Canal du Midi and Castelnaudary were intermediate stops on our tour de France: the artificial canal designed by engineer Riquet had been on our wish list for some time. The Canal du Midi is 241 kilometers long and connects Séte with Toulouse, where it joins the Canal de la Garonne: 64 locks, used to regulate the water level and allow boats to navigate easily along the canal, 126 bridges, 55 aqueducts and 7 canal bridges are the record numbers of this technical work of art created in the 17th century by the engineer Pierre-Paul Riquet.
Castelnaudary and the Grand Bassin on the canal
The Canal du Midi was built, at the behest of Louis XIV the “Sun King”, with the aim of connecting the French southern coast bathed by the Mediterranean Sea with the Bay of Biscay, an area of the Atlantic Ocean shared between France of the ‘west and the Basque Country and Galicia of northern Spain.
One of our wishes was to follow the flow of water aboard a small boat but time was not enough so we contented ourselves with walking along the shady banks characterized by panoramas of great beauty.
Castelnaudary is one of the symbolic cities of the Canal du Midi, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996, and is famous for being the birthplace of the Cathars and also headquarters to the Foreign Legion.
For those with a sweet tooth, the town is known as the home of cassoulet, the typical local dish made with duck legs and white beans. The original recipe of this Occitan preparation, which takes its name from the truncated cone-shaped glazed terracotta casserole in which it is cooked, is disputed between three cities, Carcassonne, Toulouse and Castelnaudary.
Castelnaudary cassoulet is made with Lauragais white beans, goose legs, pork shank or shoulder, sausage and pork rind, a carrot, a leek and a leg of celery. Its cooking ends up in a baker’s oven where twigs from the Montagne Noire burn. The Carcassonne cassoulet may also contain red-legged partridge and a piece of mutton. In the Toulouse cassoulet there are duck legs and Toulouse sausage, carrots and onions.
To put an end to the rivalry between the cities, Prosper Montagné, Languedoc gastronome and chef in Toulouse, resorted to a metaphor, present in his book entitled Le Festin Occitan: “Cassoulet is the God of Occitan cuisine; God-Father is the cassoulet of Castelnaudary, God-Son is that of Carcassonne and God-Holy Spirit that of Toulouse”.
But despite the numerous variations of this dish whose recipe not only changes from town to town but also from family to family, two constants can be identified: the beans that serve as the base and the pot used for cooking.
Therefore, having established that the cassoulet is the symbolic dish of Castelnaudary where legend has it that it was born during the Hundred Years War when the town was besieged by the British and where, since 1970, there has been a cassoulet brotherhood, we wanted, first to taste it at dinner, get to know its places of origin.
The most scenic part of Castelnaudary is the Grand Bassin, the old canal port which with its seven hectares is the largest body of water in the Canal du Midi and on whose surface the town is reflected, which seems to float on this lake.
Right here on 19 May 1681 the Royal Canal du Languedoc was officially inaugurated, as the Canal du Midi was initially called, and the flat-bottomed boats that sailed the canal were built in Castelnaudary.
The old town, whose profile can be enjoyed from the canal promenade, develops along a steep path around the Place de Verdun. Continuing to climb we found ourselves at the highest point of the town in front of the Moulin de Cugarel, the only one left intact of the 32 mills that Castelnaudary had in the seventeenth century and in operation until 1921.
The long walk between the basin and the historic center whetted our appetite and prepared us to taste the cassoulet in the splendid garden of the Maison Riquet, the building built in 1774 on the tree-lined avenue of the same name in the city centre, which welcomed us to Castelnaudary together to our Otto guests of Loïc and Loïc. Despite the appearance of a consistent dish, we found it very pleasant and not at all heavy thanks to the slow cooking that binds together the main ingredients, beans, duck legs and pork sausages.
A nice restful sleep in the bright room located on the first floor made us better face the third leg of our journey that took us to the heart of France: the Loire Valley.