If you wanted to lose weight, you wouldn’t go to Toulouse. In our honeymoon quest to become fat and happy this seems like a sensible place to stop on our way over to Bordeaux.
France’s fourth largest city, Toulouse is also close to Carcassonne, and like Carcassone,Toulouse calls itself home to Cassoulet.
Cassoulet is a classic peasant construction of various meats, including duck confit and sausage, stock and slow cooked haricot beans. Essentially it was a way to feed a lot of people and use up whatever is at hand. Like many peasant dishes it’s slowly been gentrified , rarified and rolled over to the point where foreigners like us will happily chase down a good specimen and pay about ten times its worth, all in the name of seeking something ‘authentic’.
I’ve had Cassoulet before in Sydney and it’s always been too salty, so I’m looking forward to sampling it at the source. One made you feel like you’d been dumped at Bronte with every swallow. I stupidly tried rectify the flavor balance by adding sugar and ended up staring down at a was a strange sweet and sour pork, duck and beans.
My research tells me that Le Columbien has one of the best examples of Cassoulet in Toulouse.
A wander past the Place du Capitole, where I’m entrusted with the map ( a brave move on the Hungry One’s part) eventually takes us to Rue Bayard- a street that is neither picturesque or charming. I get worried when I see the sign for our restaurant illuminated in blue flashing lights.
Inside it’s rustically clichéd and empty, apart from us. It’s eerily silent and I start to worry. In the separation of roles and responsibilities for the last couple of days, it’s been my responsibility to find the good places to go. But we’ve been driving most of the day, are starving and didn’t see anywhere as a promising alternative on our way over. We’re staying here and promptly order a cassoulet for two for 22 euro.
I’m surprised when it arrives.
There are no breadcrumbs scorched on top- one of the most instantly recognizable aspects of a cassoulet for me. I pluck up the courage to ask our incredibly friendly English speaking waiter who took pity on us after discovering my conversational repertoire is somewhat limited to “Bonsoir. Je vous drais…. Merci ….and a lot of nodding, smiling and sweet, high pitched “Dachau”’s. I have to say that with every passing day I’m deeply regretting the three years of Indonesian I undertook. “Selamat Pagi et.al ”- has not proved very helpful in life thus far.
Our waiter’s explanation about the absent breadcrumbs is enlightening. For an evening meal the bread crust to is somewhat of a recent, clichéd invention. Originally sprinkling old bread was added to the simmering stew and ‘Casse en croute’- to break the top of the stew was what you did at around 4pm, for a mid afternoon carbo load that helped keep you going until dinner.
The top of our stew has little bobs of sausage and a couple of stray flaps of duck. You can’t really tell it’s been stored in its own fat for months, and that could be a good thing . There are haricot beans which are carrying the flavor of everything else, as well as their own fluffy, rounded nuttiness. They put up a good fight in maintaining their structural integrity, but dissolve under pressure. The secret to the stock apparently is cooking it slowly with the bones of the duck and pig for up to a week, with onions and carrots, then finishing it of with pepper and nutmeg. Nutmeg!
In with the stock there are little wonton like shreds drifting among the haricot beans which have a texture somewhere between noodle and marrow…. After fishing for about seven of them there may just be some of my drool in the stock as well.
I soon discover my favourite shreds of marrow squish are slow cooked pieces of pig skin.
I think I’m ok with that. The bottle of Chateau Terrail, a a Cotedu Marmandais with enough tannin to stand up to the barnyard bullying from all those animals helps wash the concept down.
Like a tin of Pringles, once you pop, you can’t stop. In this cassoulet there’s saltiness but it’s muted enough for you to keep going back for more – and then you need a little more wine to wash it down. Soon we’re scraping the bottom of the shared terracotta plate and we’ve used up all of the slightly tough bread to mop up the last stray bits.
The wine is also finished, which could help explain the momentary lapse into madness which follows. The dessert menu arrives, with the usual suspects; crepes, chocolate fondant, soufflé, floating islands and then something which makes the Hungry One’s eyes light up. Bombe Alaska- but it only comes In a bohemouth serving for two.
“But I don’t even think that’s French!” I say.
“I’m not sure” says our waiter. “But they do love it.”
If a guiding principle of eating out is to order things that you won’t or can’t make at home, then this at least fits the bill. When it arrives it’s a dome of chocolate, vanilla and coffee icecream, protected by a sable biscuit shell and smothered in fluffy meringue which is then set alight in front of us.
It’s so sweet it makes my teeth hurt. The flamed meringue has the fluffy scorched crunch of toasted marshmallows and the Hungry One chases it over the platter with his spoon like Roman razing a village.
By the time we leave the cassoulet has started to make its true presence felt in my stomach. I’m taking smaller breaths and trying to stand up very very straight.
If I was working in the fields tomorrow, then I’d be set. If I was walking all over a city, then I probably wouldn’t need breakfast or lunch. Instead I’m sitting again in the passenger seat of a Citroen as we try and chase the sun over to Bordeaux.
It’s a good thing that the weather is getting warmer. Because after our night in Toulouse, my jeans are starting to feel tighter. Flowing skirts and salads might be the way for the next couple of days.
What do you reckon my chances of eating salads in the land of foie gras might be?
Restaurant Le Columbien
14 Rue Bayard
05 6162 4005