The hunt for perfect cassoulet; a truly local dish

This week we’re in Castelnaudry, just east of Toulouse, for the annual Fête du Cassoulet. Quite why this celebration of stew is in August – when temperatures can tip 40C – is a little baffling, but we’ve put on our sunhats to embark on a mission to find the best Cassoulet around.

Two very good friends of the Ginger Pig moved to the area nine years ago, and have spent their time immersed in the culinary history and identity of the region, as well as growing vegetables galore, and rearing ducks, chickens and two wonderful children. Chris grew up with Ginger Pig owner Tim, and it’s fair to say that without Chris’ wife Ursula, the Ginger Pig would not be the business it is today. Daughter of a renowned Swiss butcher and very able cook, Ursula’s support helped us grow from a little stall at Borough Market to the five shops we run today, and she still comes back each December to help us at Christmas.

Driving from Carcassonne (because, obviously, we had to fly somewhere beginning with carcass) to Chris and Ursula’s home in the hills, we get a taste of what is grown in the region. The agricultural makeup changes quickly as we move; at first vineyards, then sunflowers – heads bowed in defeat, almost ready to harvest – and then grains, pulses and legumes. The area is home to goose and duck farms too, a natural evolution stemming from the migratory path of these birds. Geese and ducks used the area as a resting spot as they flew south, and spilled grains from the September harvest provided rich pickings for the birds to fatten up to continue their journey. 

Over lunch – homemade bread and pâte de campagne, local ham and salads from the garden – Chris and Ursula set out why cassoulet is famed and fought over throughout the region. Although recipes vary from cook to cook, cassoulet is essentially a stew of white beans, pork belly, confit duck or goose and Toulouse sausage, a marriage of all that the region does well and a truly local dish. Many of the ingredients are preserved over summer and autumn to provide sustenance throughout the winter, and so cassoulet is not only a dish to make the most of the region’s best produce, but something to rely on when fresh food is scarce. 

Predictably there’s amicable contention over the true home and recipe of cassoulet, and this is all brought together for the Fête; the opening ceremony of which is tonight (move over Danny Boyle!).

The dish is yet to pass our lips, and so we’ll leave you with some photos of Chris and Ursula’s wonderful garden, while we work up an appetite for a cassoulet lunch.