Daydreaming About France
We were supposed to go to Scotland and Iceland last spring, but Covid struck and that was the end of the plan. Things are beginning to look a bit more hopeful and I think “Where would I go, if I could get on a plane this year – or next?” and France is always my first thought. My husband and I are hopeless Francophiles – once you catch the bug, you never get over the longing to be in France. We particularly yearn for the Southwest – the Languedoc and the Basque Country. I feel more at home there than anywhere else, unless it’s Ireland. My French isn’t particularly good, but we manage well enough. Bill claims to not speak French, but he can order a beer or pastis with great confidence. One thing that draws us to the region is an obsession with cassoulet, that magnificent stew made of leftovers – pork shoulder, duck, white beans, salt pork, Toulouse sausage, topped off with duck confit and more sausage. Often served with a green salad, which may be topped with crispy duck gizzards, followed by cherry ice cream. A modest, austere little meal.
The best quote about cassoulet is from Julia Child:
"Cassoulet, that best of bean feasts, is everyday fare for a peasant but ambrosia for a gastronome, though its ideal consumer is a 300-pound blocking back who has been splitting firewood nonstop for the last twelve hours on a subzero day in Manitoba.”
(from Julia Child and More Company, by Julia Child, Knopf, 1979)
The great and splendid Fête du Cassoulet is held in Castelnaudary (east of Toulouse) the last week of every August, although it had to cancelled in 2020, a sad loss for everyone in the little town on the Canal du Midi. But maybe this year…The are going to decide in April. We’ve been three times. All the streets close to traffic and the entire town becomes one big cassoulet extravaganza, with outdoor restaurants set up everywhere. All the wine makers are present, from Corbières, Fitou, Malepère. MInervois – you buy a wine glass and saunter around trying all the wines, periodically sitting down for more cassoulet. Of course, with all that wine, you can’t drive and must stay in the town – not that you could ever find a parking place anyway. Fortunately, there’s a nice (not fancy) small family hotel just down the hill across the canal – named appropriately, Le Hotel du Canal (www.hotelducanal.com) - You can roll yourself down to your accommodation late in the evening when the party is starting to break up. You will need your rest for another day of the same.
There is a lot of musical activity of every kind. The first day opens with a parade of regional bands, then come rock concerts (not my thing) and, well, everything you can think of. There is a hilarious float contest on the lake, Le Grand Bassin, that is part of the canal. People dance in the streets, in the spaces between tables and chairs. Not many Americans find their way to this festival and they are welcomed with un accueil chaleureux.
Supposedly, cassoulet was invented by the besieged inhabitants of Castelnaudary during the Wars of Religion in the 16th century. They just took everything they had left and threw it in a big pot and voila, cassoulet!
This is the website if you would like to go – word should be out in a couple of months. www.fete-du-cassoulet.com
Maybe we’ll see you there!
We did a photo book on this part of France a couple of years ago that is available on “Blurb”. The hard copies are expensive, but you can get an electronic copy for just $1.99 if you are willing to navigate the Blurb web site: