At 2am on the Sunday of this year’s Fête du Cassoulet, I looked out of the sitting-room window of our house in Castelnaudary. The crowd in the square outside was dancing along to the live band. Fortified by Castelnaudary’s “ divine dish” they had no trouble enjoying themselves into the early hours. After dancing in the square ourselves for the previous two nights we were just craving sleep.
There are numerous places in the Languedoc that claim to be the birthplace of cassoulet. Castelnaudary is the only one that holds an annual festival in honour of that hearty mixture of haricot beans, duck fat and pork. Statistics are not usually very interesting but these ones speak for themselves. Castelnaudary has a population of 12,000 people. During the Fête held over four days at the end of August every year more than 50,000 visitors pour into the town and over 20,000 meals of cassoulet are served by local restaurants.
But the Fête isn’t just about eating (except maybe for the mayor who holds the current cassoulet-eating contest having managed nine in one week). There are incredible free concerts in the three main squares every night, water games on the Canal du Midi, wandering musicians, activities for children and a food and wine market. On the last day a procession of floats, each one made by a local village, parades through the streets
The live bands attract loads of youngsters and a local bakery stays open until 2 am to keep them fed. The “Living Farm” held in the place de Verdun is a favourite with children and features an enormous shire horse, a cow, donkeys, sheep, rabbits and chickens. The procession of floats is unbelievably popular with people packing the streets to watch. I think they must all be the residents of the villages come to support their home float and to see what the competition has produced.
Being a greedy middle-aged couple, our favourite event is the food and wine market held along the cours de la Republique. This year there were of course tins of cassoulet from every supplier in town (it’s France’s main tinned food) and wines from local vineyards. Bread of every description was available including one with a sign saying that it goes well with foie gras. Stalls of locally produced charcuterie, sausages, patés, cheeses, honey, nuts, oils, cakes and syrups lined both sides of the street.
As we walked past a stall selling Blanquette de Limoux (France’s oldest sparkling wine) the stallholder called out to us, “There’s no crime in stopping for a taste of Blanquette”. There certainly wasn’t.
There wasn’t one single incident of trouble at this year’s Fête. Some careful (and unobtrusive) planning and policing must have taken place. Maybe the peaceful atmosphere was also due to the nature of the people who came to the Fête, they just wanted to enjoy themselves.
A good time was had by everyone. The Fête ended on Sunday night and on Monday morning the whole town was very quiet, as if it was nursing a collective hangover. We weren’t the only ones craving sleep by then.