Cassoulet: The French Obsession

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France's ancient contribution to the peasant table is now one of the most revered dishes in French cooking.

Its origins track back to the siege of Castelnaudary by the Black Prince, Edward the Prince of Wales, in 1355. The villagers came together to create a large cauldron of beans, meat and herbs to fortify their warriors — and cassoulet was born.

The regional dish of Languedoc (France), cassoulet has a loyal following among culinary historians and contemporary chefs. I recently read an article by Jeffrey Iverson in Time on the French obsession with cassoulet. Of particular note is the Académie Universelle du Cassoulet, a group of chefs dedicated to cooking traditional cassoulet across Languedoc and beyond. Yeah, that's right — an entire academy of chefs and experts focused on this humble dish.

According to Iverson, "No French dish is as steeped in history, myth and religion as cassoulet. Natives of southwestern France's Languedoc region link their very cultural identity to the archetypical peasant dish, a rich, earthy casserole of beans, meat and herbs. Cassoulet is said to date back to the 14th century siege of Castelnaudary during the Hundred Years' War, when citizens created a communal dish so hearty their revivified soldiers sent the invaders packing."

"In the end, the true liturgy of cassoulet isn't in
 the recipe," says Rodriguez, "but rather in the special
 moment when friends gather around a large, steaming earthenware caçòla and meal becomes Mass. Cassoulet has such a religion around it because it's the plat de partage — the 'dish of sharing.' When a cassoulet arrives at the table, bubbling with aromas, something magical happens — it's Communion around a dish."

This Saturday, Chef Juan Huerta, who trained in France, will create cassoulet for the modern home cook. Learn the authentic techniques and recipe French cassoulet; then bring it home to your table for great meals inspired to humble, peasant beginnings. Details: Cassoulet cooking demo, Saturday, April 23, 1:30-3p.m., Level B2 Conference Center, Central Library.

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