Spilling the beans on French cassoulet

They say that the waters of the earth separate us and that wine brings us together. On special occasions, food unites us as well.

Last week, Philippe Bertineau, the executive chef at Benoit New York, an Alain Ducasse restaurant, was honored for his authentic rendition of cassoulet by the Academie Universelle du Cassoulet in a ceremony studded with red robes and red wine.

For the uninitiated, cassoulet amounts to a white bean-duck-pork dish best served hot on cold nights. It is revered for its hearty rib-sticking qualities.

For those in the know, cassoulet is an argument-inspiring topic in the south of France whose passionate adherents would just as soon start a public riot over a recipe then succumb to a meal without tradition.

A recent clip on YouTube will fill you in: youtube.com/watch?v=_o4S7Yw4TaE

In this short two-minute clip, a British comedian sets up a market stand in Castelnaudary, France pandering "authentic English cassoulet." The havoc he wreaks is both jaw-dropping and eye-opening. Perhaps if the Brit had been pouring wine, the French would not have started to destroy his market stand.

But then again. …

Castelnaudary, Carcassonne and Toulouse, three French cities within the Languedoc wine region, challenge each other as to who crafts the most authentic cassoulet.

At issue is not which city comes out on top, but rather that, collectively, the denizens of these cities care about the cultural heritage that graces their dinner tables during the cold winter months and are willing to keep that tradition fiercely alive.

"We care about cassoulet," said a young French acolyte at my table during the ceremony. "But naturally, here in the United States, we want to eat hamburgers."

I wondered if he had heard about "pink slime."

One of my other table guests, a noted restaurant critic, left before the dinner arrived. She was too intolerant of the pomp and circumstance that went into honoring the man who had spent two days preparing the dish she was about to eat.

She must have been a fast food restaurant critic.

And cassoulet is not fast food.

"I love the concept of the slow-cooked stew where the flavors mingle over time," stated Bertineau. "Their individual complexities melt and then blend into one delicious bite. This is a dish that takes time, planning, organization. …A cassoulet is a whole thought process."

So when it arrived, hot and savory, tucked into its signature earthenware bowl and set at the center of each table, everyone was quite focused. You couldn't have slipped one more lingot bean into the dish. Every bite coated the lips like warm Chapstick.

As fate would have it, the perfect accompaniments to this rich winter meal are the equally texturous reds of the Minervois wine region near Carcassonne. To say that this is a food and wine match made in heaven would be an understatement; the fact that the pairing is as authentic as it comes cannot be overstated.

Authenticity: It's a word with meaning. And sometimes, like cassoulet, it takes time to take shape and have impact.

Domaine de Barroubio "Marie Therese" 2009 Minervois ($20): Savory and meaty, smooth as brushed cotton with a heady mélange of sweet herb on top of a granite mineral core. Absolutely magnificent.

Ch. Tour Boisee 2009 Minervois ($15): Liquid velvet. Savory herbs, lots of minerals, big blackberry fruit. Super stuff.

For authentic cassoulet ingredients and recipes, go to academie-du-cassoulet.com/uk/recettes-cassoulet-en.php.

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