Wednesday, May 26, 1999, Avignonet-Lauragais
FOR a cassoulet fanatic to drive through southern France without visiting the shrine of the God of Occitan would be like a Catholic passing through Rome and skipping the Vatican. And so tonight should be the occasion of a stopover at Hostellerie Étienne just west of Castelnaudary on the N113. Ever since the American food magazine Saveur published its expansively documented feature in the Jan/Feb 1998 issue, I’ve wanted to visit this unpretentious shrine, where gourmets and truck drivers sit down together for a slow lunch. And just a couple of miles away--virtually within walking distance--is the Not family factory in Mas-Saintes-Puelles, where authentic cassoles are still turned out by the gross: those squashed-flower-pots with the steeply angled sides that produce a high crust-to-goo ratio. (When it comes to baked dishes of any kind, I’m an ardent crust man. It’s carcinogenic? Then you’d better pass me yours.)
Off-season there should be no problem with reservations. Imagine my astonishment and dismay when I’m informed that there are no vacancies! What about dinner? Impossible; in fact the whole establishment is closed for a family wedding. Catastrophe! Still, I mustn’t complain; weddings produce children, and more children improve the chances of carrying on the family tradition.
A diligent search of the official French guide to Chambres & Tables d’hôtes (I feel quite proud of myself for learning to find my way through this complexly indexed labyrinth) reveals a B&B only a couple of miles west on the same route. I book a room for the night, together with dinner; these farmhouse meals often prove to be maison with a thoroughness that only the more expensive restaurants can afford.
THE motorway from northern Spain to southern France takes us within a couple of miles of Biarritz and we’re making such good time that it would be a shame not to stop and gawk. The drive to the center is quick and easy and we even find a parking place without difficulty. (Never go anywhere in Europe in July or August!) It’s an unseasonably warm sunny day and the strollers are a polyglot mix of wealthy dodderers and indigent surfers--Venice East meets Venice West. The high bluff above the beach overlooks a panorama of stratospherically expensive hotels and condos and bather-occupied beach, the rhythmic crash of surf punctuated by the chorused screaming of excited but perfectly safe children. Out a bit further, skilled surfers are riding their boards from one incoming crest to the next, shrewd manipulators of the aquatic stock exchange. For a moment, Mary and I feel the urge that overcomes certain visitors to sell up and settle down here by the water.
A zigzag path like a carpenter’s folding rule leads to the beach. Two-thirds of the way down there’s a modest little eating place called, appropriately, Le Petit Café. The tapas don’t look particularly appetizing but tourteau is on the menu at 70 francs. Crab fanatics that we are, we both opt for it and a few minutes later two generous specimens arrive, bisected with a cleaver, together with two big pots of garlicky aioli and an assortment of serious tools. Attention centers on us as we set to work like a pair of surgeons in an operating theatre, cracking, dissecting, levering, poking.
Every since childhood on Cape Cod, crabs and lobsters have been, for me, a serious occupation. A real (i.e., third generation) Cape Codder once said to me, “Whiting, when you finish with a lobster, it looks like it had been staked out over an anthill.”
These particular crabs prove to be two of the best we’d ever encountered--moist, flavorful, succulent, with the pink lining of the shells so liquid that we have to scoop it out with our fingers. The tips of the claw meat come straight out, vibrating like tuning forks, and even the small claws yield moist flesh of a high quality. The labyrinthine bodies are worth taking apart to the last tiny chamber, each adding to the growing pile of meat on my plate. (Mary is an eat-as-you-go crab picker; I’m a coitus reservatus chap who piles it all up and then tucks into it at leisure, like a Roman emperor.)
After about an hour the staff realize that they’ve made a serious mistake in serving us crabs so close to closing time. All the other diners have left, the fermé sign is out, and we’re just poking out the last corner of the last claw. Someday we may return for another pair of tourteaux, but it must be in disguise.
THREE hours later the search for our B&B takes us up and down the main street of town several times, without success. Finally in desperation we stop at the village store to ask directions. By one of those coincidences that seem commonplace on French rural holidays, one of the customers is related to the family who own the farm and he’s on his way there for a short visit. All we have to do is follow him. Where are those rude Frenchmen who hate all foreign tourists? My life-time collection could be crammed into a phone booth.
Our B&B in cassoulet country proves to be a big comfortable old-fashioned room in a working farmhouse. The family have been here for generations and the present elderly occupants know every nook and cranny of the department. Dinner is satisfying though uneven: the home-grown green asparagus must have been tasty but is overcooked; the simple quiche is noteworthy, with a preponderance of local ingredients; and the roast chicken is juicy but seriously underdone--if it were a battery hen, we’d be disposing of it with rubber gloves. Monsieur observes Mary struggling with a drumstick, whereupon a brief argument ensues between host and hostess in which Madame insists that if it were cooked any longer it would dry out.
A generous lettuce salad follows (Mary and I realize how starved we’ve been for fresh--or even stale--vegetables), then some local cheeses and a pear cake with that distinctive home-made flavor that a restaurant would kill for. Over coffee I mention that we’re visiting the Not workshop to buy cassoles. “Oh no,” says monsieur, “you cannot buy there. Just along the road is a large shop where you can buy every kind of pot. The selection is enormous.” I thank him and reflect on how useful it is to have reliable local information. And so to bed.
Thursday, May 27, 1999, Sousceyrac
THE breakfast table is laden with the usual French B&B collection of home made preserves, into which I make substantial inroads. How do these good ladies produce enough to last the year? Only four guests per day, modestly getting through, say, half a jar among them, would demolish 182½ jars in 365 days. Of course there are seasonal variations, but many houses accommodate more than four guests. I imagine a kitchen assembly line during the fruit season, where a peasant girl, flushed with her labours, simmers, stirs and ladles all day long into a rattling conveyer belt of empty jars.
A couple of kilometres along the N113 is an enormous warehouse and a sign indicating that we have arrived at the pottery sales outlet. Inside our eyes are assaulted with a rainbow of garish luminescence. There are casseroles to send your guests screaming from the dining room, huge plant pots like warning signs to keep your garden free of birds and cats. On one counter is a small stack of cassoles, glazed inside and out in a revolting shade of dusty pink. Aside from the functional design fault of an outer glaze, this is a color I would only set before the blind. These can’t be products of the Not family pottery. From the Saveur illustrations I remember the raw red clay, stained a deep brown from dripping juices. We must look further.
Along the road we bypass the town of Labastide d’Anjou and a sign points backward down a side road to the Hostellerie Etienne. We should at least take a photo. In the tree-shaded gardens at the rear there are signs of early-morning activity. Suddenly I realize that, for a wedding, they would only have been closed for one day and are probably serving lunch. Madame Rousselot confirms that this is indeed the case, and that we can be accommodated. Oh rapture! I am a child whose broken toy has been repaired by the good fairy.
Perhaps she could tell us where to buy the Not cassoles. “Certainly, monsieur: at the pottery in Mas-Saintes-Puelles. The road to the village is just there at the end of the garden. Turn left after you cross the canal and the AutoRoute. It is immediately on your right.”
So much for local informants. If last night’s hostess has a cassoulet recipe, it’s probably about as reliable. Don’t trust the first answer you get, even if your source has a long gray beard and his family has lived in the village since the beginning of time.
THE Not pottery is in an ancient two-floored barn whose air hangs heavy with the fine dust of the red clay. I start to cough almost as soon as I walk through the door. How has the family escaped being wiped out by silicosis?
In space after space of the roughly-walled barn the dirt floor is covered with pots of all sizes and shapes. These are not the overblown vulgarities we looked at earlier, but honest functional rustic shapes you’d be happy to live with forever.
Aimé Not, the pater familias, comes to greet us in a leather apron, easily recognizable from his Saveur photo by his stiff curly hair and well-tanned leathery features. He extends both his clay-covered hands to show that the usual French greeting is impossible. In answer to our query he directs us through an arch into a space piled with dozens of cassoles of half-a-dozen graduated sizes. We spend a few minutes sorting through them for a set of three plus a couple to give away to fortunate friends.
The office is at the back of the barn next to the work area, where two men, pedalling steadily at their potter’s wheels, are gradually giving form to sloppy masses of red clay. It’s like those wonderful time-fillers in the early days of BBC TV. One of them is Philippe, Aimé’s handsome son who is featured in a Saveur photo. I pull out my copy and ask for his autograph, whereupon Aimé’s leathery face almost cracks in a broad smile and he proceeds to give us a guided tour of the pottery. Above are the huge furnaces, and two more men pass us up the stairs carrying a long pallet with a row of heavy pots ready for firing. What strength there must be in those muscular arms! Aside from the magazine articles pinned to the walls, the whole factory seems to exist in a time capsule--the only 20th century give-away is the already ancient computer in the cluttered office.
ALL this accomplished and it’s only 11a.m. If we hurry there’s time before lunch for a quick drive to Carcassonne, the oldest mediaeval walled city in Europe and a World Heritage site. At home I have a little book entitled The Sights of Carcassonne. Published in France in 1951, it contains a dozen pages of history, detailed maps together with a "conspectus" in table form telling you the history of each architectural detail, and two dozen pages of austere black and white photos. The latter reveal the geometric perfection to be encountered around every corner--you could apparently point a camera in any direction and take a prize-winning snap. What a labor of love this must have been for Violet-le-Duc, who in 1852 rescued the city from imminent destruction and undertook its half-century of rebuilding. "Perfectly restored" says the Eyewitness guide: obviously not to be missed.
A forty-five minute drive along the N113 brings us to the town. Where’s the old city? The crowded urban thoroughfare takes us slowly to the center, where informative signposting seems to be outlawed. We find a space in a parking lot and ask an efficient-looking middle-aged woman if we are within walking distance. Yes, is her reply, pointing down a long street--just half an hour. There goes lunch.
Back in the Van Rouge, we continue along the main street and the magnificent walled city finally comes into view. On a hunch, a sudden sharp departure from the main road brings us circuitously to a huge parking area at the lower edge of the city walls, with a dirt path leading up a hill along the ramparts to the main gate. It is fully as impressive as the photos had led us to believe. Half our two hours is already gone; but determined, like Moses, to get at least a glimpse of the Promised Land, we climb panting up the steep path to the old city entrance.
Stretched in front of us is the Rue Cros Mayrevieille, as teeming as Oxford Street during the Christmas sales. The buildings on either side, many of them cheaply restored with plastered walls, are totally given over at ground level to junk food and tourist tat. We should have taken the Blue Guide more seriously: ". . .some have said [Carcassone] looks its best from the motorway. . ." Imbedded in this shabby DisneyWorld must be sights worth seeing, but a five-minute excursion of the near-by streets only confirms our desire to be out and on our way back as quickly as possible.
Once again the touristic formula for any geographical site has been proven:
+ INCOME -
therefore i=c/b (income equals crowds over beauty)
Down the hill, a quick consultation with the parking attendant gets us pointed in the right direction for the AutoRoute back toward Castelnaudary, where our confrontation with the citadel of the Cathars commands a cassoulet catharsis. (We're adrift on the high c's!)
BURNING up the AutoRoute at 120 (that’s kilometres per hour, not miles), we’re back at the Hostellerie Etienne by 1:30, still in time for lunch. A pair of amply upholstered workers at a table next to ours are already tucking into a large cassoulet, accompanied by an enormous platter piled high with mixed vegetables. How can they do it? Haven’t they consulted Richard Olney, who admonishes the reader that nothing more is required than a modest salad of grated celeriac in a rémoulade of mayonnaise, crème fraîche and mustard?
Our cassoulet arrives in a red clay pot like the ones we have just purchased from Monsieur Not but well blackened from long and constant use. There’s a reassuring crust on top which I share out carefully between us. Underneath it the beans are a bit watery and there’s not much meat: a small portion of confit and no sign of the pork skin or pigs feet that can give the dish its thick oleaginous texture. Even the crust, though blackened, lacks richness; it tastes merely burned. Overall, not a bad flavor, but not something I would have driven miles out of my way for. In fact—dare I say it?—my own cassoulet has been, from the first attempt, noticeably
Back in the Van Rouge I have another look at Monsieur Rousselot’s recipe in Saveur. It calls for a proportion of meat to beans which may well be served to the Grande Confrérie du Cassoulet de Castelnaudary, but certainly not to us. It also calls for four hours slow cooking on two successive days. No way has the cassoulet we’ve just eaten been subjected to that sort of prolonged gentle baking. In fact, how could a restaurant with such a turnover cook by such a schedule? And half-emptied cassoles returned to the kitchen must surely be combined and served again; how could these achieve a crust? (Or if thrown away, who is to pay for such enormous waste?)
An inadvertent clue perhaps lies in the photo at the beginning of the article, in which the light glinting off the bowl of a ladle in the chef’s hand looks very like a blowtorch. Is it possible that the crust of the cassoulets routinely served in the restaurant is finished off with a salamander? That would be consistent with the slightly burned taste which had lacked the expected richness.
But perhaps I’m being unfair. How is a modestly-priced restaurant to match the quality of even an amateur cook who is prepared to devote however many hours and days it may take to achieve a certain result? This is particularly true of traditional foods that require long and careful attention, whether in the purchase or the preparation of their ingredients. This is the main reason why old-fashioned bistros in France (and chippies in Britain) are disappearing at such an alarming rate. Peasants are no longer prepared to be slaves. If you will make such demands on the time of a skilled artisan, then you must be prepared to pay for it.
©1999 John Whiting, Diatribal Press