Thursday, September 11, 2014

The best Cassoulet in France

Trip to Aude/ Midi-Pyrénées: Day 10
We can’t leave Toulouse without eating cassoulet, declared Blandine. Toulouse is the home of cassoulet. I wasn’t terribly enthusiastic. Cassoulet is this kind of pasty white bean stew with lots of goose fat, and bits of roast goose and sausage. It is one of those traditional French dishes, like coq-au-vin, which have a hoary history going back into the mists of time. In case of cassoulet, it is a peasant dish from the South of France, used by farm laborers to fuel up in preparation for a grueling day on the field. First invented, I believe, during a siege of some sort, when the defenders of some place or the other invented a dish with whatever was at hand in their beleaguered redoubt. Blandine had sent me a can of it once. It had tasted pasty, glutinous and bland. A bit like eating a can of industrial woodworking glue.

But Blandine’s word is law. I set about researching the best cassoulet joint in Toulouse. They were way beyond our budget. I set about researching the second best. They were all closed. But in the course of my researches, I discovered that Toulouse was not really the home of cassoulet, although that is a common misconception. The real home of cassoulet is a small village called Castelnaudary, about sixty kilometers south-east of Toulouse. I put this to Blandine. Good Grief, she snorted, we can’t go chasing all over the place just for a meal. I shrugged. Cassoulet was anyway not my thing.

But the following morning, as we were gearing up to leave Toulouse, Blandine had another of her mercurial mood changes. This time, she was determined to have cassoulet, and not just any old cassoulet, but the very best. Damn the cost.
Right, back to my researches. I came across an article in Forbes on the Best Cassoulet in France, which means, in effect, the World. Now why, you ask, would I be researching a French dish in France in an American magazine, especially when I can read French pretty well? The reason is quite simple. Articles by food critics give me a faint aching sensation between the ears. This is when they are in English. In French, they are intolerable. Frankly, I detest food critics as a breed or species. Anyone who has read my novels can attest to this. Food critics are always getting murdered in my novels. In the one I am currently writing, three of them meet a sorry end.
Anyhow, here is the article in Forbes by Alexander Lobrano: http://www.forbes.com/forbes-life-magazine/2008/1208/071.html
It seems this chap took advice from his French food critic buddies and came up with a shortlist of the best cassoulet joints in the South of France, and then selected the winner from this shortlist by visiting them personally. So, in effect, by following his article, we were in a way going by the advise of leading French food critics, so that was all right.
Anyhow, this chap claimed the best cassoulet joint in Castelnaudary was a place called Hôtel du Centre et du Lauragais. But hang on. It wasn’t the BEST in FRANCE. Nope, that was another little joint, in an even smaller village twenty kilometers NORTH of Castelnaudary. The village was St-Félix-Lauragais, and the joint went under the name Auberge du Poids Public.
Since we had but one stomach (each), we decided to give our custom to the latter eatery. Ideally, we would have liked to try out both, or even, all five joints on Alexander Lobrano’s shortlist. But we decided we would at least take a look at the second-best cassoulet joint in France, and the official and historic home of cassoulet. In any case, the route from Toulouse to St-Félix-Lauragais passed through Castelnaudary.

Hôtel du Centre et du Lauragais, Castelnaudary

Castelnaudary turned out to be a boring little town, very unprepossessing and suburbish. Cassoulet seems the be-all-and-end-all of this ville. It was lined from end to end with cassoulet joints, some famous, some not so famous, some unknown. Tourist buses crammed with cassoulet tourists lined the largish car park near the town square.
It wasn’t difficult to find Hôtel du Centre et du Lauragais. Everyone seemed to know the place. It was at one end of the town square. I took a couple of pics of the place and their menu board, avoiding the inquiry of the head waiter if we wanted to reserve.



Auberge du Poids Public, St-Félix-Lauragais

And then we hopped back into the car for the short drive to St-Félix-Lauragais. Our mood immediately lifted on getting to this village.
Perched on a hill it was as pretty as a picture. Unlike the bland Castelnaudary, this place had definite character. We noted a chateau and cobbled town square with lovely sixteenth century houses. But by this time wolves were calling out to each other in our stomachs, and we headed straight for the best cassoulet restaurant in the world. Here was our first view of Auberge du Poids Public (To be entirely honest, I took these pics after the meal. I was too hungry to think about pictures on the way in. But it hadn’t changed much, before and after):
 I had noted in the course of my internet research that this was a former Michelin One-Star Restaurant, and the cook-cum-proprietor, Claude Taffarello, a celebrity cook. Michelin had withdrawn the star in 2010, and Chef Claude Taffarello had raised a huge media stink about it, calling into question the Michelin star system. Despite this, I was rather kicked. This would be my first visit to a Michelin-starred restaurant, even if a formerly starred one.
The restaurant was bare when we entered. We were relived. We did not have reservation. We took the best seat in the room: this lovely seat by a window overlooking the open countryside. So open, in fact, that small insects from the field kept coming in at regular intervals throughout our meal. But what the heck, you can’t have authentic open countryside and not have insects.
Actually, this restaurant is one of the major haut cuisine chophouses in the region; it is not merely a cassoulet joint. The head waiter tried to interest us in the haut cuisine menu, but we stuck firmly to our story: cassoulet, cassoulet, and nothing but the cassoulet. We told him we’d read in Forbes that this was the best cassoulet joint in France. He asked us what on earth was a Forbes.
The sommelier offered the wine of the day for my approval. I looked at Blandine panic stricken. Blandine hissed it was the man’s job to approve the wine. I took a sip, rolled it around my tongue, as I’d seen it done in movies, and said it was good. Actually, it tasted a bit like… I dunno… wine?
(Btw., I’ve often thought, is this wine approval business mere formality, an orchestrated ritual? Is one always supposed to smile and nod? I wonder what happens if you go to a chic restaurant, and when the sommelier offers you a wine for approval, you say it stinks? Does the earth cave in and swallow you up?)
The meal opened with this sorbet, which was rather nice. I finished it all at one sitting, before Blandine could tell me you're supposed to make it last through the meal, like wine.
I wanted to take a picture of the interiors, but Blandine hissed it was simply not done in a Michelin-starred restaurant. Like most French people in a haut-cuisine restaurant, Blandine seemed in state of godly awe. I had never seen her like that. Her whole behavior had changed. Her face glowed; her eyes were bright; she spoke in hushed whispers. I found it bizarre. To me, it looked an ok-ish kind of joint. A bit pricy, but that’s about it.
But I insisted I wanted a pic, for my blog. I was willing to ask the waiter for permission. Blandine forbade me from even thinking about it. We came to a compromise. She placed the iPad on the table in such a way as if we were looking at something, put it in selfie mode, and took a shot of me drinking wine. Here I am, guzzling the red stuff. You can see the interiors of the restaurant behind me:

At last, the cassoulet arrived. Ignoring Blandine, I took a shot of it:
I must say, it looked inviting. Not at all like the pasty stuff in the can that Blandine had sent me. Cassoulet, as I said, is fundamentally a bean stew, but not any old bean stew. It is made by simmering ligot beans in goose fat and meats for hours over wood fire in a clay pot. The cassoulet came smoking and bubbling to our table, right out of the oven, in a hot clay bowl. It came wreathed in an appetizing bouquet of smells and colors.
We plunged in. It was as delicious as it looked. The beans were creamy and mildly spiced. The meats were firm and perfectly cooked. There was a riot of tastes, not the uniform gluey taste of the canned version. (By the way, just to clarify, that can that Blandine had sent me had not been ordinary grocery store cassoulet. It had been house-canned cassoulet from a posh restaurant like this one. But I suppose canned food, however up-market, can never match the fresh version).
But boy, was it heavy. It is one of the heaviest dishes I have ever eaten, and coming from a chap from India, the land of heavy dishes, that is really saying something. After a couple of mouthfuls, I felt I had several ounces of lead in my belly. Actually, very few people manage to finish a full dish of cassoulet. It is, after all, a dish for hearty, hardworking medieval peasants. Not for lily-livered city slickers. I doubt even modern European farm workers can finish it off, sitting all day on their butts as they do, on tractors and combine harvesters.
But hey, Blandine was paying 40 euros for that thing, and my frugal Indian ethics wouldn’t let me leave anything on my plate. I was determined to finish it off, if it killed me. And finish it off I did. And not only my portion, but what Blandine heaped on my plate from her dish. And it almost killed me.
That night was a night of horrors, as I writhed in pain on the hotel bed. Blandine was fine. She threw up in the toilet and was able to sleep after that. Forty euros worth of vomit down a hotel toilet.
But back to our binge: while we were still groaning from the cassoulet, the waiter came over with the desserts. The restaurant, you see, very cannily insists that patrons order dessert right at the start. They know no one would order dessert otherwise. Then came the first false note of the day: I had ordered madeleines dipped in chocolate sauce. Blandine had ordered a chocolate millefeuille. Her millefeuille was dry and crackly. My madeleins were bland and tasteless. No, it was nothing to do with the fact we had no appetite left. Blandine complained to the head waiter, who took the desserts back to the kitchen for investigation. He came out some time later with profuse apologies. The pastry cook confirmed he had goofed. They deducted the amount from our bill.
Happy to have our bill shaved a shade, we staggered out of the place. Blandine paused to buy canned cassoulet at the reception – the restaurant also sells house-canned cassoulet. Blandine is a glutton for punishment.
To digest our lunch a bit, and also because the place was so pretty, we spent the next hour strolling around St. Fleix and checking out its chateau and town square. Here are the pics:


 

 
  Here is the chateau of the village:
 

 

 A row of crumbling cottages as you enter the village. Somehow, it looks rather appealing.

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