Tuesday, February 23, 2010
Many dishes in the Mediterranean have apocrypha associated with their origin that I find charming. It makes the eating of these dishes all the better. One typical phenotype is the “besieged castle” origination. Cassoulet fits that bill. Cassoulet is a bean stew cooked in an earthenware casserole, hence the name, both words deriving from the same root. It is one of the classic dishes of the Languedoc, and of France. This famous bean stew—and “bean stew” hardly conveys the complexity of its flavors—is subject to much debate about what constitutes a “true” cassoulet. Cassoulet is a paradigm for a culinary understanding of the Languedoc, for there is a different recipe in every kitchen.
The history of cassoulet is a history of Languedoc. One legend places the birth of cassoulet during the siege of Castelnaudary by the Black Prince, Edward the Prince of Wales, in 1355. The besieged townspeople gathered their remaining food to create a big stew cooked in a cauldron. Apocrypha aside, a more appropriate historical question can be asked: Is the prototype of cassoulet the fava and mutton stews of the Arabs, as suggested by Julia Child and Paula Wolfert (but denied by Waverly Root)? Was the Languedoc the northern limit of the cooks, if not the commandos, of 'Abd ar-Raḥmān I and the yakhna bi’l-fūl (fava bean stew? Etymology alone provides some circumstantial evidence pointing to the celebrated cuisine of the Arabs as the provenance of cassoulet, already having made its mark on the beans stews to the south in Muslim Spain.
The word cassoulet derives from the earthenware pot it is cooked in, the cassolle or cassolo, a special vessel made by the local potteries from the terre d’Issel, Issel being a village near Castelnaudary. The word cassolo comes directly from the Spanish. But where does the Spanish word cassa, meaning “a receptacle for carrying liquid,” from which it derives come from? Possibly it is the Mozarab word cacherulo, derived from the Arabic qas'at, a large shallow bowl or pan, or it may be derived from a proto-Hispanic word.
This is the perfect time of year for cassoulet, as rib-sticking a meal as you’ll ever have. It’s heavy so best had around 4 in the afternoon on a cold Sunday. You’ll want to make only the most authentic cassoulet so follow my recipe.