Cassoulet is a favorite French dish made by cooking white beans in a pot with ingredients such as pork, ham, sausage, mutton, bacon, duck confit, or goose confit. Duck confit and goose confit are preserved duck and goose, cooked slowly in their own fat, then covered with the fat and left to cool. There are many variations on cassoulet depending on the different meat products added to the invariable base, which is white beans, pork, and sausage of some variety. There is an ever-lasting argument among French gourmets about the recipe for "true" cassoulet.
I have tasted five cassoulets to see how they compare, while looking at a range of criteria including quality of ingredients, taste, price, nutritional value, and preparation time. I ate cassoulet in two places in the Languedoc region of the South of France, Castelnaudary, the town where cassoulet supposedly originated, and Toulouse, which is famous for cassoulet. Bay Wolf is a fancy restaurant in Oakland, California, whose menu includes cassoulet at certain times of the year, and I ate there in the winter of 2001. My father cooked a cassoulet using a recipe from the Bay Wolf Restaurant Cookbook and ingredients from grocery stores in Berkeley, California. The last cassoulet was President's Choice cassoulet, bought at Zehrs.
There is a legend about how cassoulet was invented in Castelnaudary in the mid-14th century. The little town was under siege by the English during the Hundred Years' War. They could not go out to get fresh vegetables and herbs, so they had to rely on their dried and preserved goods, and created cassoulet. My family drove to Castelnaudary just for the cassoulet, which we ate for lunch at a little restaurant on the highway just outside the town. It was a lot to eat for lunch, and very rich. Pork rib, squares of pork fat, and fatty ham gave it flavour. The duck confit was in one piece (a leg) and mixed in with the beans, so the skin was not crispy and brown, which it would be if it were cooked on top of the breadcrumbs. The quality of ingredients was high and it tasted good. It cost twenty euros, the equivalent of thirty Canadian dollars, which is pretty good for a three-course meal with tip and tax included.
We had the Toulouse cassoulet for dinner at a restaurant just around the corner from our hotel. The restaurant attracted more tourists than the one in Castelnaudary, and it was slightly bigger. Their cassoulet had two types of sausage and goose confit. It was a very large portion, but a little too salty. Normal dinner times are late in France (at seven o'clock we were the first people to arrive in the restaurant, and by eight only a couple more groups had arrived) so everyone was sleepy by the end of the meal because we were eating rich, heavy food late at night. It was a good meal, but after I had it, I didn't really want to have cassoulet again on that trip.
At fancy restaurants like Bay Wolf, looks are important, so when our cassoulet came to the table, it was neatly arranged in individual bowls with beans at the bottom and the meat visible on top. There were no breadcrumbs in sight, because a layer of breadcrumbs does not look as appetizing. The duck confit was in neat pieces placed beside each other. It wasn't as fatty as the French meals, but it tasted just as rich and good. This single dish cost more than the three-course meals in France.
On New Year's Day, 2003, my dad cooked a cassoulet for the family at my grandpa's house in Berkeley, California. The Bay Wolf recipe that he used gives instructions for making your own sausage and duck confit, and you have to start at least two days in advance. To simplify it, he bought sausage and duck confit from a local meat market attached to a restaurant. He also used less fat than the recipe calls for. He made it in a deep casserole and cooked the duck confit on top of the breadcrumbs, which made the skin brown and crispy. The duck was moist but not too moist, and not dry like turkey. In total it only took him an hour to make it, but that hour was spread out through the whole day, a few minutes here and there. It cost a little more than the Bay Wolf cassoulet did, but it fed five people and there were leftovers. Everything was perfect and I liked it.
The President's Choice cassoulet was mainly made up of white beans in a kind of yellow goop, called "duck demiglace" in the ingredients list, which made the breadcrumbs crowning the cassoulet soggy. The meat products were diced bacon, barely any duck confit, and pork sausage. The duck confit there was could have been chicken for all that I noticed because its flavour was smothered by the flavour of the yellow goop and because it had no skin, which really gives the meat flavour, even if you don't eat the skin. The sausage was chewy, and like the duck confit, could not be tasted much. Most of the ingredients on the list were chemicals so that the cassoulet would be preserved. Since the cassoulet comes frozen, water condenses on the breadcrumbs, so when it is reheated, they are not crunchy and brown, but soggy and white (at least that is what I had). The beans were mushy on the outside and hard on the inside. 42% of the calories in a serving were caused by fat. The yellow goop contained various types of hydrogenated oils. For this price ($7.00) and this amount of work (an hour in the oven), more people will want to buy this cassoulet rather than a higher-class one that tastes better but costs more. However, I think it is more worthwhile not to eat cassoulet at all than to eat President's Choice cassoulet because there are more delicious foods you can buy for $7.00 and prepare in an hour.
Overall, I enjoyed all of the cassoulets except for the frozen President's Choice cassoulet. I think paying a little more money or doing a little more work to get higher-quality food is worthwhile. Higher-quality food can be healthier and yummier, and it makes you feel satisfied.
(Sources: The Food of France by Waverly Root, the Cadogan South of France guidebook, The Rough Guide to Languedoc and Roussillon, The Bay Wolf Restaurant Cookbook by Michael Wild and Lauren Lyle.)