The first time I had cassoulet was at a 50th birthday party for the painter Carol Frank, who is a friend of my dad's, when I was sixteen years old. The theme of the party was A Moveable Feast, and the host read bits from the book while his helpers served us the dishes described in the text. This was the same night that I first made the acquantaince of raw oysters and I've loved them ever since. My memory of the cassoulet, however, was of a rather bland, unpleasantly beany dish; I couldn't understand why all the adults were crazy about it.
I next tried the classic dish in my own kitchen, following a recipe from the my inaugural cookbook*: Reader's Digest's Eat Well, Stay Well. It's not a glamorous volume but it was just right for me at the time and I still use several recipes from it. The Reader's Digest cassoulet is certainly not authentic but it is tasty, and definitely has the gist of what a cassoulet is supposed to be. With some crusty bread and cheap red wine, it warmed our bellies on many a cold night during our stint in freezing Waterloo, Ontario.
When I lived briefly in France, I tried the ultra-lowbrow canned cassoulet from the Miniprix. It was basically the equivalent of Heinz pork and beans but I reasoned that since everything in France tasted better, even the frozen and canned food, it would probably be good. Nope, I was wrong. There are reasonable canned cassoulets, but the cheapest one on the shelf really is bad, it's Frenchness notwithstanding.
This weekend I finally hit the cassoulet jackpot. We picked it up from Choux Choux, and paired with a bottle of 1999 Champs Martin Premiere Cru Mercurey and a baguette from House, it made a memorable Friday night supper. I'm not exactly sure what all was in the cassoulet but my best guess is this: haricots blanc, Toulouse sausage, duck confit, and salt pork. A very carnivorous meal!
The Mercurey was delicious: lots of spiciness and hardly any tannins (it's age may have had something to do with that) and not much fruit. So, definitely different from the sweeter and fruitier Oregon and California Pinots that tend to reside in the Yellow House liquor cabinet. Tobias called it "flawless" and who am I to argue? I thought it perfectly complimented the cassoulet, especially the duck.
If you would like to order a cassoulet from Choux Choux, they only do them from time to time so it's best to call ahead (382-7572). As for the wine, well, the Champs Martin Premiere Cru is a little on the pricey side here in the Great White North: our friend Jeff picked ours up for less than half the price in San Francisco. You might try the also delicious Chateau de Chamirey Mercurey, which you can get at the Oak Bay liquor store. It's still a special occasion wine, at 40 dollars, but cassoulet is a special occasion, at least in my book.
*The first cookbook I cooked from in my early days in the kitchen, just after I got married.