Cassoulet And The Canal Du Midi
In France, bean stew is an art form.
In the foothills north of the magical Pyrenees, between that range and the lakes and forests of the Montagne Noire National Park, is the long valley, La Lauragais, from Narbonne and Beziers west to Toulouse and Biarritz on the Atlantic. In this valley you find the storied tree-roofed Canal du Midi with its pleasure craft supplanting the working barges that ran from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic starting in the 17th century.
Canals have connected much of Europe since well before the Industrial Revolution. The Canal du Midi is perhaps the most picturesque of them all. So when my friend Monique was visiting me at my small apartment in Toulouse and suggested a leisurely few weeks on the Canal du Midi, how could I resist?
Canal cruising can be five-star, with luxurious quarters and your own captain, crew, chef, and wine steward, or it can be do-it-yourself, made affordable by sharing with friends and running the boat yourselves. If you go the do-it-yourself route, make sure that at least a few of your friends are able-bodied and willing to work.
If you’re starting out near the ancient city of Toulouse, La Ville Rose, you should travel at least as far east as Carcassonne and tie up there for a few days. Starting other places means completely different itinerary options. Research this in advance.
The largest basin now for cruising along the western reaches of the canal is at the bottom of the fortified hill that holds the town of Castelnaudary, the New Castle of Arrius, from Roman times, the site of a siege by the northern knights under Simon de Montfort during the early 13th-century Albigensian Crusade, also known as the Crusade Against The Cathars.
This town, Castelnaudary, is the original home, so they claim, of the wonders of “le vrai cassoulet.”
“It is the water,” asserts the brochure. “Only with the water of our springs and streams is the true cassoulet possible!” One asks if it isn’t the confit d’oie (preserved goose) or the duck pieces or the local pork sausage or perhaps the special white beans? No, those things can be found elsewhere, at the next train stop in Bram, in Avignonet down the road, in ancient Toulouse, or in tins and jars of unknown provenance all over France (although Castelnaudary is believed to can millions of portions each year in its factories). People also make their own with what they can buy at the market or, heaven help us, at the supermarket.
So we must accept in the end that it is the water that makes the difference. I wonder how much a bucket of the water would cost…
To verify and keep strong the tradition, a cassoulet competition and festival is held each year during the last weekend in August, run by the Grande Confrerie (The Great Brotherhood…and Sisterhood, of course) du Cassoulet de Castelnaudary and the Department of the Aude. Along with massed feedings to up to 50,000 devotees, a 10-kilometer run, and the singing of the Hymne de Cassoulet, the attendees are witness to the Procession.
Competitors, who must be members of the Confrerie, parade through restaurants and kitchens in their long cassoulet-colored gold and brown robes, wearing the hat of the cassole (yes, a casserole-shaped hat with bubbling cloth beans and sauce represented on top). They assemble along with diners and tourists in the town square replacing the pastis drinkers and petanque players for these few summer days at least.
You would do well to time your visit to attend the fair, but the town is delightful any day of the year and the place to savor the delightful vrai cassoulet. Tens of restaurants claim to be the oldest or the most visited by locals or the most beautiful or the most cordial or the best of all. I’ve frequented several and have never been disappointed. I cannot say the same about the cassoulet in nearby Carcassonne in the tourist zone.
From this marvelous peasant food has followed the casserole, the oven-to-table hot dish. Linguists might be able to follow cassoulet through French, Catalan, and Spanish to the cazuela, also a bean stew but with red beans in a casserole pot with sausage and meat. Way back, could the cazuela have become the cassoulet? Blasphemy!
Living in Colombia, as I do now, I can buy imported cassoulet from France in tins or jars…and I can also enjoy the wonderful cazuela de frijoles available throughout Latin America in one of many incarnations, spicy to mild, but always delicious simple food with a great tradition.
In France, I stick to the cassoulet from Castelnaudary.
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