of her cassoulet, I thought, was that it was made with love.
It was on account of Michel Guérard that I drove to Robert Garrapit's restaurant in Villeneuve-de-Marsan in the Landes. Guérard had told me of a cassoulet cook-off among the chefs of the Landes. Garrapit had won first prize, and Guérard recommended his cassoulet in the highest terms. I arranged to meet him a few weeks later at Garrapit's restaurant for a feast.
Now, three-star chef Michel Guérard is a modest man, a becoming trait in so renowned a chef, but on the subject of cassoulet he is as opinionated as anyone else: "Cassoulet," he told me, "was originally a ragout of beans, which was obviously improved by the addition of mutton. To make a cassoulet without mutton is to be banal and, in my opinion, to commit heresy. Mutton is indispensable in a cassoulet, as indispensable as the bony fish rascasse in a bouillabaisse. It is a sophistication of dubious value to add confit. Cassoulet becomes too refined when it has a crust. Chefs put a crust on it to make it look better, but in the process they make it heavy and obfuscate its peasant origins. One must keep in mind the history of cassoulet and cook it as the peasants did, with mutton and poor people's food, such things as gizzards and pork skin."
By this time, Garrapit has appeared with his chef d'oeuvre. There were carrots in it, and I asked him why. "They're pretty," he said, "and they sweeten the mutton, too."
Garrapit's cassoulet was light, his sauce good tasting and thin. I understood why he had won the cook-off in the Landes, where, on account of Guérard's influence, lightness in cooking is an important goal. And there were interesting things about his dish-his use of preserved gizzards and huge incredibly flavorful Tarbais beans, which he 'd canned fresh so that, most particularly, he would not have to use them dried. It was all very good, but was it a cassoulet?
Guérard, of course, insisted that it was nothing less than an authentic version of the dish. I was not so sure. Those very refinements that Guérard deplored (crustiness, a thick creamy sauce) have become, in my opinion, indispensable to a great rendition of the dish. Two years later, I discussed this again with Guérard when we dined together in Auch. He told me that he had changed his mind totally, that he now makes his cassoulet with confit, and leaves the mutton out.
All right. I had dined in the best cassoulet establishments in Paris, in the three great cassoulet towns, and also in the Landes. Madame Lejanou's cassoulet was still dear to my heart, but was it the ultimate, or can the great dish of Southwest France reach an even higher, more heavenly sphere?
During this visit to the region I'd become friendly with the Gascon chefs, especially their spiritual leader, the handsome, generous, multitalented André Daguin, whose elegant Hôtel de France in Auch had long been a mecca for gastronomes.
When Daguin learned I was passionate about cassoulet, he offered to cook me three different kinds and serve them at a single lunch. Knowing the brilliance of this chef, my tongue quivered with anticipation, even though by this time my stomach had started to rebel.
"Don't worry," said Daguin. "You will taste, not eat." But this proved impossible. Who can merely taste delicious food?
I had come full circle now, from the parsimony of Lamazère in Paris to the plenitude and hospitality of a great Gascon chef. Tasting and cross-tasting, eyed by envious diners at other tables who could not believe the sight of a single woman surrounded by huge casseroles, I ate and ate while Daguin paced by, every so often eyeing me like a sly Gascon fox.
His "normal" cassoulet was robust. The taste of a strong garlic sausage permeated the beans. This was a real country cassoulet but touched by a light hand. Daguin had used broken old beans as a thickening agent, rather than an inordinate amount of pork fat, as is common practice in the Languedoc. There was a lot of confit in this casserole (steamed first, interestingly enough). And tomatoes broke up the usual golden champagne color; Daguin's cassoulet was creamy-red.
Next came his cassoulet of lentils-green lentils cooked with duck fat, pork confit, and Spanish chorizo sausages. It had subtlety and mellowness that did not at first announce themselves; it was a quiet, deceptively lazy dish that crept up on me until I could not stop replenishing my plate.
But the best was yet to come: Daguin's famous cassoulet de fèves, a concoction of preserved duck and fresh fava beans, crisp on the outside, soft and buttery-tender within. The contrast of flavors and textures, the beans so full of spring and the Mediterranean, beans that absorbed the taste of the other ingredients and yet, almost paradoxically, maintained a fresh taste of their own-I could not quite believe what I was eating. It seemed a miracle.
Suddenly all the controversy-Toulouse versus Carcassonne versus Castelnaudary; mutton versus preserved goose; the questions of bread crumbs and partridges and andouillettes-became irrelevant. For Daguin's cassoulet of fava beans transcended definitions. As far as I was concerned, the cassoulet war was won!
André Daguin's Fava Bean Cassoulet
* Cassoulet de Fèves SERVES 8
ACCORDING TO ROBERT COURTINE, the French food authority, before white beans were cultivated in France, fava beans were used to make this dish. The old name for the dish was fevolade. In effect, then, Daguin's version is the "original" cassoulet.
This cassoulet is excellent reheated later in the day, or even the next day.
4 confit of Pekin or Muscovy duck legs (such as Duck Legs Confit Cooked in a Pouch, pages 198-200) or 2 confit of Moulard duck legs, drumsticks and thighs separated
8 to 9 pounds fresh fava beans, in their pods (usually available starting in March)
2 pounds small white onions, peeled
11/2 pounds ventrèche or pancetta, cut into
Freshly ground pepper
1 tablespoon sugar
6 ounces fresh pork skin with 1/4-inch layer of hard fat attached, or substitute Confit of Pork Rinds (page 17)
4 cups unsalted chicken stock (storebought or homemade-page 405)
1 leek, trimmed, well washed, and left whole
8 small celery ribs: 2 chopped, 6 tied in a bundle
5 firm garlic cloves, peeled
1 To soften the confit fat remove from the refrigerator 3 to 4 hours in advance and let stand in a warm place or in a deep pan of warm water.
2 Shuck the beans; you should have about 2 quarts. Slip off and discard the heavy skin covering 1 cup of the favas; set the skinned beans apart. Cut off the tiny shoots on remaining beans, if old. (Because not all the favas are skinned, the cassoulet will turn dark in color; this is as it should be.)
3 Scrape the fat off the duck confit legs into 5- or 6-quart flameproof casserole. Add the onions and sauté over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, for 4 to 5 minutes, until softened. Add the diced ventrèche and a light sprinkling of pepper and sauté over moderate heat, stirring often, for 5 minutes longer.
4 Stir in the 1 cup peeled fava beans and the sugar. (The peeled beans will break down, and their natural starchiness will act as a liaison for the cooking juices.) Cover the pan tightly and cook the beans slowly for 10 minutes.
5 Meanwhile, simmer the fresh pork skin in water to cover until supple, 10 to 20 minutes. (There's no need to simmer confit of pork rind.) Drain the skin, roll it up, and tie it with a string.
6 Add the stock, the remaining favas, rolled pork skin, leek, all of the celery, and the garlic to the beans. Bring to a boil and skim carefully. Reduce the heat, cover with a sheet of crumpled wet parchment and simmer over low heat for 11/2 hours.
7 Place the pieces of duck confit in a colander set snugly over a kettle of boiling water; or use a steamer or couscous cooker. Cover and steam for 10 minutes. Remove the duck, let cool slightly, then remove the skin and bones. Set the meat aside, covered with foil to keep moist.
8 Preheat the oven to 300°F. Remove the rolled pork skin from the bean ragout and cut into slices 2 inches wide. Unroll the slices and use them to line a 3- or 31/2-quart ceramic baking dish fat side down. (The skin side sticks.) Place the pieces of duck confit on top.
9 Pick out and discard the leek and bundle of celery from the beans. With a slotted spoon, transfer the favas to the baking dish, leaving the cooking juices in the casserole. Skim the fat off the juices and taste for seasoning; there will probably be no need for salt. Pour enough of the juices over the duck and favas to cover. Reserve the remaining juices. Loosely cover the baking dish with foil and set in the preheated oven.
10 Bake for 20 minutes. Spoon off all the fat that rises to the top. Add enough of the reserved cooking juices to keep the favas moist. Bake for 40 minutes longer. Remove the foil and bake, uncovered, until a crust forms on top, about 30 minutes. Serve hot.
NOTES TO THE COOK
* The confit is salty and will salt the dish sufficiently.
* If you cannot obtain ventrèche or pancetta, substitute lean fresh pork side or belly; blanch it in a large pot of boiling water for 10 minutes. Rinse, drain, dry, and cut into small dice.
Excerpted from The Cooking of Southwest France by Paula Wolfert Excerpted by permission.
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