Monday: Castles and Casseroles

Carcassone, I was told, attracted a million visitors a year so I decided to add myself to the millions and see what all the fuss was about. The day started bright and crisp and the GPS dutifully sent me hurtling towards my destination. Halfway through, I stopped at a nice bright boulangerie and discovered that croque monsieur was even better than previously experienced.

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.



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