Trying to trace the history of Cassoulet is no mean feat when you know the heated discussions that can result! However, iconographic analysis, cookbooks, medical treatises, archaeology, and local history, provide us with many clues that allow us to understand the birth of this mythical dish and its evolution.
The origins of Cassoulet date back to the Middle Ages. It was then described as a stew, a meat dish in a sauce that simmered for a long time near the fire. A great culinary work appeared in the 14th century: ‘Le Viandier ‘ was written by Taillevant, whose real name was Guillaume Tirel, who had cooked for several kings over 60 years. In his work, which was probably dictated, Taillevant gave pride of place to pâtés and stews, including a mutton and pork stew with beans. Food historians believe that Taillevant could have been inspired by an Arabic work written by Mohamed of Baghdad in 1226, which revealed an extremely refined cuisine. This book featured a range of spices, herbs, legumes and mutton. Some historians believe that Cassoulet originates with the Arabs. In the 7th century, they would have introduced in the culture of a white bean in the south of France and would have taught the local residents how to prepare this legume. Mutton stew with white bean is one of the recipes in the Baghdad Cookery Book. Taillevant used this recipe in his Viandier.
Culinary traditions evolved considerably until the 17th century, which was considered the great century of French cuisine. Cassoulet, which then bore the name ‘estouffet’ or ‘stew’, officially took its name during the 18th century.
In 1836, the first industrial Cassoulet production site was established in Castelnaudary. This was Bouissou’s, which produced the ‘La Renommée ’ brand, and around 1880, tributes to Cassoulet flourished, including this anonymous song:
Each place has its own delicacies…
And praises its own delights
Lagrasse has its grey partridges
Villasavary sucks it melons
Albi gilds its gimblettes (biscuits)
Limoux sparkles its blanquette
… and Castelnaudary alone has the Cassoulet.
In 1929, Proposer Montagné, a famous chef in Paris, from Carcassonne, recognised the supremacy of Castelnaudary Cassoulet in his work entitled ‘Le Festin Occitan’: ‘Cassoulet is the God of Occitan cuisine.
A God in three persons: God the Father, the Castelnaudary Cassoulet, God the son, the Carcassonne and the Holy Spirit, the Toulouse’. There seems to be no doubt, therefore, that Cassoulet was created in the Lauragais, and, as we know, it came from a rustic stew, which all in all, could have been made anywhere and which, over time, could have had regional variations, like in Carcassonne or Toulouse. But Castelnaudary had the cassole and the ingot bean and knew how to perfect the recipe, which was made official in 1909. The Chaurien tradition gave this dish an unparalleled flavour by cooking it in a baker’s oven, heated with wood from the Montagne Noire. To make it even tastier and more special, it is recommended that the beans are soaked in water from the ‘Co d’en Sens ’, a spring that has fed the town since 1853!
Since the Middle Ages, Castelnaudary and the Lauragais have been able to preserve a popular legend which has made Cassoulet the emblematic culinary heritage of this town and this small ‘region’.
Perched at the top of the town, the Lauragais Museum is housed in the former prison.
The Lauragais Museum was built when Catherine de Medici, Countess of Lauragais, made Castelnaudary a Sénéchaussée, a royal court governed by a seneschal, with the king’s consent. A civil and criminal justice court, called ‘Présidial ’, was then built next to the castle. It was completed in 1585. In 1623, Louis XIII had Castelnaudary Castle demolished, but the court operated until 1926. Its presence led to many Toulouse judges and lawyers settling in the town; very beautiful mansions still bear witness to this.
Today the Présidial is a primary school, and the prison has become a ‘Musée de France’. Inside, you can visit the small chapel of Saint Pierre, which contains two magnificent 18th century reliquary-busts. The old cells are used to stage temporary exhibitions.