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Castelnaudry 8 June 2016


1295 : 1036

Once again, over hill and dale, this time north from Mirepoix to Castelnaudry, a major point on the Canal du Midi (4 Locks!) as well as the birthplace and present capitol of Cassoulet, the famous local dish. We were bound to see some locking and eat some delights


1296 : 1035

Once again, over hill and dale, this time north from Mirepoix to Castelnaudry, a major point on the Canal du Midi (a "staircase" of four locks!) as well as the birthplace and present-day capitol of Cassoulet, the famous local dish. We were looking to see some locking and taste some of the local delights.


1297 : 1028
<p>Forgetting that locks (like everything...

Forgetting that locks (like everything else) close from noon to 2pm, at first we just had a chance to see theCastelnaudry Staircase in its massive, passive glory.

1298 : 1025

So off to Le Tirou, reputedly Castelnaudry's best, to sample the local fare. This restaurant is proud of its pedigree, and its status as a recognized superior restaurant according to the EU's stringent rules. Lots of eager staff anticipated our every whim, refilled our water, adjusted our umbrella, and served and explained my cassoulet. 

The cassoulet is a work of art. Just beans, meat, and herbs cooked for awhile, Chef Jean-Claude's version, "made the way my Grandmother taught me," was at once strong and delicate. If you make something you love again and again, and you have a gift for taste and balance, how could it not get better and better?

1299 : 1019
<p>A typical Midi salad includes...

A typical Midi salad includes warm gizzards and smoked duck. Chef Jean-Claude's classic cassoulet consists of smoked duck leg, ham shank, and a bit of home-made sausage, all cooked to falling-apart-on-my-fork perfection. To earn the recognition this restaurant has, everything, including the sausage, must be made "in house" from raw materials.  Rochelle had salmon and shared my salad, cassoulet, and tasted my dessert, a nutty home-made ice cream swimming in Armagnac. Coffee, of course, to finish...

1300 : 1015

While we were basking in the afterglow of a perfect lunch, Chef Jean-Claude came out to be sure we were satisfied. Of course, more than pleased: superbe, Chef, and thank you.

As he chatted with the table next to us (friends, I think from the conversation) I couldn't help but appreciate his profile, and the honorable old saying, "never trust a skinny chef."

Some thoughts about borrowing the idea of the cassoulet and making it "Caspar style." The meats are essential ingredients, and there's magic in their combination. All three tend to be fatty, but "fat is flavor" and the beans benefit from the long gentle cooking with the meats. Duck is key, but other meats would be fine and might reduce the fat content without harming the flavor; duck fat is the best.  

The ceramic dish the cassoulet is prepared in is called a cassoulet, and so anything prepared in such a container by long slow cooking qualifies, I guess ... but we don't much like calling things by names that aren't theirs. Still, a bean dish with abundant oil and meaty vegetables should still preserve enough of the feeling of cassoulet that it could carry the name with dignity ...maybe. We'll certainly give it a try. The herbs – bay, rosemary, thyme – are key. And a fat chef. I can do that.


1301 : 1005

Back through town to the locks just in time to see three boats go up and down. A pair went up and down at the same time, passing in the middle: exciting!

1302 : 1003
<p>The lock-keeper in the tower choreographs...

The lock-keeper in the tower choreographs the whole thing with typical Gallic good humor. One of the boats was handled by a couple, with the woman working the lines from shore and the man handling the back line as well as the wheel and power. The other boats had abundant crew. To lock easily takes three people, a fore-lines-person, and back-lines-person, and the driver, and one of the boats had three couples; the men did all the work and the ladies provided the beauty. For another boat locking up (at left) the women handled the lines, one of them very professionally. She had obviously locked before. The process of two boats passing was a trick, and fun to watch.

I think we missed out by not locking at all. The Long Pond is just that: a long, not very interesting, sump filled with plastic tubs. Locking, both up and down, is the fun and the challenge of a canal. Next time?

1303 : 1001
<p>Heading back to Mirepoix, the...

Heading back to Mirepoix, the wind was up enough to clear out the heat haze (it had gotten up to 34°C in Castelnaudry while we watched the locking) and from the hilltops we could barely see snow on the Pyrénées not that far to the south. 

Telephone lines on both sides of the road, proving once again that any prospect is improved by poles and wires.

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