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Executive editor Thomas Matthews joined Wine Spectator in 1988. His tasting beat is Spain.
Thomas Matthews

A Hearty Red for Cassoulet

Xavier Côtes du Rhône 2009

Thomas Matthews
Posted: March 23, 2011

A friend of mine organizes an annual “cassoulet cookoff.” This year, three of us made versions of the classic French dish, and it was fascinating to see the variations on the theme.

Cassoulet originated in southwest France, somewhere near Toulouse. It’s a peasant dish, a stew of white beans and meat, generally various combinations of duck and pork, cooked a long time over slow heat. After that, all bets are off. For example, the other cassoulets at the party included tomato, but I don’t use any. And I think there was lamb in one, which I don’t use either.

My version came from a kit sold by D’Artagnan, a specialty food outfit owned by Ariane Daguin, an old friend. Ariane’s father and grandfather were notable chefs from southwest France, and her website offers her version of cassoulet in a box ($99, serves about a dozen). It includes the key ingredient—the dried white beans called Tarbais—plus confit duck legs, two kinds of sausage, pork belly and tubs of veal demi-glace and duck fat.

It doesn’t take a lot of skill to cook the dish, but it does take a lot of time (I spent four hours, more or less, before the big enameled casserole was ready to put in the oven), and I dirtied every pot in my kitchen. But for me, that’s a very enjoyable way to spend a sunny Saturday morning. And the party was lots of fun; everyone sampled all three versions and we agreed they were all delicious.

The host served Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio, which was a lovely aperitif, and a hearty red I had never tasted before, the Xavier Côtes du Rhône 2009, from southern France. My research indicates that it’s a blend of 60 percent Grenache, 20 percent Mourvèdre, 10 percent Carignan and 10 percent Syrah and sells for about $15. It was medium-bodied, with bright red fruit and subtle earthy flavors—not a blockbuster, but it harmonized beautifully with the food. I rated it 88 points, non-blind.

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Ken Green
San Diego, California, USA —  March 26, 2011 5:11am ET
Thomas, I enjoy reading your cassoulet story each year! Question: How different are Tarbais beans ($12-$20 per pound, specialty mail order) from ordinary small white beans ($1.00 per pound at any grocery store)? I always use the latter. Am I missing anything?
Thomas Matthews
New York City —  March 26, 2011 10:00am ET
Ken, Thanks for the kind words. It's true that "Tarbais" beans are more expensive than similar large white beans (Great Northern, cannellini, etc.). Part of that is due to their protected origins, in the way that Chablis is generaly more expensive than generic Chardonnay. But I find their quality and character are worth a premium. When cooked long and slow in a cassoulet, Tarbais beans achieve just the right balance of creaminess and toothiness, and add a haunting sweet, earthy note to the flavors of the dish. So substitute if you must, but try the "real thing" if you can, at least once, to experience the difference.

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