It rained for a lot of the month we stayed near Castelnaudary. It was too wet for Cathar castles, but luckily the weather never interferes with foodie plans. We were in cassoulet country. Even being mostly vegetarian couldn’t stop me. I was on a quest to find the bestest bean-and-meat-laden stew in the region of Castelnaudary – one of the towns that claim to be the origin of this dish.
The Accidental One.
We sat down for a hot chocolate. It was a cold Sunday afternoon, and I needed something warm. I am the type of person for whom chocolate always seems like a good idea. The waiter was very friendly, we noticed other people eating, and one thing led to another. We wanted to sit, we wanted to dawdle, and when I noticed cassoulet on the menu, my eyes lit up. It arrived in it’s customary cassole d’Issel, the clay dish it’s cooked in and from which it takes its name. The smell, the steam, the crispy crumb on top. I was sold, and I hadn’t even tasted it. Cristelle (of food tours Carcassonne) told us that long-ago tradition dictated this topping should be cut seven times before any eating was done but ‘no-one bothers with that anymore’. We too just dived in. The beans were creamy, but loose, it was rich, aromatic, overwhelmingly simple and so tasty. The sausage was a bit on the skinny side, and there was only one other small piece of meat, but it was good.
Supposedly invented to ward off the English, the dish came into being when all the townsfolk of Castelnaudry threw whatever they had into a pot, to fortify the soldiers defending their town. Beans, duck confit, pork and sausage. The only thing I felt like doing afterwards, was lying on a couch, but apparently after a helping of cassoulet the defenders were able to beat back ‘les anglais’. I told the waiter it was good, apologised for leaving some, and said rather lamely that it was too much for me. He said with typical French directness, ‘you shouldn’t have had the hot chocolate first’. He did have a twinkle in his eye but it put me off asking for a second cup.
This was our first cassoulet. You never forget your first. We loved it. But we needed something to compare it to.
‘The one served in a chateau’.
A week later we were in the teeny-weeny village of La Pomerade, for cassoulet in a chateau. We drove over a small stone bridge into the castle courtyard, and I felt like one of those medieval defenders myself. This time I didn’t have hot chocolate first. I’d learned that lesson. ‘C’est le parfait repas en hiver’, said the waitress as she plonked it down in front of us, and warned us not to touch the dish. This cassoulet was richer, meatier, fattier – in a good way. Served with a simple green salad and bread (that we didn’t want, but the French always serve bread) it went down a treat. When we stepped outside it was bucketing down, and we agreed with the waitress, it really is the perfect dish for winter.
Cassoulet arouses a lot of passion. There is a brotherhood – the Grande Confrerie du Cassoulet, which protects the dish in part by conducting surprise taste tests of the offerings of local hostelleries, and there is an Academie Universelle du Cassoulet whose members promote the dish and it’s cultural heritage. They even have their own theme song!
The one recommended by a local.
By now we were deeply into our research. ‘Where can we get the best cassoulet?’ we asked our ABNB hostess. Without hesitation she gave us an address, saying friends had told her about it. ‘It’s a very simple place’, she said as an afterthought. It was, but the cassoulet arrived within minutes of ordering, steaming away in it’s dish for two. There was so much meat, pork falling from the bone, goose legs, crispy, crackling fat and two thick sausages. We had to take it in stages, stopping and starting, leaning back in our chairs, bickering about who’d eaten the least. (and therefore who should eat more). I missed the crumb on top, but to say it was good, is an understatement. There were three more groups of diners, and at least two of them were eating the cassoulet. It’s always best to ask a local.
The take-a-way one.
We sat in the indoor market in Carcassonne sipping on grand cremes and munching chocolatines. A crowd of people surrounded Maison Cathala, the butcher shop directly opposite. Pre-prepared dishes of cassoulet, duck legs protruding like road kill, caught my eye. We ordered one for the following week, expecting it to be good. Philippe was after all the third generation of butcher heading this family business. It was, but the portion was small, and lacking the theatre of restaurant, it somehow fell slightly flat.
The Iced one!
Jim looked at me in disbelief when I told him it was possible to get cassoulet in dessert form. The very helpful lady in the Castelnaudary tourist office directed us to a bakery round the corner. There, the man behind the counter shook his head, but he didn’t look at me like I was crazy, and asking me to wait a moment, he climbed the tiny stairs behind the counter and spoke to his wife. We were redirected to a blue old-fashioned bakery at the end of his street. Eureka! It’s a gimmick of course. The cassole d’Issel fashioned from nougatine and stuffed with ice-cream and flavours such as chocolate, pear, or armagnac. I nursed my boxed prize and we rushed home to reinstate it in a fridge. Jim now looked at me admiringly. ‘I thought we were on a wild goose chase’, he mumbled.
You’d think after all these years he’d know – nothing gets between me and a foodie obsession.
The & Co. 3 Place Guehenno, 11170 Montolieu.
Tel: 04 68 79 80 12
Approx Euro 15.
Chateau de La Pomarede. 11400 La Pomarede.
Tel: 04 68 94 13 76
L’Escapade Bar Restaurant. 2 Av. Francoise Mitterand, 11400 Castelnaudary.
Tel: 04 68 23 45 58
Maison Cathala – Artisanal charcuterie in Prosper Montagne Hall, Carcassonne.
Philippe Cathala 06 33 38 53 22. Dishes available in different portion sizes. Best to order, cassoulet is not sold every day. A two-portion dish cost Euro 15 with a Euro 6 deposit payable for the dish.
Patisserie Belloc Thierry. 48 rue du 11 novembre, 11400 Castelnaudary.
Tel: 04 68 23 02 20
Euro 20 (for a whole ‘cake’)
Patisserie Bruno Bimas. 7 Av. Arthur Mullot 11000 Carcassonne
Tel: 04 68 25 27 01
Approx. Euro 5.50 (for an individual ‘cake’)