A widely spread out and well supported theory by culinary historians is that Catherine de’ Medici laid the foundations of the French cuisine. She got married to King Henry II in 1533 and was the mother of three future French Kings. Before her arrival in France the French court recognized medieval meals and concoctions only. When she got married and came to France she brought with her the best and most recognized Italian cooks and confectioners, perfumers and specialists in fireworks. All of them introduced more refined recipes for more balanced and healthier dishes to their French colleagues which were immediately copied and used in France. Moreover, the Queen also brought with her some sweet treats al dente like ice cream and zabaglione (an Italian dessert and sometimes a beverage from egg yolks, sugar and Marsala sweet wine).
In the second place, Catherine changed the “order at table”. In Italy the whole family (men, women, children and even servants) sat together at the table. While in France women were allowed to be present at the table only on special occasions. Moreover, the French Queen introduced refined cutlery like wine glasses and carafes (they substituted rough cups) and forks (before Catherine’s coming to France the French cut meat, for instance, with knives but ate it with fingers; by the way, it was strange to them to use forks and that’s why after the Queen’s death they were abandoned and left out and adopted again in the late 18th century).
In the third place, Catherine introduced ballet art to the French court by inviting well trained Italian ballet dancers. Last but not least, the French Queen ordered the Tuileries Palace on the right bank of the Seine. She also ordered the construction and renovation of some of the other most beautiful palaces of France.
You yourselves see that this prominent member of the House of Medici had extreme merits for the French cuisine (and not only). She travelled a lot around the country, organized banquettes and introduced local chefs to new royal recipes and new ingredients. When Catherine de Medici became a French Queen in 1553 she laid claim to the province of Languedoc (stretched from Toulouse and Carcassonne in south-western France) where she brought new foods, bean being among them.
I will open a bracket here. Bean came from the New World. It was transferred by Christopher Columbus from South America to Europe in 1510. The first countries which started using it in cooking were today’s Spain and Italy. Some considered the plant a symbol of fertility (probably because of the abdominal bloating and intestinal gas after eating it). As to France, namely Catherine was the one to bring it to the country and she herself was “related to” that symbol of fertility (she gave a birth to ten children). The bracket closed.
Thus white bean was highly welcome in Languedoc and cultivated in the region that was famous for its sausage cassoulet. Actually, three major cities in the region (Toulouse, Castelnaudary and Carcassonne) have always pretended to be the cradle of cassoulet.
As a matter of fact, two things are in favour of Castelnaudary and determine it as the birth place of the stew. Firstly, the legend of cassoulet is connected with the town. According to the myth, cassoulet was prepared here for the first time during the Hundred Years’ War (the conflict between England and France from 1337 to 1453). And what happened exactly? The English besieged the town. Locals ran out of food provisions. The only things they had were pork, broad beans, sausages and grease. They put them altogether in an enormous pot and stewed them. After having eaten from that meal, the soldiers of Castelnaudary got refreshed and managed to fight off the English troops, and chased them to the English Channel (i.e. La Manche).
Secondly, the town has always had strong traditions in pottery. Local red clay is exceptional and all items, produced by local craftsmen, withstand high temperatures as well as they could be used without a problem for some 100 years. That is why a deep, conical cassole in which cassoulet is traditionally cooked, is thought to be of the highest quality if it’s made in Castelnaudary. (the name of the earthenware pot gave the name to meal itself).
As for Toulouse and Carcassonne, their cassoulets don’t differ so much from that prepared in Castelnaudary. Normally, the traditional recipe includes bean, pork meat and its rind, duck confit and sausages that are cooked in advance and should be arranged in a cassole in layers. People from Carcassonne used to add partridges to the dish because there used to be plenty of them in the nearby vineyards (but no more), while chefs from Toulouse use pork, some mutton and tomatoes as a base.
Yummy-yummy 🙂 Enjoy cassoulet. 🙂