If you visit the Aude you will soon enough come across the dish for which the region is famous, cassoulet. Sometimes I think cassoulet is sausage and beans with attitude, but there is of course far more to it than that. Cassoulet is one of those iconic French regional dishes that acquire a history and status of their own. And cassoulet certainly has an impressive history. The story is that during the 100 Years War in the 14th century, Edward the Black Prince besieged the town of Castelnaudary. When the inhabitants were down to their last supplies they pooled what was left – beans and bits of meat – and ate the mixture. Strengthened by it they soon saw off the English, who apparently ran all the way back to the Channel, and cassoulet was born.
The essential ingredients of cassoulet are haricot beans, duck fat and pork. After that opinion divides over whether or not breadcrumbs and Toulouse sausage should be added. Fortunately the Grande Confrerie du Cassoulet (Grand Brotherhood of Cassoulet) exists today to ensure that in and around Castlenaudary, the traditional qualities of cassoulet are upheld. Members of the Confrerie wear flowing brown and yellow robes with those who are also ‘chevaliers’ entitled to wear a hat that looks like an upside down bowl. Well, this is France and they do take food seriously.
But that is not all. Every year in the last week of August Castelnaudary hold its “Fete du Cassoulet”. Basically for 6 days and 5 nights the whole town parties in honour of cassoulet. The centre of town is closed to traffic and the local restaurants put up huge tents in the main square where endless portions of cassoulet are served. Seriously good singers and musicians come from all over France to give free open-air concerts that go on into the small hours. During the day there are parades, sporting events, boat races on the Canal du Midi, local bands wandering the streets playing and a fantastic market of local produce and wine on the last morning. It is all good fun.