What Adam Smith Ate: Toulouse Cassoulet

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Renee Wilmeth for AdamSmithWorks

Learn about a classic dish of the Toulouse region, cassoulet, and get the recipe to try to make it yourself!
We can’t let Adam Smith’s time in Toulouse pass without imagining he would have had the classic dish of the region – cassoulet.  As Smith and his pupil, the now 18-year-old Duke de Beuccleuch, integrated into the city, they would have enjoyed the French cuisine of the day. 
Smith may have longed for home or craved a particular dish, but his cook would have been French – or at the very least been a skilled French cook. French cooking by the 18th Century had already seen several major evolutions. French queen consort Catherine de Medici had revolutionized the cuisine during her time in the middle 1500s introducing Italian techniques and ingredients unknown to the French.  
During the 16th and 17th centuries, ingredients from the New World were arriving every day including the white haricot beans that form the base of cassoulet. (Legend has it that Catherine de Medici’s half- brother, Alexander, brought a bag of these white beans from the New World as a wedding gift.)
Early modern French cooking brought us guilds of specialists such bread bakers, pastry makers, meat roasters, and sauciers along with incredibly fanciful and artful dishes from the Court of Versailles. Noblemen entertained guests while new foods debuted at markets all over France. 
In Toulouse, by fall of 1764, Smith and the Duke had welcomed the Duke’s 15-year-old brother, Hew. Smith now had two students and an active and busy life in Toulouse. He would use this time to understand systems of regional government (in both Toulouse and Bordeaux), observe ports, and analyze currency. He was not only tutor to the boys, but an author, gathering information that would inform his major work.
It’s likely that Smith frequently dined with local notables and welcomed members of the city’s well-known Scottish (and Jacobite) community to his table. And it’s also likely that among the hearty dishes his cook would have prepared was the local bean casserole with confit duck legs and sausages known as Cassoulet. 

Food historian and author Clifford Wright notes that scholars still disagree on the true origins of cassoulet. Some say the mutton versions come from Spanish or even North African origins, while others disagree on variations in each city. Are tomatoes a variation to cassoulet from Toulouse or Castelnaudary?  
We can only speculate on what Smith’s cook might have considered her own, with duck confit and the garlic sausages readily available in the local market. It might have had mutton from time to time or even other cuts of pork. 
Regardless of the minor differences, the small white beans are the most important ingredients. As Wright notes, “If you are traveling in Languedoc, you couldn’t bring back a better souvenir than the best medium-size haricot beans you can find, such as the lingot de Lavelanet or the haricot beans of Mazères, Pamiers, or Cazères.”
Historians can agree that the name “cassoulet,” which comes from the earthenware dish it’s baked in called a “cassole,"  is a precursor to the modern “casserole.”  You can imagine that Smith’s cooks would have proudly presented a fine cassoulet to his guests especially those traveling from other countries as a sign of what’s best in Toulouse. I’d like to think Smith returned home disappointed that his Scottish cook would likely never recreate such a masterpiece.
Cassoulet can be a complicated affair to make at home, but I’ve simplified a recipe for you that should give you a taste of Toulouse without too much work.  It’s a perfect recipe for a lazy Saturday at home, especially if it’s still cool outside.  

Simplified Toulouse-style Cassoulet  (Cassoulet Toulousain)  (Serves 8-10)

1 lb dried white beans (traditional French Tarbais beans or Great White Northern beans)
8 cups chicken stock
1 lb slab bacon, cut into lardons
2 carrots, peeled and finely chopped
2 onions, peeled, and quartered
10 cloves of garlic, smashed, divided
8 sprigs of parsley, divided
3 bay leaves, divided
8 sprigs of thyme, divided
Salt and pepper
4 confit duck legs, cut in half, with ¼ cup of duck fat reserved
2 lbs lamb shank, deboned, or pork belly, cut into 6-inch pieces
1 lb Toulouse style-garlic sausages

  1.  Rinse and discard any small pebbles or blackened beans. Soak the beans in cold water overnight.
  2. Make two bouquet garni.  For the first one, lay 3 sprigs of parsley, 1 bay leaf and 3 sprigs of thyme on a piece of kitchen twine. Tie tightly. For the second bouquet garni, tie the remaining parsley and bay leaf together. Set aside the remaining thyme.
  3. When ready to cook the beans, drain the beans and add to a large pot.  Add water to 1 inch above the beans, and add the lardons, carrots, onion, garlic, and the bouquet garni. Season with salt and pepper.
  4. Cook the beans for 40-50 minutes until just done. Do not overcook.  Drain and reserve the cooking liquid. Discard the bouquet garni. Set the beans and the liquid aside. 
  5. Preheat oven to 350F.
  6. In the bottom of a large, ovenproof casserole or Dutch oven, melt the duck fat. Sauté the lamb and/or pork belly until browned on all sides. Set aside.  Brown the sausages. Set aside.
  7. To the casserole or Dutch oven, add the beans, bacon, and vegetables, then the meat and sausages, nestling the meat into the beans.  Add the remaining garlic, second bouquet garni, and the remaining thyme. Add the confit duck legs. Add the reserved bean cooking liquid one cup at a time until there’s just enough to cover the beans. Reserve any remaining bean cooking liquid. 
  8. Place in the oven and cook for 2 hours.  If making ahead, you can refrigerate it overnight.
  9. To serve, preheat the oven to 350F. There will be a crust on top, so break it with a spoon and add any needed reserved bean cooking liquid. (Tradition says you should break through this crust 7 times for the perfect Cassoulet.)  After 1 hour, reduce the heat to 250 F and hold for another 1 hour or until ready to serve.

Read the previous What Adam Smith Ate posts: