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For the love of Cassoulet

Words by Clive Pursehouse with an image from Bastille Café & Bar

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“Le Cassoulet est le Dieu de la cuisine Occitane. Un Dieu en trois personnes: Dieu le père est celui de Castelnaudary, Dieu le fils est celui de Carcassonne, et le Saint-Esprit qui est celui de Toulouse.”
— famous French Proverb *

The French approach to cassoulet is a serious one. It is perhaps the height of French cuisine, though one completely without pretense. Working-class fare at its finest, cassoulet, so the story goes, was invented in the Languedoc town of Castelnaudary. It was a hearty meal made for the city’s defenders who were fighting off an invasion from the Black Prince, Edward the Prince of Wales, back in the 12th century. Whether or not this legend is true, the cassoulet of Castelnaudary is accepted as the original article and represents the archetype of the dish. The foundation of cassoulet is patience and beans, and, after that, let the riffing begin. Whether that’s the regional and traditional derivations like you’ll find in Toulouse (breadcrumbs) or Carcassonne, or something that you want to do in your own kitchen.

The name cassoulet comes from the pot it’s cooked in, traditionally a clay pot sourced from a nearby village. The beauty of culture is that while cassoulet may be a Languedoc original, it may also derive from a bean stew traditionally made in the Arab world, as Moorish rule of the Iberian peninsula saw its borders encroach quite closely on this part of France.

For those of us not lucky enough to be ensconced in the south of France for most of our days, cassoulet has become a hit among bistro-style fare in America; and chef Jason Stoneburner at Bastille Café & Bar in Seattle offers up a Toulouse-style take on the famous French dish, along with some of his signature tweaks.

Toulouse, while a part of the cassoulet trinity, uses a local sausage, known as, Toulouse sausage—surprise! Though Jason swaps that out for house-made sausage that he makes with piment d’espelette, a spicy red pepper grown in the French Basque Country; Tarbais or haricot beans from France, grown at California’s Rancho Gordo; and, lastly, smoked ham shank added to the simmer to add richness, which cassoulet has in spades.

With the cassoulet, Bastille sommelier Alexandra Stang pairs a local Languedoc wine, the Domaine Magellan Coteaux du Languedoc Pézenas. The ripe, rich wine pairs perfectly with its regional counterpart. Should you give homemade cassoulet a go, one trick to keep in mind, to make sure it’s cooked long enough, is the secret of the seven skins. As a film settles over the simmering stew, you are supposed to break it until a seventh skin has formed, then you’ll know it’s ready. Pm

* (“Cassoulet is the God of Occitan cuisine. A god in three persons: God, the father, is that of Castelnaudary, God the son is that of Carcassonne, and the Holy Spirit is that of Toulouse.”)