Not’s Pots

You may have read the post about my visit to Castelnaudary a couple of weeks ago – if not, you can find it here.  One of the friends who came to Castelnaudary with me is a potter.  For years I had been wanting to visit a rather mythical pottery not far from Castelnaudary, so that day was the day!!  After our lovely lunch, we left Castelnaudary in the direction of Mas-Saintes-Puelles, a small village west of Castelnaudary.  We crossed over the Canal du Midi, then we crossed under the A61 motorway, and finally we arrived in Mas-Saintes Puelles.  We had come to visit Poterie Not Freres, but except for the village I had no address.  The pottery is rather well-known: as we arrived in the village we saw a signpost for the pottery, followed by a second one a little further down the road.  The signs put us on a road which left the village, and went, seemingly, into the middle of nowhere.  We crossed under the motorway again, and then over some railway tracks.  Our excitement grew when we spotted a fairly squat and sturdy brick chimney in the distance – we were on the right road after all!!  Finally we arrived at Poterie Not Freres!  The pottery is right by the Canal du Midi and very close to a lock.

Our arrival was not long after the end of the lunch break, and except for one other couple we were the only ones there.  To step inside the workshop was to step back in time – a time when there were no plastic containers or non-stick pans, and when people would use their pottery dishes every day.

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Behind that open door lies a room which is dominated by the enormous wood fired kiln, which has a capacity of 40 cubic metres!  Just that morning, the kiln had been emptied, after cooling down for three weeks.  It would have been wonderful to see all the pots being taken out!  In the picture below you can just see the doorway into the kiln and the hood, hanging down in the centre of the pictures, is above the fire pit.

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All around us, pots were stacked up to dry.

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These were all garden pots, more or less ready to be loaded into the kiln for the last firing before the summer.  It takes great skill to load such a wood fired kiln – a large part of the success of the entire operation depends on it.  The kiln is fired for 36 hours using only wood, to reach a temperature of over 1000 degrees.  The fire-box is then walled up and the kiln left to cool.  Here is what the pots look like once they are finished:

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The garden pots only form a small part of the output though. All in all, the pottery produces around 500 different models of pots, and 80% of the production consists of cassoles, the traditional dish in which cassoulet is cooked, and from which the name cassoulet derives.  Here’s a look at some of the wares for sale:

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The finished garden pots are impressively stacked outside.  The visitor season had not yet started at the time of our visit, so the pots were stacked high.  By the end of the summer most of the pots will have been sold.

I was particularly intrigued by this pot, which had holes in it and a lid on top.  It took a little while before the penny dropped.

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It’s a snail pot!  Of course, the snail on it was a give-away! 🙂  The snails are collected and put in the pot.  The lid stops the snails from escaping and they have air while they purge, before being cooked.  They are supposed to be delicious…

Back inside there were pots everywhere.  In a corner were some old-fashioned money boxes, the kind which have to be smashed to get at the stash!  I like that idea!! 😉

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Eventually we got to the workroom with the potters’ wheels, where the action was just about to begin.  The pottery by the Canal du Midi at Mas-Saintes-Puelles was started by the Perrutel family in the 19th century.  In 1947 Emile Not took over the pottery in partnership with his brother-in-law, Francois Gleizes.  Emile Not’s two sons started to work in the pottery when they were old enough, and today the third generation is also working at the wheels.  The work area has changed very little over time.  There are four wheels, each with a window in front of it.

Clay is brought in on a sack cart – each block weighing 20 kilos.  With the help of a wire, the block is sliced into smaller pieces, and then the clay is turned on the wheel into whatever shape the potter is making.  I took a few videos for you to watch – probably easier than trying to explain the process (e-mail subscribers, please visit the website to view the videos):

I have also found two videos in French, which give a good idea of the whole manufacturing process.  The second video shows the firing of the large wood fired kiln:

The big kiln is used almost exclusively for the garden pots; for the other items there are two gas fired kilns, which are fired on alternate days.  This is hard, physical work, and whilst some of the work is the same day in day out, no two pots are ever identical.

The clay is prepared in the yard behind the workshops.  The fact that there is a clay seam just outside the door, must have determined the location of the pottery.  The clay extracted here is of a beige colour;  a red clay is extracted at another quarry at Issels, not far away.  The clay is left to dry on a concrete slab in the yard, and once dry it is broken up with steel rollers. before being milled to a fine powder.  The clay powder is then mixed in various proportions with grog, depending on what kind of pots are being made.

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This basic clay mix is then put into a machine which is definitely from the early 20th century.

Great big teeth work away at the clay inside the machine, mixing and kneading it, to make it supple and pliable.  Great big lumps of it drop from the mixer into the next machine, a pug mill, which compacts the clay and removes as much air as possible.  The pug mill extrudes the clay in a long block, which is then cut with a wire cutter.  The resulting 20 kilo blocks are loaded into a wheelbarrow and transported to the store-room next door.  This process happens every other day, and thousands of kilos of clay are prepared this way each year.  Here are two more videos for you:

The pottery produced by Poterie Not Freres has a very honest, down-to-earth feel to it.  There is nothing fancy whatsoever about the pots.  You could call it rustic, coarse or even crude, but it has a goodness that will improve with use and age.  I was tempted by many things, but in the end I came away with a small, round, yellow gratin dish, which is delightful to use.

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I leave you with the opening times of the pottery.  You should visit this place if you have even the slightest interest in potteryl!  Be warned though, it is very tempting to come away with more than you can take home :)!!

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Cassoulet in Castelnaudary

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:

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Once we had wended our way down the hill and around a few corners, we finally stood at the water’s edge:

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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.

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The restaurant was busy, the decor pretty modern and the seats comfortable.

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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.

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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. 🙂

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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!!

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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!

Centennial Celebrations!

When I posted last week’s article about the Canal du Midi, WordPress told me – much to my amazement – that I had published my 99th post!  Which makes this the 100th post on this blog – and a centenary calls for a celebration!!

But first of all, my thanks to everyone who has been reading, liking and commenting, to my partner for his unwavering support, and to Annie for her dedicated proof-reading!!  It’s been highly enjoyable for me and I hope you’ve enjoyed it too!  I love reading your comments and if there’s anything you would like me to write about then please let me know!

Now, how about celebrating with some Cassoulet??  It’s a typical winter dish from the Languedoc, and it is very special!  According to some sources, making a “proper” Cassoulet takes three days, and I can well believe it.  We’ll have our Cassoulet at  L’Auberge de l’Ecole in Saint Jean de Minervois – Brigitte makes her Cassoulet the way her grandmother taught her, and it is delicious, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it!

L’Auberge de l’Ecole is in the former schoolhouse of St Jean de Minervois, and we’ll find the menu written on an old blackboard, which can be tilted in the direction of our table.  The fireplace at the other end of the room is great for cooking a steak or lamb chop on, and the fire is always a cheery sight on a cool day!

Before we start our meal, here is Brigitte’s recipe for Cassoulet:  she starts by soaking the beans in water overnight, with a pinch of baking soda.  The following day she rinses the beans well, brings a pot of water to a boil and adds the beans.  She then lets the water come to a boil again, drains the beans; brings fresh water to a boil and adds the beans again; she repeats this once more, then simmers the beans until tender.

Brigitte also makes her own confit de canard, pieces of duck simmered slowly in duck fat.  It is an interesting process, but unless you can buy fat ducks readily it’s best to buy your confit ready-made, in a tin.

Once the beans are cooked and the confit ready, Brigitte assembles the Cassoulet:  in a large casserole she slowly cooks chopped onions in duck fat until they are golden but not browned.  To the onion she adds some tomato paste, garlic, herbes de provence, lardons (diced streaky bacon) and the cooked beans.  Brigitte then seasons this and leaves it to simmer until the beans are impregnated with the flavours;  halfway through the cooking time she adds the pieces of confit – as the confit is already cooked she doesn’t want it to get cooked to the point of disintegrating. Before serving, she puts the Cassoulet in a nice gratin dish, sprinkles it with breadcrumbs and grills it until the top is crisp and golden.

So there you have it – this is Brigitte’s recipe!  One thing Brigitte seems to have left out is the sausage!! I know that whenever I have her Cassoulet, there is always a nice piece of Toulouse sausage in it, in addition to the confit.

But now you’ve been salivating long enough – it’s time to sit down and eat – à table!!  What shall we have as a starter before our Cassoulet?  How about some starters to share?  A platter of boudin noir (black pudding) with apples, and some foie gras (this one made with duck liver) – both very delicious!

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And now for the Cassoulet – one dish per person!!

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Will you have room for dessert?  In case you do here is some home-made pear tart.

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If you had eaten all that food you would certainly not want anything for dinner tonight, but seeing that this has been a virtual lunch you might be more hungry than ever?!  All the same, I hope you’ve enjoyed our little celebration!!  Thanks for coming along and à bientôt, I hope.

If you’d like to spend more time in St Jean de Minervois have a look at www.midihideaways.com/anciencafe

Carcassonne and Cassoulet

It’s been some time since I’ve been to La Cité in Carcassonne, I probably got a bit “Carcassonned-out” during the first few years, visiting with most of family and friends who came to stay.  So when I took family back to the airport at Carcassonne I decided to give it another go.  It was as beautiful as ever, and as you can see from the pictures the skies had that bright blue quality which is almost unreal.

The car park at the top, nearest the Porte Narbonnaise, appeared to be closed for works, but I’d managed to park further down the road, just across from this gorgeous timber-framed building, and the stroll up the hill just makes the ramparts that more impressive.  It was about 10.30am and the crowds were thronging already – it was French half term.

A little history about Carcassonne: the current fortress was built over an earlier Roman building and was besieged by Simon de Montfort during the Cathar crusades, and eventually taken in 1209.  That was because the Viscount of Toulouse, Raymond de Trencavel, was sheltering Cathars and refused to hand them over – something had to be done about that!.  The “new town” below La Cité was re-built as a bastide on the orders of Saint Louis in 1247, and then burnt down again by the black prince in 1355.  The fortress was a stronghold along the Franco-Spanish border until the treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659, when it lost its importance.  Economically, the chief commerce of Carcassonne was for centuries the production of woollen cloth. That market collapsed around 1780, but economic life of the town got a boost during the 19th century with new industries and wine growing.

Back to present day Carcassonne though.  Once inside La Cité I took the street up to the Chateau Comtal and the inner ramparts.  I’d been told that the visit of the Chateau included access to the top of the walls now, but once inside the courtyard I quickly abandoned the idea – the queues were just too long.  I will go back some time when it’s not so busy to try that experience.

Instead I took the street to the left of the Chateau, and wandered down to the Porte d’Aude which gives access to the moat between the two rings of fortification.  Today the moat is all flat and dry 😉 and a great way to experience the sheer size of the fortifications.  There are also great views out over the Aude river and the Bastide St Louis.

Close to the Basilica Saint Nazaire there was another way into La Cité which might have been added later for the comfort of the more modern inhabitants – but I may be wrong.

Walking through the narrow streets I came to a square (Place Marcou) which was lined with restaurants pretty much all round, a bit like the food court you would find in a shopping mall, only outdoors and with a medieval feel to it.  I decided on La Bonne Demeure, mostly because it had tables in the sun and had an OK lunch.  I guess pretty much all the restaurants in Carcassonne will be serving average food, there’s just too much temptation to economise, too many customers and only so much in the way of competition.  Don’t be put off though, the food and service were prefectly OK, and I’m sure there are exceptions.  I’m going to look for those on my next visit.  And if you visit Carcassonne, don’t forget the “new” town below La Cité – it’s well worth a visit and almost as old!  What am I writing – if you visit Carcassonne?  No, it should be when you visit Carcassonne!!

Cassoulet is one of those dishes which has a long tradition in the area, and Castelnaudary claims the authentic recipe along with a host of other towns and villages.  When it comes to it though authenticity is not my yardstick – I rate a cassoulet by the way I enjoy it, and there’s one which I’ve enjoyed over and over:  Brigitte’s at the Auberge de l’Ecole in Saint Jean de Minervois.

I went with a group of people not long ago, and Brigitte had prepared a simple menu around the cassoulet for us all.  A simple salad of mixed leaves and goats cheese with pesto to start with, and Dame Blanche for dessert – ice cream with chocolate sauce.  For the couple of non-meat eaters in our group she’d prepared some salmon filet with a potato cake, but the cassoulet was just divine, brought to the table bubbling and fragrant!  Perhaps one of these days I may be able to persuade Brigitte to teach me how to make her version of Cassoulet…?

And here’s the gallery of all pictures in this post along with a lot which I’ve not inserted between the text – hope you enjoy this visit!