Wednesday, 29 August 2012

The hunt for perfect cassoulet: the Fête at night

We spent the final days of our cassoulet trip roaming around the region and ducking in and out of the Fête, and soon realising that the Fete du Cassoulet is about much more than one single dish. The quiet and sleepy town of Castelnaudary is filled with bands, bars, markets and thousands of revellers, who pile into huge tents to eat steaming pots of cassoulet; like Oktoberfest only with extra beans.

With all the action and merriment, the regional dish almost becomes secondary to the fun. Plenty of cassoulet is eaten, though it is not the best you can find or make. But to be honest, this is hard to fault. Local producers – largely wine growers, goose and duck farmers, bee keepers and charcuterie makers – line the streets selling fantastic stuff. A flotilla of handmade paddleboats - each representing a different local youth club - snakes down the river. Bolshy teenagers edge their way, one by one, down a horizontal flagpole over the river, trying to grab the French flag before throwing themselves into the water. And the drinking – there’s more than a drop of beer consumed, which leads to some pretty amusing dancing.

For the dedicated food-lover, there is still so much to enjoy in the region. The weekly food market at Revel (Saturdays) has producers and growers of the most incredible tomatoes, aubergines, garlic, goose, duck, honey, preserves, poultry, rillettes, charcuterie and of course lingot beans. Veer off the beaten track and away from the cassoulet tents, into a small, family-run restaurants where you can find very good, honest and truly local food at a tiny price. There’s a co-operative that takes in meat from all of the local farmers, selling it from a shop which has queues snaking right out of the door. And the unofficial bartering system is wonderful! Tomatoes are swapped for strawberries, whole lambs shared around the neighbours in return for a bit of help with shepherding. Gluts get distributed among friends and neighbours and it's nice to see that people are watching out for one another.

But what of the cassoulet? We’ve got a pretty good idea in our heads. Free range British goose, confit in rare breed pork fat, our own Toulouse sausages and fat cubes of Old Spot pork belly. We’re heading back to Blighty to have a play with the recipe – and we’d love your advice if you have any. Have you eaten or do you know how to make truly tremendous cassoulet? Go on, share your wisdom...

And here's what to do when you have so much veg that you can't eat any more.

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