A recent visit by friends prompted an outing to Castelnaudary, a market town between Carcassonne and Toulouse. You might have come across the name of the town in connection with cassoulet, which is undoubtedly the region’s most famous dish. Castelnaudary is the capital of the Lauragais region, an area which has been called the granary of the Languedoc, because of its large output of wheat, maize and other cereals.
History was made in Castelnaudary when the Canal du Midi was inaugurated here in 1681. The town elders had the good sense to pay to have the canal come right to the town. Pierre Paul Riquet built the Grand Bassin below the town walls, an expanse of water 7 hectares large – that’s 70,000 square metres or 17 acres!! It is the only man-made lake of its kind on the whole Canal du Midi, and it was important for the economic development of Castelnaudary in the 17th century. Today the Grand Bassin is a pleasure port.
Before I get carried away with the history of the town, I’ll just state that we had come to Castelnaudary to eat cassoulet. We found a space to park the car on Place de la Republique, and went straight to the tourist office, which is located in one corner of that same square. The staff there were very friendly and helpful, supplying us with maps and brochures. They also encouraged us to take the historical walk through the town. I had looked up a number of restaurants before we set off for Castelnaudary, and asked for their advice as to where we could eat the best cassoulet. Very diplomatically they confirmed that the two restaurants I had short-listed served very good cassoulet 🙂
It was still early enough, so we went on the walk to discover the town. Our first stop was on Place de Verdun. We couldn’t miss the market halls, which occupied centre stage on the square.
To one side of the market halls was a tall building, with an incredibly ornate facade. The brochure explained that this used to be the Grand Bazar, an offshoot of one of the first large department stores in Paris, the Bazar de l’Hotel de Ville. The Castelnaudary store was built in 1874, and whoever designed the facade certainly had fun!!
Our walk took us past many splendid buildings, witnesses of the riches which Castelnaudary had in a bygone age. Of course there were also door knockers – wouldn’t you know that I just couldn’t resist them? 🙂
The mansion below is called the Hotel Latapie, and it is one of the most beautiful 17th century houses in town. Today it is a listed building, and it belongs to the municipality. The postman obligingly shifted his van so I could get a better picture of the amazing door. 🙂
More beautiful buildings followed:
We reached a spot where we had a good view towards the Grand Bassin:
Once we had wended our way down the hill and around a few corners, we finally stood at the water’s edge:
We walked along the water to the Pont Vieux, the old bridge, passing a charming cottage, and the remains of an old mill. When we got to the bridge we got a good view of the Petit Bassin on the other side of the bridge.
A lot more architectural detail on the way to one of the restaurants on my list. I hope I am not boring you, I just love all those wonderful buildings!
The restaurant, La Belle Epoque, looked nice enough, with tablecloths and napkins – almost too classy for a cassoulet restaurant. What made us decide against it? There were hardly any guests inside, and from the outside it looked a little too starchy. Perhaps we were totally wrong. I will give it a try on my next visit, and I’ll let you know what it was like, I promise!
So we headed back towards the Place de la Republique. La Maison du Cassoulet, the other restaurant on my short-list is just to one side of it, right next door to the town hall.
The restaurant was busy, the decor pretty modern and the seats comfortable.
The place mats had a recipe for cassoulet printed on them – perhaps the one they use in the restaurant? The waiter was kind of intimidating, so I didn’t bother to ask.
We all opted for the cassoulet menu, which was simple: cassoulet plus a light salad for main course, and a choice of desserts; no starter! Just after we had ordered we saw that the people at the table next door had some delicious looking French fries served to them. We asked our waiter if we could have a portion. What a faux pas!! There was no way he was going to let us have fries! Did we know that there were beans in the cassoulet? Did we not know that cassoulet certainly did not need fries as an accompaniment? Head shaking in disbelief, eyes rolling – I told you he was kind of intimidating… Maybe it was too early in the season, and he wasn’t yet used to tourists asking for strange things. 🙂
However, the cassoulet more than made up for our disappointment over the fries. The beans were beautifully flavoured and perfectly tender, without falling to pieces. I recently read an article where the writer could taste “a bouquet of forests, meadows and succulent meats” in her very first bite of cassoulet. The meats in my cassoulet were certainly succulent, but forests and meadows? Seriously?
The serving was a perfect size. It contained a piece of preserved duck, two kinds of sausage, and a piece of pork, along with the beans. We all managed to finish our portion, and have a little, although it was very little, room for dessert. Mine was a “de-constructed” banoffee pie. Wickedly delicious!!
La Maison du Cassoulet does have its own website here, as well as branches in Carcassonne, Toulouse and Saint-Lary Soulan. I Imagine that it can be busy in the summer months, so a reservation is probably a good idea.
Oh, I almost forgot – on the way out I spotted this:
If you want to have your cassoulet AND eat it (at home), you can buy the tins and a dish to cook it in!