We rented a house in Saverdun, a tiny little town less than an hour from Toulouse. In the distance were the Pyrenees, and all around were these rolling hills like you see in picture books and fairy tales. There were great stone chateaux perched on the hillsides (“Chateau alert!” we would cry to each other in the car). And sunflower fields, where the flowers wore yellow bonnets, and stared primly down at the ground in their shyness. It was beautiful countryside, and somewhere amidst it all, I decided to eat like a pig. In fact, it was mostly pig that I ate.
If I could swear myself to one French dish for the rest of my life, exclusively, it would be cassoulet. In fact, I had never before in my life tasted cassoulet. I was a cassoulet virgin. I thought cassoulet came from Toulouse, but my stepfather gasped and said, “No! It is from Castelnaudary!” The French are proud of the provenance of these things. What is it? Big white beans baked in broth with pork fat, pork confit, sometime duck or goose confit, and garlicky Toulouse sausages. The meat falls of the both, and pulls apart. The beans are soft and filling and so good and comforting. The fat is, well, fattening, but it so much flavor and crispiness to everything. It is so good, so hearty, so almost medieval that I could not get enough of it. I was in Saverdun maybe 10 days–and I ate cassoulet five times. It’s a miracle I ate anything else!
The first night we arrived in Saverdun, we drove to the little medieval square village of Mirepoix. It’s a town that always seems to have a carnival and market reveling in its main square–very charming. We sat down at this touristy little café terrasse on the main market square, and while my family set about ordering salads, I ordered, what else, the cassoulet. I had been anticipating this moment since my mom said–I think we’ll go to Toulouse this summer. Want to come? I knew the moment of cassoulet would come–and here it is. Another French classic to add to my collection.
I am sure it was from a can or a jar. This was not the kind of place that was making its own confit–I would be surprised if they even had a real oven. But no matter. It was intensely smoky–the smokiest one I had. With confit of pork, Toulouse sausages, and beans in a loose broth. The others I had later were crisped on top, and less smoky. These one was very casual. But I still loved it. I used bread to scrape whatever broth was left into my mouth. And the pork confit fell off the bone. I can’t tell you the name of the restaurant, because honest to truth, I don’t even know if it has one. But it has a big green canopy, on the main square in Mirepoix, should you happen to be there. It’s convivial, with slow service, and a fine cassoulet.
Castelnaudary: Trip 1
When M. Français, my stepfather, told me Castelnaudary was the place for cassoulet, I knew it no uncertain terms that I was going to Castelnaudary. The first time we were there was by chance, and I hadn’t had time to research the best cassoulet destination (this is what I do in my free time!). I felt drastically underprepared as we drove into the village, and I have to tell you, the village took my by surprise. Could this place really be the birthplace of cassoulet? There was no one about, the main street was quaint, because it was old and French, but not strongly so. I was, to be honest, disappointed. We found the place we thought looked nicest on the main drag, and went in. Others ordered fish; I ordered cassoulet (you’ll begin to see a pattern!). This was the best cassoulet I had on my trip. It had both duck confit and pork confit that fell off the bone. It was enormous, and came with a green salad (an accoutrement that I HIGHLY recommend against the heaviness of cassoulet). The others dared me to finish it, and…I couldn’t! So disappointed in myself. The beans were soft. The broth was a bit thicker. And the sausage was either homemade or from a serious purveyor–it crumbled apart like nothing packaged ever cook. And the top with laced with fat, and crisped to a crunch. It was amazing. If you are in Castelnaudary, go to Hôtel du Centre et du Lauragais, and get the cassoulet. The dining room also happens to be beautiful.
Everyone said that Le Colombier had the best cassoulet in Toulouse. The guidebook said it. The waiter at Le Colombier said it, except he said it was the best in the whole region. When Mr. English arrived a few days after the rest of us, I insisted we all go out and fête his arrival with another cassoulet.
I was shaking with anticipation. A city girl, I have the horrible prejudice that everything is better in the city, Castelnaudary or no Castelnaudary. It was very good. I was broiled on the top, large, with a salad and apple tart included in the meal. The confit was goose, which I’m less keen on. The beans were every so slightly undercooked. The sausage was very good. It was for all intents and purposes, lovely–but it wasn’t Castelnaudary, despite what the waiter said.
Castelnaudary: Trip 2
Armed this time with information, I trouped the family over to La Belle Epoque, heralded as Castelnaudary’s cassoulet destination. Would it live up to the hype? Le Colombier hadn’t quite matched my anticipation, so, I didn’t hold my breath. The place is adorable. Family run. One thing I’ve noted about Castelnaudary is while the streets may seem deserted, the insides of all the restaurants and cafés are lively and convivial and very fun. The son seated us. The mother took our order. Of course, I ordered “Le Menu Touriste”: cassoulet, green salad, and sorbet. I will say, this almost ties with the Hotel du Centre, in fact, some at the table preferred it. So, it’s a toss up based on your preference. It was duck confit, the top nicely crisped, the sausages crumbling, the beans perfect. They even bought Mr. English and me a couples’ pot–cassoulet for two in a large, hot earthenware casserole. I lapped up the last drops with bread.
Saverdun has no restaurants worth eating in–at least, that’s what the locals told me. But once a year, they have a town even called La Grande Moungetardo. No clue what it means, but I went, and it was such an affair that it deserves its own post. But, I will say something about the cassoulet. It was served banquet style, in huge earthenware pots on the tables, with ladle to scoop out the beans. The sausage was cut up, uncharacteristically, in the beans, and after a delicious, steaming plateful, I thought, that was good. They, they put a second round of earthenware pots on the table, and I served myself a second huge plateful, and thought, this is VERY good. My mom, M. Français, and Mr. English all murmured how it was better than Toulouse. I felt bad saying it, but maybe it was true. Then, and only then, when we least expected it, they came around with legs of duck confit. And then they came around again. You’ll see when I write the whole thing up–it was among the five best nights of my life!
Here is my conclusion: some cassoulets are better than others. But from now on, if I go into any restaurant that serves it, I’m ordering it. It’s like my favorite child. Better than bouillabaisse, than Bourguignon, than any other classic dish I’ve yet had. I’m in love, for life.