I found the centre of Carcassone without too much fuss, parked in a nice underground facility and walked about for a bit. There were the usual narrow lanes, the usual medieval buildings, the usual largish church. I found a nice fountain to photograph and a bar full of locals to have a coffee in. I was, to tell you the truth, a little bit disappointed; nothing here seemed worth the millions any more than a hundred other European towns. It was all a bit puzzling. I settled down with a coffee and set out to write an article on technology for a magazine. Wait and see, maybe Cinderella would appear at noon and start dancing, or something.
Next door was a brasserie where I, like all the others in the bar seemed to go for lunch, so I did too. And dutifully ordered what I had been told was THE thing to have - cassoulet. I thought the waitress gave the faintest of shrugs, but I stuck to my guns and eventually a large pot of the stuff did indeed grace my table. I knew it to be a white bean stew, and indeed that is what came, covered with breadcrumbs and baked to a crust. Inside was a leg of duck, a sausage and a piece of pork. I dutifully dug in, and discovered that I had stumbled upon the rarest of French experiences - a boring meal.
It was amazing how dull the cassoulet was. The right ingredients were all in - beans, duck leg, sausage, fatty chunk of pork rib - only the excitement had been left out. This was the top of the line version; you can get one sans confit - no duck, no sausage, I wonder why that exists at all. If anything it reminded me of discount cans of chilli-con-carne from an American supermarket - lots of promise on the label, bland, sweet and unending once you start.
This was turning out to be a bit of a strange day; neither sights nor tastes seem to have gone the way I expected. Scratching my head, I turned to Wikipedia for help, and was immediately informed that the town is, in fact, not the Carcassone I had come to see. That was a fort outside the city, a monstrosity of towers and walls that I had somehow failed to see on the way in. Armed with this insight, I made short work of locating it, and spent the rest of the afternoon walking the ramparts.
There is no myth in the million-tourist story; even the chilly depths of a cold wave on a Monday in October had not kept the hordes out. After days of having places pretty much to myself, I was finally faced with competition for views, photo angles, restrooms. The castle was quite worth the effort, thoug - very imposing, massive even by Indian standards and extremely well preserved. Unlike other places I had seen in France, Carcassone was a true monument - no one actually lived in the castle any more. It was full of restaurants, patissiers, cholocatiers, creperies, trinket shops...and lots of cassoulet.
This struck me first as odd, then increasingly as very wierd. For something I had just compared to gloop in a can, the French seemed to take it very seriously. Cassoulet seemed a bit of religion here; every other eatery advertised it prominently, indeed made quite a fuss about how great their version was. Whole restaurants where pegging their reputations on cassoulet, advertising awards for cassoulet, even displaying a route cassoulet (which seemed to imply pilgrimages of the stuff). Either the French had visited mickey mouse once too often or, again, I was missing something.
One word that seemed repeatedly to attach itself to cassoulet was Castelnaudary. I first thought it was something to do with the castle (an impression helped along by the innumerable signs for the stuff inside the castle) but I was wrong. It was, the road signs told me, actually a town - and obviously cassoulet from there was a really big deal because even the road sign showed a steaming bowl. Where other towns had drawings of churches, castles or mountains, Castelnaudary was firmly about the stew. Curious about the fame of the stuff, I steered off the highway and was immediately greeted by a McDonalds fighting with not one but two huge cassoulet signs - you certainly could not mistake the belle of the ball here. Six or seven more signs (and many promises of traditionelle later) I was in the centre of town. The shortest of walks from the parking lot got me to Maison du Cassoulet (cuisine de bistrot & specialites, six branches nearby).
This time, the dish did redeem itself. Still beans, leg of duck, sausage and fatty pork rib but this was not sweet, tasteless gloop. And everyone, including the people reading French newspapers and rolling the merci effortlessly off the tongue was ordering it (six of the nine people at that restaurant certainly, in what seemed the only open place in town). Unlike the mush I had previously been subjected to, these beans had some actual flavour. It wasn't sweet, it wasn't gluey, it was, in fact, quite nice.
Here's my verdict on the matter - yes it is indeed quite nice. The beans are soft, whole tiny bites infused generously with flavour. The duck and the pork, soaking in starch, are juicy, and melting. When in Castelnaudary there is absolutely no reason not to order it again. If the cassoulet were to tap me on the shoulder and say hello, I would greet it warmly - I would not, however, be standing under any windows hoping for a glimpse.
My target for the day was a tour through Alsace ending at tomorrow's target - Burgundy. Three of France's officially prettiest villages were on the list, but I greatly underestimated travel times in my quest to avoid highways. The drives were unquestionably more scenic, but also took forever. What with delays at St. Avold and the non-cancel reservation in Burgundy, I ended up with less time than I thought. It was going to have to be only one village; I chose Eguisheim, the centre of the Alsace wine trail.
But first, of course, was the serious business of lunch. I stopped at a village that happened to pass by around noon, with the somewhat improbable name of Puttelange-aux-Lacs. Between munches on an amazing baba au rum I asked the local patissiere what my lunch options were, and thus found my way to Chez Pierette.
It turned out to be just what the doctor ordered - a bright, cheerful cafe filled with locals (in any case, this is not tourist season so few people other than locals are around). The people were cheerfully tolerant of my inability to speak anything resembling French; the waitress gave me plenty of advice that I failed completely to understand. I went with seafood salad (how can that go wrong in the corner of France furthest from the sea) and the lapin (which I knew to be rabbit) in what turned out to be a roulade.
Two perfect mini gooey chocolate cakes followed, whipped cream on one end, vanilla ice cream on the other.
Pierette was a lively, friendly cafe bustling with locals who all knew the bartender and flirted with the sole waitress. Few people looked at the menu. The food, as I had been told to expect, was very nice - fresh enough to be alive, filling, tasty and comfortable stuff I could eat every day. Some simple touches - a kind of grated marinated carrot in the seafood salad, for instance - were unexpectedly lovely. Also, I love rabbit, and hardly ever see it on menus in India.
Wines and beers were everywhere but scared by all that ethylotesting, I stuck to that other French drinks - sparkling water.
I had planned for three villages, but time eventually forced me to choose only one, and I chose the one closest to my exit route to Burgundy. The chosen one - Eguisheim - was indeed devastatingly pretty. Half-timbered houses painted the colours of a pastel rainbow, standing slightly crookedly along narrow, winding cobblestone streets; It was as advertised, a fairytale museum-piece of a medieval town. Indeed, I should have planned for much more time in Alsace - it was just deliciously picture perfect.
Though the village had no shortage of wineries offering tastings, ethyloscared me left the wines alone with great regret. Indeed, the place was a gastronomic disaster; I arrived too late for lunch and way too early for dinner. Alsacce specialiten boards abounded, only to point to closed doors. The only thing I did manage were some regional sausages and a reasonably unexciting local variant of brioche made with almonds and raisins. Even the quiche lorraine was sold out.
Dinner was a long drive back west, to Burgundy. I had chosen, somewhat at random, a two-coquette Hotel-restaurant de La Paix in Tournos fronted by chef David Gider. I must admit I had no idea what two coquettes meant, but figured two was better than one and certainly better than none at all. I was not disappointed. Starting with the aperitif, a local drink with fizz and peaches, a four course tale of an amazing the prix-fixe dinner unfolded.
I spent a bit of time debating the first course. There was chicken, rabbit choices, but snails were apparently **the** thing in Burgundy; I finally went with the snails - and immediately regretted it. I've had snails a few times before and never quite got the point of them. To me they've always felt like an excuse to lap up loads of garlic butter than anything of intrinsic merit. They do, however, have tick-mark value. Nothing was wrong with the dish tonight, tender snails drowned in liquid herb-garlic butter as good as I've had anywhere, so I dutifully ticked.
The wine, of course, was a burgundy. The waitress suggested a demi of Ruilly 2010, grown not more than fifty kilometres away; it was indeed a lovely wine.
Second course was duck breast with raisins, white beans and mushrooms in a local Ratafia wine sauce. The dish made me weep with joy, bless the French and sing praises of the wine gods. The tender, juicy duck with a thin, crisped skin combined with the sharply sweet raisins and the soft, buttery beans in wonderful ways. I marvelled over how even the beans, usually classified with something such as humble or tender, were in this dish worth the effort. In short - before adjective overload happens - it was very very good.
The cheese course came in the form of fromage blanc - a fresh white cheese that people in these parts are very fond of; sprinkle a generous dollop of sugar on it and off you go. It tasted very like a childhood favourite of mine - fresh homemade paneer, similarly eaten with sprinkled sugar. This was a creamier, fancier version, and I loved it. Dessert was the final thing on the menu - a souffle made from some local liquor. I expected an airy cheesy thing; what landed up seemed identical to ice-cream with a strong liquor flavour.
I'm still dreaming of the duck.
A windmill, flaming trees, some bucolic cows and a long drive later, I rest on a bed at at the edge of France.
Landhaus Warndtwald happens to be chosen for no particular reason other than it matched the price and distance criteria I had set, but the region seems of some interest. Apparently the Saar tossed back and forth between France and Germany multiple times, even being an independent country for bit before finally settling into German hands. It's known for, of all things, potatoes; Dibbelappes (potato hash) and gefillte (potato dumplings) are apparently the hot local things to have - we shall see what they make of it tomorrow before venturing into some of France's most picturesque villages (there are three nearby). One of them will feed me lunch.
Here I am, in Amsterdam, preparing to run half a marathon so eating myself silly is not one of the options on the table. I did, however, begin the day with a pate and hazelnut sandwich out of a grocery store that got me thinking about how great bread, great meats and great cheeses give Europeans an unfair advantage on the sandwich front. Even a supermarket counter managed to impress a fussy foodie.
My first real bite of Dutch came at an airy, stylish modern Fitch & Shui Brasserie. All glass and metal tube, it offered on its menu an intriguing option - Hollands bitterballen. Since it was the only certified authentic dutch item on the menu (the others had names like Tallegio and tonno plastered all over) I had little choice but to order it. The waitress tried, with very limited success to explain what it was; all I gathered was that it was very good. And here's what landed up.
Bitterballen, it seems is the thing that foodies dream of in their dreams - popular in Holland but rarely found anywhere that Dutchmen fear to tread. With a crunchy shell hiding a squishy innard with bits of meat, it is indeed quite nice. Not I-want-to-get-on-the-next-plane nice, but certainly nice enough to be my first Dutch treat.