This is one of the world's great dishes. It should be approached with seriousness. But not with undue reverence. There is no true way. There is no definitive inventory of ingredients. There is no immutable method. There are schools and schisms and bickering factions, often within the same cook. My ideas have changed over the years largely because indisputably the best cassoulet I have eaten was indisputably incorrect; that is, incorrect according to the prescription I had then long adhered to.
In the mid-Nineties I drove for more than a week round the cassoulet belt of south-west France in an attempt to find the cassoulet that defined cassoulet. The one. This was a daft idea which turned out to be a dismal failure. Version after version lurched between mediocre and moderate. Many of the guilty parties were big name restaurants. This wasn't like Marseille where bouillabaisse turns out to be an occitan word for 'we seen you coming'. There was no scam involved, just repeatedly torpid, tired, approximate cooking.
Nothing began to approach even the foothills of the cassoulet at Alain Dutournier's Au Trou Gascon, 700km north in the 12th arrondissement of Paris, near Omnisport Bercy. If there's a lesson here it is that best is not to be found on home territory. And if there's a second lesson it is that our prejudices are there to be broken down so that we can begin to build a replacement set based in our empirical observations.
Lamb! Dutournier's recipe includes lamb. And tomato. And carrot. Heresies, all of them. The second time I went to Au Trou Gascon Dutournier had installed his former sous-chef Jacques Faussat and had himself moved on to his swankier Carré des Feuillants. Faussat was as good as his master. I must have eaten his cassoulet three or four times. Then one lunchtime I ordered it and, well, there was something different about it. The parts were there, the whole wasn't. Yes, the recipe seemed to be the same... but cooking is about more than recipes.
Even though I knew the answer I asked a waiter: Is M Faussat no longer here?
No, no. Now we have M Godiard.
He has moved on.
That's a shame.
I still advise against tomato and carrot, on grounds of colour as much as anything, but am won round to lamb, just so long as Dutournier or Faussat (whose own restaurant La Braisière is in the 17th arrondissement) is cooking. Another self-imposed rule is no smoked meat.
It is a dish that should be cooked in large quantities. This recipe is for about 12 people. Or, if you happen to be Robin Yapp or Alain Juppé, half that number.
In the autumn of 1996 we walked into the Auberge Pyrénées Cévennes in rue de la Folie-Méricourt only to be looked up and down by three guys in loden coats. But though their garb was BCBG, the guys weren't and though they were at the bar they were merely pretending to drink.
We had no sooner sat down than there was a rush of urgency by the door. In hurried Alain Juppé, prime minister and some years off taking the rap for Chirac (punishment: exile to Quebec), hurling his loden at an aide. Juppé is a lean man, and was he hungry... The three guards and a further two who had swifted in with him went into deep conversation for 30 seconds whereupon they were served with what can only be described as a sinkful of cassoulet, a vessel 1m x 0.75m, and deep. Their demolition of it was amazingly swift, neat, brutal - as though taking out some Sunni botherer.
Three years earlier my mother had died. The weeks of arranging the funeral, sorting through her house and dealing with death's bureaucracy were predictably dismal. My bored gloom was relieved by a phone call from the only wine merchant in Britain to have received V.S. Naipaul's imprimatur, Robin Yapp. He suggested that I come to lunch. What a lunch! Robin and Judith were well acquainted with my fondness for cassoulet and had with great generosity confected one to console me. World class? Nah - this was different class (which is classier than world class). The sheer volume was daunting but we were not in the mood to be daunted.
- 1.5kg haricot beans - Tarbes, Arpajon and Soissons are the most esteemed
- Pork rind
- 2 onions stuck with clove
- 1 head of garlic
- 500g salt pork - not belly, a leaner cut
- 1 end of raw ham on the bone
- 250g diced raw ham
- 1 large garlic boiling sausage
Soak the beans overnight. Bring to the boil in plenty of water. Discard the water. Bring to a simmer in fresh water with the other ingredients. Skim. Cook for 90 minutes. Discard the pork rinds, onion and garlic. Do NOT discard the liquid. Chop the meats into 4cm x 4cm dice.
- 8 Toulouse sausages or Italian all pork sausages, quartered
- 1kg pork loin, chopped 4cm dice
- (If you are going to include lamb reduce the pork to 500g and add the same amount of cubed lamb shoulder)
- 4 onions, sliced
Roast the chopped pork loin (and lamb) and the quartered sausages in duck fat for 10 minutes at 150C. Add the onions and cook for a further 10 minutes so they soften but don't brown.
- Pork rind
- 2l stock
- 10 cloves garlic
- 8 confit legs of duck (take off the bone)
Assemble everything. Put pork rinds on the bottom of the vessel. Then a layer of beans, a layer of boiled meats, more beans, roasted meat/sausages, more rinds (which add to the unctuousness), garlic, beans, confit and so on. Distribute the ingredients evenly. Add the beans' cooking liquid and stock. A cassoulet should be quite liquid. Sprinkle the top with breadcrumbs. Spray with duck fat. Cook at a low heat, 130C for two hours. Watch it. Top up with stock if necessary. The folksy practice of breaking the crust seven times and pushing it down into the cassoulet is inadvisable because it over-thickens the liquid.