When we lived in America, Thanksgiving was always a big feast day from my earliest memories as a child right up to the November before we moved from the States a few months later. Now that we live in France we no longer celebrate that holiday but that doesn’t mean that we are deprived of the warm feelings that go along with sharing a huge meal with friends and family. In our blog post Sunday in the village I wrote about how we were accepted with open arms by the neighbors on our first street in Carcassonne and I’m proud and grateful to say that the relationship continues even though we are now a 30-minute walk away on an equally friendly street. The phrase “stranger in a strange land” didn’t apply to us for long thanks to the generosity of our new neighbors. With that as a background we readily accepted the invitation to join in on a meal of this area’s comfort food, cassoulet.
The day started out cold and wet but the rain clouds moved on by the time we started walking along the river and then across the stone bridge from the mid-1300s that leads into our old neighborhood. It was the perfect weather for a big steaming bowl of what we think of as a hearty bean, pork, and duck stew that warms you the instant the oven door is opened and the aroma takes over. At our neighborhood wine shop where we picked up a few bottles to take with us, the owner said that she hoped we would be having this regional delight for lunch, rather than dinner, commenting on how hard it would be fall asleep after such a big meal. She’s obviously never had a big American Thanksgiving turkey lunch and then tried to stay awake for the afternoon!
Legends abound as far as where this dish originated, what should be included, and even why it has its name but for simplicity and local color I’m going to go with the story from our neighboring city of Castelnaudary. After all, that’s where the Grande Confrérie du Cassoulet has been ensuring with surprise taste tests since 1901 that restaurants are serving a quality product. Townspeople say that their forebears, threatened by the British during the Hundred Years’ War, maintained their stamina from this stew to ward off the invaders. The Academie du Cassoulet, headquartered in a village just outside of Carcassonne, takes a more inclusive approach to origins and recipes but even they seem to agree that the name derives from the earthenware cooking vessel known as a cassole.
Another debate surrounding this tasty specialty is which restaurant serves the best version given that it is widely available since most French visitors to this part of the country know of its reputation and want to try it. We posed that question to our landlord when we signed the lease in our former neighborhood and his reply was “my kitchen” that we were soon able to verify. Today we can confirm that although the location has changed, “my kitchen” still applies when talking about friends Roland, Gilbert, and our other neighbors gathered for the cassoulet feast!
Both links have photos, history, and recipes (in French)
Academie du Cassoulet http://www.academie-du-cassoulet.com/
Confrerie du Cassoulet http://www.confrerieducassoulet.com/