Every fall one of the things I look forward to is the first cassoulete of the year. Its become a yearly ritual since we moved to France to have a cassoulete lunch with lots of friends every year. Sometimes it just lunch, sometimes we organize a country walk before lunch so as to have a 'proper' appetite for the cassoulete. We're fortunate in that there are lovely walks you can take straight from our house. One of the advantages of country living, I guess.
In any case this year there were 14 of us for the cassoulete. Six of whom were visitors from the states & England. Thus it was two, not one, cassoulete's that I made. Now I do enjoy the whole process of making a cassoulete, it somehow epitomizes to me the essence of country cooking :French country cooking in particular. Thus I make my cassoulete slowly and carefully taking my time over each step. The recipe is my own developed over years of experience (There is a pictorial version of my recipe earlier in this blog), but true to the origins and the ingredients of the dish which are not far away here in South West France. Thus, it has duck, pork in various guises, white beans, tomato and so forth. In my case I add lamb as well which is a more Northernly variation.
Now, there are nearly as many cassoulete recipes as there are cassoulete makers and I'm all for variation and updating, deconstructing and all that. BUT, I do think that in a dish like cassoulete there are proprieties to be observed. By all means do what you wish, but don't go too far and still call it cassoulete. Call it whatever you like. (for example; I recently saw a "cassoulete" made with canned Spanish beans. NO, please call it Spanish bean soup or something else, not cassoulete)
Which leads me to my original point; does cassoulete have a soul? In my opinion yes. One brings together a set of ingredients, a method of preparing and cooking and love and care as one does it so that what emerges is a dish with soul. The dish becomes evocative of a place and a society. It has soul because you put your soul into it as you go through the creative process which produces this dish.
I would contend that given the wherewithal I could make a cassoulete and serve it anywhere in the world and evoke in the eaters who had been to SW France a sense of that place. And for those who had never visited France a slight glimmering of what France and the South West in particular is all about.
By now, hopefully, you will have realized that I'm using cassoulete as a metaphor for those many things that identify a country, region, society. It could be steak & kidney pie in England or Osso Bucco in Italy whatever. It need not be food; a French cafe is as surely only French as an English pub is English. These symbols identify a culture.
Which sort of leads me to where I want to end up. That is with a plea to respect those symbols that identify a culture. Listen, observe, partake and above all feel what is symbolic of that culture. Only then will you begin to understand that culture, begin to appreciate it and begin to feel comfortable in it. It s worth the effort - believe me.
Make a cassoulete or your favorite evocative dish. Do it with care and love and I think you will agree with me: Yes, a cassoulete does have soul.