The Cassoulet Affair
Our day continued and turned into one of those glorious, golden afternoons. Everywhere in the rolling countryside there were perfectly harvested yellow and silver fields that had been clipped short of their summer bounty. Off in the distance on hilltop after hilltop sat little towns with church spires pointing skyward. The sky was a deep sweeping blue that carried in it the occasional wispy mare's tail. As the sun began to fade into evening we arrived through the back door of Castelnaudary, autumn shadows grew longer. There was a gentle warmth to the evening.
We cycled through town searching for a cheap hotel and in shop after shop and in every restaurant window we saw signs advertising cassoulet. It soon became clear that if cassoulet is king in this southwestern corner of France, then in Castelnaudary it has reached a kind of higher majesty. When we went to the tourist office to get a map of the city, I joked with the fellow behind the counter, "So, is this a good town for cassoulet?"
"Of course" he replied, "Castelnaudary is the Capital of cassoulet.
Put very simply, cassoulet is a baked bean dish that's cooked with a variety of meats; usually sausage, confit du canard (preserved duck leg), pork and sometimes lamb. Having said that, I realize that when I say "baked bean" it might be misleading. I don't mean it to be. Let's be absolutely clear. Cassoulet has nothing what so ever to do with the sweet molasses taste of "Libby's Deep Browned". It's something quite different.
I've eaten cassoulet in other areas of France and I know that cassoulet is made in a variety of different ways. Depending on the cook, the locale, what ingredients are available locally and so on, one cassoulet is often quite different from another. But for all the differences, there's also a certain basic unifying factor. A certain simplicity. The taste of good beans cooked with good meat. However, there was one difference that I had yet to experience. I'd read somewhere that in the areas south of Toulouse cassoulet is usually served with a crust of bread crumbs on top. I'd never eaten cassoulet served with a crust. I was intrigued.
Wherever we stop for the night we spend part of our evening asking the locals to recommend the best places to eat. Our inquiries usually follow a pattern. We start by asking a butcher. Our reason? More than anyone else a butcher is likely to know about the quality of meat served in a local restaurant. Then we ask the owners of a variety of small food shops and finally, armed with a number of recommendations, we go and look at a few restaurants.
On this particular evening we began our search just after sun down. We wanted a restaurant that served the best cassoulet. Keeping in mind what what we'd read about the crust of breasd crumbs, everywhere we went we also asked the question, "Does the cassoulet here in town have a crust of bread crumbs on top?" Everywhere we would receive the same horrified answer, "No absoloutely not." It was puzzling.
With few exceptions the people we asked seemed to feel that there were two "bests" to choose from. One was the big hotel in town on the main road the other was the much smaller and simpler; Auberge Le petit Gazouillis, 5 Rue de L'arcade, 11400 Castelnaudary. We chose the later mainly because we prefer smaller, simpler places. We went over to have a look at the restaurant. It was closed but would open later at 7:30 pm.
It was Saturday night and when we walked in, the restaurant was full of locals. The guy who ran the place wasn't that happy to see us, I thought. He was kind of a tough customer, not officious - just tough, country tough if you know what I mean? (Okay...I admit we look like tourists and travelling by bicycle from town to town doesn't lend itself to carrying a large wardrobe of clothes so I sometimes look a little scruffy. Also, our French has a real Toronto twang.) However, he seemed to warm up when we mentioned that we had asked around and that many had recommended his restaurant as the best, but he still wasn't what you'd call friendly.
He seated us next to a couple of local folks who eat there all the time. They were eating very rare (almost blue) breast of duck and frites. The couple became quite friendly and recommended one of the local red wines as being the best bet to have with our meal of cassoulet. (Later on we even traded glasses of wine with them, because they had ordered something different for their duck and they wanted us to try another of the local specialties.)
We each ordered a Prix Fix menu for FF100 (about $28.00 cdn). For this we would get, in addition to cassoulet and dessert , a starter of warm salad that consisted of leaf lettuce, smoked duck and geziers (chicken gizzards) . Now, we've eaten geziers in salad before and don't really care for them. When I asked if we could have the salad without geziers the tough guy raised his eyebrows in surprise. "You don't like geziers?" he said in French. It was more statement than question. I replied that we didn't. "You're wrong," he said. Just like that. No ceremony. No pulling the punch. No shaving off the sharp edge, just, "You're wrong." I got a little pissed off at this point, but didn't say anything. Something told me to hold off. I think I reasoned that he wasn't really talking down to us, he was just someone who obviously took great pride in what he served and didn't give a rat's ass for anybody else's opinion. He knew what was best. So, instead of getting angry I changed my order to have my salad with geziers. And you know what? He was right. I've never eaten such good salad. If I were ever to go back there, I'd eat geziers again.
The cassoulet? It was truly a once in a lifetime experience. (Unless you frequent Castelnaudary that is.) I've eaten dozens of cassoulets by now and I've never had one like this. It must have been cooked in a smoky wood fire oven because - I'm not exaggerating when I say this - it tasted like the best, richest, most tender, smoky charcoal grilled steak I'd ever had. The beans were soft and white and creamy and perfectly cooked. The confit du canard (preserved duck leg) was soft and falling off the bone. In the dish there was also sausage and a good piece of wonderfully succulent, soft confit du porc (preserved pork). (Hey! Throw away that knife. You don't need it here!) There seemed to be little in the way of herbs or other spices, it just had the pure honest taste of its ingredients. None of the meat was smoked, so the smoky flavour didn't come from anything but the method of cooking. The cassoulet was served in individual serving dishes and it had a crust - but *not* of bread crumbs. It had just been slightly charred on top when it was cooked, that's all. No crumbs.
When we were finished our dinner we brought all this to the attention of this tough guy who was looking after us. I talked about having never had such a rich, smoky, complex cassoulet before. "How did you achieve it?" I asked. He smiled and replied that it was all a big secret. But by now he knew he was looking after people who really cared about their food. He was a happy guy by the time we left (or at least as happy as he could be...). We told him that his cassoulet was the best we'd ever had. He smiled and nodded; he knew that already.
I took this picture of Cassoulet in a food shop the next day. The shop was run by a lady who highly recommended our restaurant the night before. When I asked her if any of her cassoulets had lamb in them she answered, "No, that's Toulouse."
The picture (click on the photo to see an enlargement) shows 4 pots of cassoulet -one with pork, one with duck, one with sausage and one with all three. Just behind the cassoulet are vacuum-packed bags of boneless duck breast. They look more like steaks, but it's duck alright.
© tph 1998, 1999, 2004
Toronto Ontario Canada