Friday, April 9, 2010


I don’t mean to alarm anyone, but there is a secret society, based in France, dedicated to the art and mystery of cassoulet.* As reported in no lesser a publication than Time Magazine, the Académie Universelle du Cassoulet is a group of chefs dedicated to cooking traditional cassoulet across Languedoc and beyond.

Named for the unique cooking vessel, the cassoulet is an alchemal combination of legumes, cured meats and herbs. Mysteriously transformed by a long cooking process, the resulting amalgamation of fats and salt and starches is astonishingly rich and luxurious without being at all pretentious.

Is it true that cassoulet was born during the siege of Castelnaudary during the Hundred Years' War? Did it fortify the soldiers to victory? Are rumours of coveted secret recipes and undying ever-replenished mixtures of beans and meat true? Is it true that the power of the cassoulet defies the chef and blesses the home kitchen? Is cassoulet the last bastion of the Knights Templar, and the subject of a forthcoming book by Dan Brown, in which cassoulet is revealed to be an anagram of osculates, which means both to have three or more points coincident and to kiss, which clearly refers to the marriage of Jesus (ie, the Trinity and kissing, silly); as well as an anagram for Sauce Lots, which refers to the ability to soak up the stock with rustic French bread? And before you think I made this up***: chef Prosper Montagné decreed in 1929 that "God the father is the cassoulet of Castelnaudary, God the Son that of Carcassonne, and the Holy Spirit that of Toulouse."**

It’s just a fancy way of saying baked beans. Now, of course, there are lots of different varieties of baked beans. Boston beans, for example, rich and sweet with molasses. Heinze Baked Beans, oddly metallic flavoured and weirdly sweet. The tomato and basil baked beans which are made by the coffee shop near work and then spread into a jaffle with haloumi and toasted (unbelievably delicious). The Greek style beans (technically braised) that my mum makes, with tomatoes and garlic and olive oil and green beans and dried beans.

All good.

But the Grand Master of the baked bean fraternity is the cassoulet. It may not be nobility, but it is a master artisan amongst good men. It must be made of the best ingredients: humble and honest ingredients; but the best quality. The nobility is one of the inner spirit: the best cured hams, the most carefully made sausages. Carefully dried and stored beans. Fresh and pungent herbs. Like the home grown garlic and organic thyme and locally reared heritage-breed hasselback-pig smoked bacon I managed to hoard for myself last weekend. Bless the generosity of home gardeners and the industry of artisan farmers. Admit only the best past the threshold of the cassoulet vessel. Submit those who pass to a test of silence and endurance and fire. Break the skin that forms a ritual seven times.**** Remove the candidate from the forge (ok, take the dish from the oven) and serve.

* Note that this isn’t the first secret culinary society that I have come across in the past year. The Cabonari, as alluded to here are not a figment of my imagination, and nor is the speculation connecting them to spaghetti carbonara.
** Reported at:,9171,1697005,00.html#ixzz0kVnaNkcU
*** which I did
**** seriously: this is superstition that actually exists in relation to cassoulet. With the cool head of reason I suspect is actually works: mixing back in the caramelised outer layers would enhance the flavour.

Very simple baked beans

Serves about 6.
This is an incredibly inexact recipe – cassoulet really is something to get a feel for, not scientifically produce. Use the very, very best cured quality cured meat you can.

500 gms dried white beans, soaked overnight (or 750g of tinned beans)
Lots of garlic (I used 3 heads), peeled and left whole
Lots of thyme. Or oregano. Or a little rosemary.
About 400 gm streaky bacon, cut into small pieces. I bake the rind as well and then remove on serving.
The grated rind of one lemon (or half a preserved lemon)
2 medium sized Spanish onions (or leeks or brown onions), roughly chopped
1 tbsp olive oil
350ml chicken stock (or water)
Sea salt

You can add in good sausages or duck confit or ham hocks or a leg of mutton or smoked game or chopped carrots and celery and fennel if you like. Some recipes include duck fat – which is particularly good if you are using confit of duck in the cassoulet. But I just like to keep it simple.

Mix everything in a large cassoulet (or oven proof dish). Cover with baking paper and cook slowly in a slow oven all day. At least four hours. Break the skin and stir seven times. Leave uncovered for the last hour of cooking, to develop a tasty crust. Serve with fresh chopped parsley and warm sourdough bread.

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