The dish made in heaven

The people of the Languedoc are fiercely proud of their famous contribution to French cuisine. Ray Kershaw puts his taste buds, and his stomach, to the test in search of the perfect cassoulet
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The Independent Travel

Confronting my third cassoulet, visceral misgivings begin to stir: how many dare a mortal brave within a week? This quest was not for the faint-hearted. But as I break the fragrant crust of chef Campigiotto's - membre d'honneur of the Grande Confrèrie du Cassoulet de Castelnaudary - my now-seasoned olfactories discern that this is not half bad.

Confronting my third cassoulet, visceral misgivings begin to stir: how many dare a mortal brave within a week? This quest was not for the faint-hearted. But as I break the fragrant crust of chef Campigiotto's - membre d'honneur of the Grande Confrèrie du Cassoulet de Castelnaudary - my now-seasoned olfactories discern that this is not half bad.

The robust bean-based casserole, packed with goose or duck, sausages and pork, is south-west France's quintessential hot dinner. With slight genetic variations, its native habitat extends along a corridor between Toulouse and Carcassonne. Midway between the two lies Castelnaudary, the self-proclaimed Cassoulet World Capital that thrives on the legend of its 14th-century genesis.

Castelnaudary was besieged by the English during the Hundred Years War, and the desperate locals combined their larder leftovers into a fortifying supper for their starving defenders. The Black Prince triumphed anyway, demolishing the castle, but the cassoulet lived on.

Toulouse and Carcassonne boast their own versions, and along with Castelnaudary the three are collectively revered as the blessed trinity: Toulouse the Holy Ghost, Carcassonne the Son; but the undisputed Father is Castelnaudary.

Insouciantly omitted from the ranks of France's loveliest towns, Castelnaudary goes about its business with a down-to-earth vitality, its life centred on a market square lined with cafés. Cassoulet-fixated, every restaurant menu is a paean to its joys, lending literal meaning to the term "full of beans".

Relaxingly short on feet-tiring sights, the town rambles down from its landmark ancient windmill to the lake-sized Grand Bassin of the Canal du Midi, the 240km-long link between the Atlantic and Mediterranean. Among the 17th-century's greatest engineering feats, the tree-shaded canal is today Castelnaudary's star supporting attraction. Cabin cruisers can be rented, but, lacking nautical ambition, after lunch we embark on a digestive promenade en bateau on the pleasure boat St Roch.

It is not only the restaurants of Castelnaudary that exhale cassoulet aromas. The dish is France's favourite takeaway, and the town's factories produce one million tins of it every week - a quarter of all the tinned meals sold in France. This, too, is stuff worth eating.

At the Fermiers d'Ocs, a gleaming emporium run by local farmers, we stock up with tins and beans to make our own. With its heady cornucopia of regional comestibles - fresh truffles to foie gras - we are soon much food richer, and cash poorer, yet wish we could somehow gift-wrap the shop.

In the final weekend in August, Castelnaudary celebrates its cassoulet economy with a bona fide beanfeast - 60,000 devotees wash down truckloads of the stuff with the local Malpére wine. With such large quantities being consumed and digested in a confined area, it may be reassuring to know that, properly prepared, the leguminous dish has few flatulent side-effects.

To reanimate our appetites - and to my wife's relief - we spend a cassoulet-free day clicking snapshots of the happy geese that elevate the dish from mere baked beans. Farm-dotted countryside, complete with 150 venerable windmills, surrounds Castelnaudary. To the south we discover uplands reminiscent of Tuscany, with valleys concealing rarely visited Cathar-castle ruins, Romanesque abbeys and escapist-dream villages.

But our most fascinating trip is to the Not family pottery workshop, set like a Van Gogh painting on the banks of the Canal du Midi. The three brothers and their sons are the sole remaining makers of cassolos - the wide-mouthed pots after which cassoulet is named. This antique form is essential for a golden, crunchy crust. As utilitarian as the clay-plastered men, each bowl is a unique work of art.

Replete with Castelnaudary's Father, a lunchtime encounter with Carcassonne's Son awaits 40km to the east. Through the sun-suffused mist, the town's fairy-tale towers rise ethereally from slopes of gilded vines. Carcassonne appears by the motorway like a Disneyesque dream, but close up the magic frays. While it incorporates fragments of the town's past, from its Roman origins to its 15th-century fall, most of the medieval skyline is actually 19th-century restoration.

Henry James, arriving before the new mortar was dry, found it "almost too perfect... the population has been restored away", yet confessed that, "as a tourist sight... there can be nothing better". A century on, its descent into theme-park tackiness accelerates apace, with wall-to-wall souvenir shops augmented by grisly torture museums and a haunted house that howls.

Still, myriad restaurants promote our objective. The appealing Maison du Cassoulet gets my vote. While my wife agrees resignedly to try the cassoulet maison - long on beans, short on meaty morsels - I plump for the classic Carcassonne Royal, in whose depths I delve for partridge.

When compared to the walled city, Carcassonne's Ville Basse, the 13th-century new town, has a refreshingly authentic vibrancy, its plat du jour more often couscous than the old local divinity. At a café on the Place Canot, I scrutinise the map for our cassoulet odyssey's next destination, expatriates Kate Ferrol and Patrick Harrison's guesthouse in the ancient gated village of Laures-Minervois.

Kate introduces British visitors to the regional cuisine with her own exhaustive, superlative version. Between rambles around the centuries-old bothies that guard France's oldest vineyards, we follow our host's day-long labour of love. Kate jokingly elucidates the hallowed cassoulet trio's numerically disparate crust-breaking precepts (some say six times, some say eight - this is seriously schismatic stuff), and explains how she combines the constituents of each, achieving culinary majesty of which Carcassonne's Royal can only dream.

This is the antithesis of fast food. The Confrèrie president has said that Kate's take on the regional speciality epitomises the region's relaxed lifestyle. And, with the village wine flowing at her crowded table, we linger late into the night, the Not brothers' pot aromatically diffusing its convivial spell. So many guests request Kate's recipe that she plans to start hosting cassoulet cookery courses.

Urbane Toulouse, mixing high-tech savoir-faire with the laid-back southern savoir-vivre, has more to hype than beans. Its eateries range from trendy sushi restaurants to McDonald's, but its Holy Ghost casserole - the true Toulousain chef's benchmark - remains as emblematic as the mellow red bricks to which it owes its "Ville Rose" sobriquet. The town was known as Torlosa to the Romans, who introduced the Toulouse goose that still sanctifies its version.

We probe its captivating lanes from the Place du Capitole to locate a worthy cassoulet source. La Cave du Cassoulet's candlelit cellars sound irreproachably devoted, but on inspection appear kitsch. Instead, we flock with hungry workers into Le Père Léon brasserie, where disciples have worshipped the deified dish for more than a century. My wife is on cassoulet strike yet looks less smug about her salad when my searing bowl arrives. A mine of goose and Toulouse sausage, beans melting like warm snowflakes, this almost equals Kate's version.

Rumours that endemic mountain-mutton cassoulets survive in the Comminges region prove disappointingly unfounded. But our first glimpse of St Bertrand de Comminges, a Pyrenean Chartres, repays our 100km drive. This walled medieval village (population 200) is surrounded by mountains and Lugdunum's remains - a vast Roman city founded by Pompey in 72BC. The village is dwarfed by its colossal 12th-century cathedral. The Hotel l'Oppidum's duck and lamb garbure, the local cheese and cabbage casserole that tastes better than it sounds, adequately solaces our beanless sojourn.

We return via Toulouse and well... why not? Maybe they're addictive.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Fly to Toulouse from Birmingham, Bristol and Southampton on FlyBE (08705 676 676, www.flybe.com); from Cardiff and Nottingham on Bmibaby (0870 264 2229, www.bmibaby.com); from Gatwick on British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) and easyJet (0871 750 0100; www.easyJet.com); and from Manchester on BMI (0870 60 70 555, www.flybmi.com). Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) flies from Stansted to Carcassonne.

STAYING THERE

"Les Mimosas Guesthouse and Gite" (00 33 4 6878 3504) at 11 Grande Rue in Laures-Minervois; €45 (£32) double, with breakfast.

EATING THERE

Maison du Cassoulet (00 33 4 6847 6103), 6 rue Grands Puis la Cité, Carcassonne. Le Père Léon Brasserie (00 33 5 6121 7039), 2 place Esquirol, Toulouse. Hotel L'Oppidum (00 33 5 6188 3350), Saint-Bertrand de Comminges.

By Sophie Lam

There will be a feature on cassoulet on 'The Food Programme' on BBC Radio 4 tomorrow at 12.30pm, repeated on Monday at 4pm

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