Monday, April 30, 2012

Cassoulet in Toulouse

Several towns in the southwest of France claim the earthy pork and bean cassoulet as their own, and Toulouse stands tall and proud among them. Cassoulet is as emblematic to the city as its rugby-loving locals, rowdy bistros, and dusky red bricks. Slow-cooked, smoky, thick with handmade sausage and goose, this classic French stew is a symbol of warmth and country comfort.

Toulouse’s links with the past are omnipresent, from its medieval spires to its rich peasant food. The city’s streets are lined with mansions built on the wealth of the pastel (woad plant) dyeing industry, and they open onto cascading fountains, quiet squares, and the banks of the Canal du Midi, a waterway to the Mediterranean constructed in the 17th century for the burgeoning grain trade. But this is a city that’s also firmly anchored in the present; it’s a flourishing student town with an enviable nightlife, and an enclave for sharp-minded scientists toiling for the airline and space industries. Ancient and modern rub shoulders comfortably in Toulouse.

Dining alfresco in the Place du Capitole, which hosts a market on Saturdays
Toulousains often claim to have more in common with Barcelona, a two-hour drive away, than Paris. There is a definite laid-back, Latin ambience here, and the view, like the stone of the city buildings, is generally rose-colored. But things were quite different during the Hundred Years War of the 14th and 15th centuries, during which the nearby town of Castelnaudary came under siege. It’s said that desperate citizens created a collective dish – the heart-warming cassoulet – so full-bodied that it perked up everyone sufficiently to fight the good fight. The Académie Universelle du Cassoulet, however, begs to differ, maintaining that cassoulet evolved around the family hearth as simple peasant fare, not combat cuisine. As time passed and rural folk left the farms to seek work as cooks or domestics in the city, their recipes went with them and on to bourgeois tables.

The Toulouse version of cassoulet always includes garlicky sausage and either goose or duck
Whatever the truth of the matter, this hearty casserole of white beans and meat is steeped as much in history and legend as in flavor. Castelnaudary, Carcassonne, and Toulouse have been dubbed cassoulet’s “holy trinity,” with each boasting their own variation of it. In Toulouse, chefs add garlicky Toulousain sausage, pork rind, and goose or duck confit to enrich the bean mixture. Experts insist that the secret to a great cassoulet lies in the beans: they must be cooked just long enough and lie in a stock that’s smooth and thickened by the pork rind. Then follows hours of patient slow-baking in a traditional earthenware pot – the cassole – that gives the dish its name.

Toulouse lies on the banks of the Garonne River in southwest France

Best Places to Eat Cassoulet

Le Cantou
With its leafy garden, interspersed with flowery color bursts, Le Cantou feels more like a country house than an elegant city restaurant just 10 minutes from the center of Toulouse. That may be because it reflects the cooking style of chef Philippe Puel, who grew up watching his grandmother cooking cassoulet in her farmhouse kitchen – her passion for the dish and the region still infuses his doggedly seasonal cooking. While an ardent fan of her original dish, which took days to prepare, Puel believes old recipes can be made new. So, in as much as it’s possible with a dish this hearty, Puel’s version is light! There’s the requisite Toulouse sausage, some thinly sliced pork rind, and the essential duck confit, which he trims of excess fat. (Confit, meaning “cooked in its own fat,” developed as a way of preserving meat before refrigeration. It renders the meat tender.)
Puel adds thin-skinned, sweet white beans from Tarbes, then puts everything into the oven for several hours to emerge bubbling, browned, and begging for a spoon.
98, rue de Velasquez, St-Martin-du-Touch; open for lunch and dinner Mon–Fri;
Also in Toulouse
Die-hard cassoulet fans can follow one of two cassoulet trails: the Route de Cassoulet or the Route Gourmand du Cassoulet. Chef Claude Taffarello’s Auberge du Poids Public (; moderate) in pretty Saint-Félix-Lauragais is on the latter.
His cassoulet, served in a traditional cassole, is a rich mix of beans, duck and goose confit, and sausage, bobbing in a thick, plentiful sauce – good, sustaining stuff, all sourced locally, including the earthenware cassole in which the the dish is cooked. The restaurant also has a wonderful view across the surrounding countryside.
Also in France
If you can’t make it to the south, upmarket Au Trou Gascon (; expensive) in Paris will transport you there with its cassoulet. The chef’s favorite just happens to be this famous dish, and here it’s a marvelous melding of lamb, pork, duck, and incomparable Tarbais beans.
Around the World
Toulouse-style cassoulet is always on the menu at Anthony Bourdain’s New York temple to everyday French cooking, Les Halles (www.; inexpensive). Close your eyes, take a spoonful, and, just for a minute, you could almost be in the pink city itself.
Food Shopping in Toulouse
The covered market in Place Victor Hugo has 100 stands open for business from Tuesday to Sunday.
Pick up confit de canard (preserved duck) and local saucisse (pork sausage) for your cassoulet, and a slab of foie gras for an appetizer. The Saint Aubin Sunday market offers the best of the season, such as wild mushrooms and oysters from Arcachon, and live pigeons and geese fresh from local farms, while Place du Capitole’s Saturday’s market is organically themed.
If you prefer not to jostle for your food, Maison Busquets on rue Rémusat has a vast array of regional goodies, including wine and prepared cassoulet. Violettes et Pastelles on rue St Pantaléon is the place to visit for everything violet, from bonbons to syrup. The violet, supposedly brought back from Italy by Napoleon’s soldiers, is the city’s symbol.
A Day in Toulouse
Toulouse is pretty, prosperous, and rich in culture. Known as La Ville Rose (the Pink City), the Place du Capitole lies at its heart; head here for a relaxing coffee and people-watching between visiting sights.
MORNING : Visit the Théâtre du Capitole to marvel at its painted ceilings. From there walk the rue du Taur to Europe’s largest Romanesque church, St Sernin Basilica.
AFTERNOON : Explore the fortress-like Jacobins Convent, with its soaring “palm tree” pillars and vaults. Call into the Musée des Augustins, a 14th-century convent, for Gothic statuary. Contrast the old with the new at Les Abbatoirs, where more than 2,000 pieces of modern art are housed in what was a 19th-century slaughterhouse.
EVENING :  Come sunset, take up a seat on the terrace in Place du Capitole and watch the 18th-century red-brick buildings that cast a rosy tint by day begin to blush and glow lilac as dusk falls. Wander along the banks of the Garonne River to see the vaults of the old New Bridge lit up at night.
Getting to Toulouse
Aéroport Toulouse Blagnac is a 7-mile (11-km) drive or bus ride from the city, and has flights to most major European cities. There are also high-speed trains from Paris and Lille.
Where to stay in Toulouse
Le Clos des Potiers (inexpensive) is a refined retreat with Empire style and plenty of atmosphere.
Hôtel Le Grand Balcon (moderate) is a 1930s hotel, much loved by French author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, and now completely renovated.
Grand Hôtel de l’Opéra (expensive) is a former 17th-century convent-turned-plush hotel on the Place du Capitole.
Donjon du Capitole;

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