By Sylvie Bigar
An obsession boils over.
The minute I breathed in the scent of caramelized sensuality rising from the massive clay cassoulet pot, I was bewitched.
It made no sense. Born Jewish to a fashionably thin French mother and an ascetic Swiss father, I was raised on steamed sole and haricots verts. My father regularly asserted that he didn’t live to eat but ate only to live. How could I fall so hard for a bean and pork stew?
Then again, who can explain passion?
Seated for lunch at the Chateau St. Martin restaurant near Carcassonne, in the rugged Languedoc-Roussillon region of southern France, I suddenly heard a commotion coming from the kitchen — pots banging, the shuffle of furniture. And then the singing started in a mysterious language: Occitan, the language of the region which, in the Middle Ages, stretched from northern Spain to Nice and the Gascogne. Voices rose, and out came the strangest parade I had ever seen: men and women in long red robes and matching berets, each wearing around their necks a mini ceramic bowl held by green ribbon. Four of them carried what looked like a wooden stretcher covered in red satin fabric with gold fringes on which I read: Académie Universelle du Cassoulet. There sat two gargantuan bowls filled with a bubbling golden concoction. (I would later learn that academy members wore this ceremonial garb in honor of the colors of the Occitan flag; the small bowls around their necks had become their emblem.)
Earlier in the year, I had come across an interview of a French chef named Jean-Claude Rodriguez, the founder of a group that called itself the “Universal Academy of Cassoulet.” In it, he ranted against the proliferation of the “all-you-can-eat cassoulet for eight euros.” He sounded out of control, dangerous almost. I called him.
“A journalist from New York who speaks French?” he chanted in the melodious and elongated accent of the south of France. “Come for lunch.”
Who knew this “lunch” would change my life?
In my very first bite, I tasted a bouquet of forests, meadows and succulent meats. I looked down at my plate to beans cooked to perfection, tender but still holding their own, dotted with rosemary, thyme and parsley. Duck confit, chewy and silky, mixed with chunks of braised pork and a fatty and delicious membrane my neighbor at the table identified as “couenne.” It was pig skin.
That was in 2007.
From intrigued I became enchanted with this dish and then, dare I say it, obsessed. A year later, I staged under Chef Rodriguez. On a later trip, I investigated the cassole, the clay pot that gives the dish its name, and watched in horror as grown men needed to be restrained while arguing the merits of the conical vs. the rotund model. I spent weeks soaking and tasting different beans. But nothing, nothing quenched my hunger for the stew. So finally, last summer I set out to unravel my obsession.
One crucial piece of information came via the first author of the Larousse Gastronomique, Carcassonne native Prosper Montagné, who, in his 1929 “Le Festin Occitan,” proclaimed, “Cassoulet is the God of the Occitan cuisine. The Castelnaudary version is God the Father, the Carcassonne recipe is God the Son, and the Toulousain is the Holy Spirit.” I determine to visit all three.
To get at the root of the dish, Carcassonne is the logical first stop. “Deep during the Hundred Years’ War,” Chef Rodriguez says, “the English army was about to launch the final assault around Castelnaudary.” To feed (and inspire) the defending French troops, the locals emptied their cupboards. Beans, herbs, pieces of pork, mutton and goose were cooked together. Cassoulet was born. “And we repelled the English all the way to the Channel,” he adds, sternly.
“It’s the emblem of the region,” says Jean-Pierre Blasco, chef and co-owner of the charming Auberge des Lices in the walled town. “Until the 1960s, homemakers on their way to Sunday Mass dropped their cassoulets to be cooked in the baker’s oven.” Nowadays, he went on, if you hear shots fired at dawn — during hunting season or not — there might be some connection to cassoulet; the “official” Carcassonne recipe calls for red partridge, the delicious birds that gorge on grapes.
At lunch, from the kitchen of Philippe Decaux’s Le Sénéchal, I sample a colossal cassoulet. “Grandma Aurélie’s recipe,” quips this white-haired chef, whose girth matches the cassole’s. Here, there is no partridge swimming under the crust. “It’s the dish of the poor,” he says. “The key? The ribbons of pork skin.” They are key to the magical symbiosis that binds beans and flesh.
We are sitting outdoors, just across from the towering chateau, and while we dig in, visitors walk by, stare and sniff. In their eyes, I read envy and hunger but also the kind of soulful longing that has nothing to do with the stomach. That’s my first clue.
The next day, I drive the eight miles to Jean-Marc Boyer’s Michelin-starred Le Puits du Trésor near the four jagged 12th-century Cathar castles. Peering above his round glasses, this intellectual-looking chef hides a poet. “It’s love I pour into the cassole,” he says. “That way, I exist a bit.” Still no partridge here, but thyme, basil and juniper berries rubbed into the skin. “Supposedly, one needs to break the crust and let it form again seven times,” he says. While others cook with different beans, he is partial to the local production. “You can taste the meadow.” His cassoulet (a three-day affair) could soothe a jack-in-a-box.
In the morning, I drive west from Carcassonne, through the leafy plane tree tunnels along the languid routes of France. I pass through Castelnaudary, a sleepy port on the Canal du Midi and self-proclaimed “World Capital of Cassoulet,” where a 16-foot-tall wrought-iron statue of a woman holding a cassole watches over the headquarters of the often-decried canned-cassoulet trade.
I am headed to Pottery Not, where a family of rugged, dusty men in muddy aprons still make cassoles by hand with what they deem the “official” clay, dug from nearby Issel.
I step into a room whose air is thick with the powder of reddish earth. “We work the way our ancestors did,” says Jean-Pierre Not, the fifth-generation owner seated at the wheel. Cradling magma of living earth, his hands barely move. But as I get nearer, I see the fingers cuddling and pleating the clay as though it were silk. Suddenly, a vessel rises, seemingly on its own, magically becoming wider at the top. I leave with more bowls than can fit in my suitcase, but they chime happily in the back of the car.
I am meeting Alphonse Caravaca, a barrel-chested insurance agent in his late 40s who heads the local Comrades of Prosper Montagné Association and divides his free time between two passions, rugby and cassoulet. We are going to visit Hostellerie Etienne in Labastide-d’Anjou, where Eric Rousselot, lean and focused, wears what appears to be a black and white cyclist jersey as he concocts Cassoulet Impérial.
“Someone told my father he was the emperor of cassoulet, so it stuck,” explains the chef. Few tourists here, but the salmon-tinted dining room is full, and the portions are definitely fit for an emperor — perhaps his army. When he was told he ought to translate his menu into at least one other language, this contrarian chef chose Occitan!
“The secret of cassoulet?” Rousselot asks. “Taking your time.” The stew is phenomenal, heavy with garlic.
Another day, in the stunning medieval village of Saint-Felix-Lauragais, 25 miles outside Toulouse, I chat with chef Claude Taffarello, who grew up on a farm nearby. “At home, we made cassoulet on Mondays and still had some by Friday,” he said.
I wondered before the trip whether cassoulet still retained regional identity or whether it had sold out to the marketing gods, but this turned out not to be an issue. Thousands of canned cassoulets are sold every year, but locals still flock to the authentic eateries, they cook it at home, and they even choose to eat it at La Dînée, perhaps the best highway restaurant in the world. Why? Its owner, Georges Gouttes, is the president of the Grande Confrérie du Cassoulet de Castelnaudary, the archrival of the Carcassonne Academy!
My final stop is Emile, in Toulouse, where the menu reads: Francis’s Cassoulet. “Who’s Francis?” I inquire. “The past owner,” says Chef Christophe Fasan, who made cassoulet for former French president Jacques Chirac. “Francis’s cassoulet was perfect. Why change it?”
In his 1903 “Histoire Comique,” French author Anatole France goes even further as he describes the dish at Chez Clémence in Paris, “Clémence’s cassoulet has been simmering for 20 years. She adds goose or sausage but . . . the core remains the same.”
From the cauldron of centuries past, cassoulet has survived. Today, its plump presence on our tables fosters conviviality with a soupcon of nostalgia. Wise chefs know that its secret doesn’t reside in the ingredients.
The meaning of my quest is suddenly clear. The crucial part of cassoulet is to take the time to make it. And that’s the lesson I have come here to learn. The rest of my life awaits, but I, too, need to take my time. To live, to love and, above all, to savor each morsel and each moment. Life is a cassoulet.
Sylvie Bigar was born in Geneva, Switzerland, and is fluent in three languages: French, English, and Italian. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, Saveur, Food Arts, Departures, Travel & Leisure, Town & Country, National Geographic Traveler, Gotham, Hamptons, Edible, Time Out New York, Air Canada, Passport Magazine, Narratives, Southampton Press, and New York Resident, for which she has also served as food editor. She can be found on Twitter as @Frenchiefoodie. A dedicated traveler and gourmande, Sylvie is based in New York City, where she lives with her two children, two dogs, and three passports.