Cassoulet: The Quilt of Cooking
By Jessica Luhning | Photos By Jim Klousia and Eric C. Snowdeal III 0
A couple of years ago I became obsessed with a classic, hearty, French bean stew. It wasn’t that I just wanted to eat it; I wanted to drink up every little thing about it—the history, tradition and folklore; the regional variations and provincial rivalries; the simplicity of its ingredients yet incredible depth of flavor. Is it wrong to muse about a stew?
This isn’t any ordinary bean stew, however. The depth and complexity of the savory flavors are slowly teased out of the tastiest (not the most expensive) bits of duck, pig, lamb and chicken paired with the freshest of garden herbs, sweet white onions, garlic, white haricot beans and the slightest hint of ripe tomato. The original recipe dates back to peasant farmers of 14th century southwestern France, specifically the Languedoc region and the cities of Castelnaudary, Carcassonne and Toulouse—all of which maintain a centuries-old rivalry over the true origin and most authentic version of cassoulet (kah-suh-LAY).
Nineteenth-century Paris-born poet and novelist, Anatole France, once described cassoulet as having “a taste, which one finds in the paintings of old Venetian masters, in the amber flesh tints of their women.” It seems I may not be the only one to muse about this stew.
Taking no less than three days to prepare, cassoulet is the epitome of slow food. My friend Monique, from the rugged French region of Brittany, calls it the “quilt of cooking”: each ingredient is prepared in advance, and then layered into a traditional earthenware pot for a four-hour simmer. It is a dish that requires a plan of execution and is meant to be savored in mid-afternoon on a cold late-fall or earlywinter day with the closest of friends and family.
My cassoulet journey began two years ago, not in France but—oddly enough—in the upper reaches of the Columbia River Basin at the base of the Huckleberry Mountains, near the small town of Rice, Washington. There, nestled in the foothill ponderosa pines on 36 acres, Rick and Lora Lea Misterly have carved out a life full of wonder, hard work and goats. As goat herders, farmers, cheesemakers and teachers at Quillisascut Farm, Salish* for “place of scattered bushes,” the Misterlys are living their dream in full seasonal color, with deep roots and a desire to share the good life with friends and strangers.
For one week in mid-September, 2010, my husband Macon, 13 students, one chef and one sous chef gathered at Rick and Lora Lea’s farm to totally immerse themselves in farm life and the culinary arts, from butchery to whole food cooking, hearth bread baking to cheese making, putting up the harvest to the fundamentals of flavor, seed gathering to harvest garden care.
Cassoulet is a favorite fall dish at Quillisascut, and the process of preparing it is the climax of the week-long farm school. After Macon’s return, our home was abuzz with stories from Quillisascut, particularly of the enjoyment he experienced preparing cassoulet. For Macon, it is now a dish that signifies the Misterly family, their farm and their region. This single dish forged lifelong friendships and led to the mastering of new skills in cooking, animal care and farm life. I couldn’t help but be inspired. I had to learn more and, good gracious, I had to taste it! But I wanted to do it right, as a tribute to my region.