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The French favourite Cassoulet, whose origins stretch back centuries to 1355 when Castelnaudary was under siege by the English, has become popular with tourists, and a target of controversy with some over less traditional versions.Handout

When chef Romain Brard won the 2023 Toulouse Cassoulet World Championship, previous winners warned his life was about to change. They were right.

Brard normally served 10 to 12 bowls of cassoulet a week at Le Genty Magre, steps from the majestic Capitole in central Toulouse, the heart of southwest France. But as word of his January win spread, the 43-year-old chef’s phone rang off the hook. Suddenly, he was serving 50 to 60 bowls a day.

For months, his partner, Priscilla Picardat, carried heavy earthenware dishes laden with beans, fine-grained Toulouse sausages and duck legs to tables, losing 10 kilograms in the process. Meanwhile, he dreamed of cooking anything but this classic dish of Southern France, which takes two days to prepare.

Though demand has ebbed, Brard, who worked under superstar chef Daniel Boulud in New York, said the hearty dish still makes up 75 per cent of orders on a Saturday night when his 30-seat restaurant is packed with visitors from across France and around the world.

Beloved for centuries as simple farmhouse fare, cassoulet has become a major culinary tourist draw along the Canal du Midi from Toulouse to medieval Carcassonne. But nobody does it bigger or better than the town of Castelnaudary, located midway between the two cities. You can’t walk its weathered streets without seeing the dish advertised on billboards, sandwich boards, menus and restaurant names.

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Romain Brard and his partner, Priscilla Picardat at their restaurant Le Genty Magre.Romain Brard/Handout

At the heart of this wildly successful marketing campaign is a swashbuckling origin story, dating back to 1355 when Castelnaudary was under siege by the English. Facing starvation, the inhabitants threw everything they had – beans, duck or goose, sausages and lashings of fat – into a deep, wide cassole, a glazed earthenware dish flared at the top. Though historians note that beans didn’t actually arrive from the Americas until the 1500s, whatever ingredients simmered in that slow-cooked stew apparently gave local soldiers enough energy to drive their invaders all the way to the English Channel.

Today, cassoulet itself has a band of defenders. Dressed in sweeping gold and chestnut robes and flat cassole-shaped hats, members of La Grande Confrerie du Cassoulet paraded proudly through the streets of Castelnaudary during the five-day Fête du Cassoulet in August, where about 40,000 cassoulets were consumed and sold. The brotherhood includes restaurateurs, companies that prepare and preserve cassoulet, and growers of the long white lingot bean. (In 2020 it received a coveted Indication of Geographic Protection, which marks a product as having a specific geographical origin.)

Michel Koehl, grand chambellan (“Call me secretary”) of the Castelnaudary chapter, says the area produces 26,000 tonnes of cassoulet a year, and notes that local hunters still consume the quintessential slow food for breakfast.

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Maison Escudier's terrine of cassoulet. Cassoulet has become a major culinary tourist draw along the Canal du Midi from Toulouse to medieval Carcassonne, but nobody does it bigger or better than the town of CastelnaudaryHandout

In his tiny office, Koehl hands me a copy of the confrerie’s official cassoulet recipe in French. When I confess that I use pricey French flageolet beans at home and top my cassoulet with breadcrumbs, both faux pas bring a horrified, “Non!”

“Parisians add breadcrumbs,” Koehl muttered, “but then they don’t know how to cook.”

The crust, I learn, is one of the indicators of an authentic cassoulet. It should form naturally as the fat-laden dish simmers for hours in the oven. And forget about adding tomatoes or herbs. “Non, non!” the chambellan cried. “Use the best ingredients and keep it simple.”

While he disparaged the Toulouse competition as “show business,” Brard dismisses the confrerie’s rigid rules, saying he’ll continue to make his broth with pig’s ears and snouts and gently flavour his winning recipe with rosemary and thyme.

Ancient dish gets a refresh

Ophelie Semat, 26, fondly recalls weekly gatherings with family to share in her grandmother’s cassoulet. She’s proud to continue that tradition as manager of century-old Maison Escudier, Castelnaudary’s largest manufacturer of cassoulet sold fresh and in jars. “People are crazy about cassoulet and it’s getting more popular,” she says.

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Ophelie Semat, of Maison Escudier, is proud to continue that tradition as manager of century-old Maison Escudier, Castelnaudary’s largest manufacturer of cassoulet sold fresh and in jars.The Globe and Mail

At a gleaming new factory and boutique on the edge of town, Semat says Escudier prepares 4,000 to 7,500 cassoulet a week, cooked sous-vide and vacuum-packed for modern families who have neither the time nor interest to prepare a two-day casserole from scratch. The fresh version, which lasts a month in the fridge, is now so popular, she says, that local potters can’t keep up with the demand for earthenware cassoles, forcing her to import dishes from Spain.

Alas, there’s trouble in cassoulet paradise. Semat says avian flu is decimating French flocks, sending prices sky high and threatening the supply of duck legs. In response, some restaurants are passing off her cassoulet as homemade, she says, while others are substituting a manchon (wing) for the more expensive and flavourful leg.

The supply of precious lingot beans is also dwindling as increasingly hot, dry summers push growers to choose less water-intensive crops. Brard, however, says he’s not concerned about his supply after securing a tonne (literally) of beans, stored above the restaurant.

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Canned cassoulet from Maison Escudier.Philippe Benoist/Handout

Time for a taste test

When my guy and I arrive at Chez David on a Saturday night in Castelnaudary, there’s a Complet/Full sign on the door. Punk rock pulses through chef David Campigotto’s small, laid-back restaurant, which is packed with tourists by 8:15 p.m. A ceramic chicken and a vase of plastic flowers sit in the stone niche above our heads.

Campigotto’s menu offers cassoulet de Castelnaudary at €30 ($44) a person, along with an eclectic range of items such as cheese flambéed with Armagnac and tuna sashimi. The chef greets each table before returning to the kitchen. Intoxicating smells emerge.

Our server arrives with a piping-hot earthenware dish for two filled to the brim with meat and beans beneath a dark brown, almost black crust. While dividing the meat evenly between our plates, he solemnly explains each element. The dish is cooked six hours until the famous beans, still intact, become creamy; some caramelize on top as part of the crust. Pork skin and feet flavour the bouillon. Chunks of pork on the bone and the dark red duck leg are meltingly tender, as is the fine-grained sausage. We dig in with a georgette, a wide, almost-flat silver spoon with spiky tines.

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A serving of cassoulet from Chez David. Chef chef David Campigotto's menu offers cassoulet de Castelnaudary at €30 ($44) a person.The Globe and Mail

Though we try our best to finish it all, savouring each unctuous, ultrarich morsel, a mound of beans steeped in broth remain in the still-hot cassole under a veil of fat. No, we won’t be taking it home, we tell the waiter. “Ah, you are on vacation,” he says, sorrowfully. “Too bad.”

By now, Campigotto has installed himself at the tiny bar at the back, wreathed in eerie green light, to collect payment as guests leave. While his family recipe has always been popular among locals, “These days the French come from other regions,” he says, “some to discover the dish while others are nostalgic for their grandmother’s cooking.”

Back in Toulouse, chef Brard awaits more details about his prize: a spot competing at an international cassoulet competition in Japan. Campigotto, meanwhile, is preparing for his annual cassoulet event in Chicago. He says he’d be delighted to cook in Toronto, and even bring his own beans, but he’s not convinced our ducks or pigs are fat enough to do his recipe justice.

He may have a point.

Tips and tricks for an authentic cassoulet

The ‘real’ cassoulet

Makes 4 servings

  • Take your time and be patient, chef Romain Brard advises. Use top-quality meat, preferably from a butcher.
  • An ovenproof earthenware dish – particularly if wider at the top – is ideal for cassoulet.
  • Rub the inside of the dish with a raw garlic clove.
  • Confit two duck legs in duck fat (buy or save from cooking a whole duck) or purchase prepared duck confit.
  • Soak 350 to 400 grams of beans in plenty of water overnight. If you can’t find lingot beans, substitute white cannellini beans (don’t tell the French!).
  • To make the broth, simmer a chicken carcass in three litres of water with 125 grams of pork belly (skin on), onion, carrots, salt and pepper, for 1 hour. Strain, reserving liquid and pork belly. Season generously with salt and pepper.
  • Simmer soaked beans in prepared broth until tender but not mushy, about an hour. Strain, keeping liquid and beans separate.
  • In large skillet, heat a little duck fat and fry four pure pork sausages (preferably Toulouse) and 200 grams of pork shoulder, cut in pieces, until well browned.
  • In ovenproof dish, place reserved pork belly. Add a third of the cooked beans and top with browned shoulder. Add remaining beans, then nestle in the sausages and duck. Pour reserved broth over top along with a few garlic cloves mashed with pork fat.
  • Bake cassoulet at 300 F (150 C) about 3 hours. If it appears dry, add a few spoonfuls water or broth. Traditionally the crust is broken seven times during cooking.
  • Serve immediately. If desired, add a green salad with a garlicky dressing.
  • Pair with a rustic Languedoc red wine.
  • Like most stews, cassoulet tastes better reheated the next day.

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