Notes from an author: Sylvie Bigar on cassoulet, southwest France's iconic dish
Sylvie Bigar’s cassoulet-inspired odyssey across southwest France results in revelations about her family tree and a travelogue celebrating the rustic stew.
From New York, where I lived and worked as a food and travel writer, I’d landed in Paris, flown to Toulouse and caught a wobbly regional train to Carcassonne. My assignment? The history of cassoulet, the ancestral dish of stewed, tender pork, caramelised beans and crispy duck confit. A short, easy article, I thought. Couldn’t have been more wrong.
Growing up in Geneva, Switzerland, I often travelled through France with my parents, but for some reason never made it to the province of Occitania. Perhaps it was simpler to drive straight down the Route Nationale 7 through the lavender fields of Provence to the Riviera.
As soon as my train left Toulouse, the land spoke to me. It was April and the French countryside unravelled a shimmering, pointillist panorama — wave after wave of low hills covered with myriad tiny, yellow flowers. Here and there, lone medieval ruins perched on rocky peaks echoed of long-ago bloodsheds and tragedies. Between the Hundred Years War and the Cathars movement, the region often served as a battlefield. As we neared my destination, the 52 towers of the walled city of Carcassonne emerged in the bluish fog, hanging above the valley like a multidimensional lantern. Was it a mirage?
As I sat in a chateau restaurant just beyond those walls the next day, the tall metal doors that hid the kitchen suddenly burst open, revealing a procession. Men and women wearing long, red robes and matching berets pranced in, carrying a stretcher wrapped in red and gold satin and singing at the top of their lungs in ancient Occitan. But my eyes (and my nose) were on the prize: a massive, steaming clay pot at the centre of the stretcher, cradling a golden, bubbly cassoulet, the culinary speciality of Occitania.
How could I have known that one bite of cassoulet would send me on a gastronomic, multi-year emotional journey leading me to my dramatic family history and the writing of my book, Cassoulet Confessions: Food, France, Family and the Stew That Saved My Soul.
What a discovery: every ingredient led to another corner of Occitania. As we hiked in the Montagne Noire, the creator of my debut cassoulet, who would become my culinary guru, showed me where the wild herbs grow. “Evergreen thyme along this hedge,” he whispered. “Rosemary by the rocks, see?” Later, we unearthed a laurel shrub and squeezed its leaves into the most fragrant bouquet garni.
Just outside the small village of Issel, we dug our hands into the unique red clay that potters mould into cassoles, vessels dedicated for cooking the stew; along the tranquil Canal du Midi, I learned the differences between the conical and the rotund ones. Crossing the Plain of the Lauragais, near the town of Pamiers, I kneeled in the fields to pick curly pods shielding their beans. We tasted and compared the round coco with the longer haricot de Castelnaudary, named after the nearby self-proclaimed capital of cassoulet.
At sunset, I bid my time until the last day-tripper left Carcassonne, and stayed behind, strolling through the now-quiet alleyways, imagining a whole cast of troubadours and knights that would’ve once roamed these cobbled streets. Here, chef Jean Pierre Blasco, one of my guru’s disciples runs the historical Auberge des Lices and his cassoulet almost rivals his master’s.
One morning, we drove off towards the sunny Corbières area, then the windy Minervois vineyards near the Regional Park of Haut-Languedoc to learn about the wide varieties of the Languedoc wines. On these high plateaus, the wind rules local agriculture, the way the homes are built, even the moods of its people. Near Minerve, a stunning village and the capital of the Minervois, the mountainous, stony soil produced a dry, red wine with cassis and blackberry accents, the perfect complement to our rich stew.
Over the years, I met some of the members of l’Académie Universelle du Cassoulet, the organisation founded to defend the authentic stew against the invasion of cassoulet-in-a-can or, even worse, the touristy all-you-can-eat cassoulet for €8 (£6.80). Their vetted eateries, restaurants and wineries led me from Narbonne all the way to Toulouse along the Route du Cassoulet.
I went as far as wondering if somehow this region was part of my own heritage, and dug into my family’s past searching for ancestral beans. What I discovered would leave me changed forever.
Sylvie Bigar is author of Cassoulet Confessions: Food, France, Family and the Stew That Saved My Soul, published by Hardie Grant Books, £16.99. Follow Sylvie on Twitter.
Published in the September 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)
Follow us on social media