As February arrived last weekend, a breath of spring wafted across the valley. Stepping outside, we experienced one of those thrillingly uplifting assaults on the senses that signals earth’s awakening after a bleak winter. Near the door, a spectacular winter honeysuckle was in full bloom, its delicate flowers exhaling a sharp fragrance. We looked around, a little dazed. To one side, a country lane winding through bare-branched trees which two weeks ago had been glittering with frost; to the other, the gently undulating hills of the Tarn’s ‘little Tuscany’. And all around, a crescendo of birdsong from the hedgerows, a peculiar sweetness to the air and a softer, hazier radiance to the light.
No wonder poets go mad in spring.
Of course it’s not yet spring, and there are more frosty mornings to come. But last weekend was a foretaste, and it seemed appropriate that we should celebrate such a lovely day in the company of good friends, enjoying a dish which is part of the history of the region–le cassoulet. We were also keen to seize the moment–our hostess is inspired by the cassoulet genie only once a year. Ouf. Thank goodness we were at home when the spirit struck, and not, as sometimes happens, on a Ryanair flight sampling the delights of cheese melts and wilted lettuce.
More treats are in store ten minutes later as we arrive at our destination, a handsome 300-year-old maison de maître set in a sheltered hollow with views opening out across the countryside. As it faces in a different direction from our house, the perspectives it offers are interestingly different and more dramatic. We stand on the steps in front of the sunlit façade, gazing at the spectacle and thinking yet again how lucky we have been to end up in such a beautiful corner of France. The cat, sitting one step above, surveying his kingdom with a look of majestic approval, obviously agrees. We are ushered through the door and immediately start to salivate. In a luminous salon where a fire burns under an immense copper hood stands a low table surrounded by comfortable sofas where the aperitif is served: champagne in old-style coupes, foie gras maison and smoked salmon canapés. The guests raise a toast and catch up with the latest neighbourhood and family news. A chance to take things slowly, to savour le temps de vivre, le plaisir de vivre. Not a smart phone in sight…
I’ve written about cassoulet in a previous blog about Pierre-Paul Riquet, the 17th century genius who built the Canal du Midi, thus linking France’s Atlantic coast with the Mediterranean. His fifteen-year project was unimaginably gigantic for the time; his workforce numbered 12 000 men and women, peasants, stonemasons, blacksmiths, engineers and other technical experts. Riquet was an exemplary employer, paying good wages, granting holidays and sick leave and-naturellement-making sure his workers bellies were full.
The town of Castelnaudary, 60 km south-east of Toulouse, is the main port on the canal, and as those (many) foodies among you will know, it is one of the three places (along with Toulouse and Carcassonne) which claims to have invented this typical Occitan dish. Each time we drive past, I like to imagine a battalion of 17th century cooks stirring cauldronsful of it, ready to be ladled out to the work force. As Napoleon supposedly said, an army marches on its stomach; perhaps Riquet’s army was sustained in its advance towards Sète by the fat geese and ducks of a hearty cassoulet.
Different recipes exist, along with different champions of each version, but our hostess had used the authentic basic ingredients: preserved duck (or goose), Toulouse sausage, couenne de porc (smoked pork rind), and of course, those famous beans. There are different contenders on the bean front, but Sunday’s version had been made using haricots tarbais, dried white beans from the town of Tarbes in the foothills of the Pyrenees which are sometimes planted in between rows of corn or maize so that the stalks of the cereal provide a support as they grow (merci Cathy D for this information😉). In his blog here, American chef David Lebovitz describes them as ‘the holy grail of beans’; aficionados buy the handpicked ones at 19 euros a kilo. Even after lengthy cooking (up to 7 hours including the different stages), they retain their shape and their ‘croquant‘ (slight crunchiness) rather than ending up as a sad and sorry bean mush.
The preparation of the ingredients and the order in which they are added to the earthenware cooking dish are vital steps in achieving your masterpiece. Our hostess had prepared everything the previous day – this is a dish which tastes better re-heated. The beans are soaked for 12 hours, then put on to cook in water flavoured with onion, garlic, salt, pepper and a bouquet garni. Once they are ready the ingredients are assembled in layers: the beans, the previously cooked sausages and preserved duck, then a final layer of beans. Then everything goes into the oven for a long slow simmer (140° C in our hostess’s oven).
In the Riquet blog, I quoted the great Elizabeth David and her classic book French Country Cooking which contains the recipe I would recommend for those dedicated cooks in search of the true cassoulet grail (haricots tarbais can be ordered on the internet). She recounts a wonderful anecdote by Anatole France in which he describes the famous cassoulet served at Chez Clemence, a small tavern in 19th century Paris.
‘We knowthat in order to bring out all its qualities, cassoulet must be cooked slowly on a low light. Mother Clémence’s cassoulet has been on the go for twenty years. Occasionally she throws in goose or pork fat, sometimes a piece of sausage or a handful of haricot beans, but it’s always the same cassoulet.’
When, on Sunday, ‘le cassoulet de Denise’ was placed on the table, there were cries of admiration. Although I’m pretty sure it hadn’t been on the go for twenty years, it was one of the best I have ever tasted, a true labour of love. It also ‘caressed the eye’, presentation (or ‘food canvas’ as it’s sometimes called) being another element of success, as fans of Masterchef will know. In order to achieve this wonderful ‘look’, the chef must take out the dish every half hour and push down the crust which has formed on top into the cooking juices. The result is a unique colour, described rapturously by Anatole France, as ‘a rich amber hue similar to that found in the paintings of the great Venetian masters.’
I leave the last word to Prosper Montagné, famous chef and gastronome from the Languedoc, who declared ‘Cassoulet is the God of Occitan cuisine. A God in three persons: God the Father, the cassoulet of Castelnaudary, God the Son, the cassoulet of Carcassonne, and God the Holy Spirit, the cassoulet of Toulouse.’
PS You may add homemade breadcrumb topping for your last layer of cooking if desired. Also, put a bottle of good vinegar (Banyuls or wine vinegar) on the table if your guests wish to alleviate the well-known side-effects of too many beans…
PPS Visitors to the Tarn may explore its wonders while staying in one of the comfortable bedrooms in Denise’s gracious house. She offers B and B (‘chambres d’hôte‘), serving a delicious and copious breakfast using local organic products, and driving to the boulangerie 5 km away to get the croissants, chocolatines etc fresh from the oven! (No evening meals)
Note: Minutes after posting this I learnt that Simone Veil died today. She’d been on my list of blog subjects for ages, such an amazing and inspirational person that I was lost for words to write about her. Today’s post about religious persecution is perhaps a fitting way to say ‘au revoir’ to this unforgettable lady, who survived Auschwitz and went on to become an icon for women everywhere. Simone Veil, 13 July 1927 – 30 June 2017.
I might have let slip that I’m a huge fan of Michel de Montaigne. How about this thought for the day from the great Renaissance humanist?
‘Si la vie n’est qu’un passage, sur ce passageau moins semons des fleurs.’ (If life is but a passage, then at least let us sow flowers along our way.)
The history of mankind, however, has shown that not everyone agrees with this way of seeing the world. A more appropriate quotation for this month’s blog comes from another favourite writer, Voltaire, in a letter to his old friend Lecornier de Cideville in 1754.
‘Ce monde-ci est un vaste naufrage; sauve qui peut; mais je suis bien loin du rivage!’ (This world of ours is a vast shipwreck; every man for himself; personally I’m a long way from the shore!’)
The April blog ended with the promise to resume, in May, with Part 2 of ‘L’Autoroute des Deux Mers’ as it entered les Corbières, a part of Cathar country which, eight centuries ago, was the theatre of one of the bloodiest struggles in the history of Occitania. The battles that were fought over two interpretations of one religion ended in a devastating trail of burnings and massacres, a lesson from those who considered themselves to have the right answer to those who disagreed. And the reason Part 2 is late is that during the past weeks I, like others, have been demoralised to the point of silence by acts committed in Manchester, London and elsewhere, as more recent pages of history have been branded with the mark of atrocities committed under the banner of another religious ideology.
In 1975 a relatively unknown French historian called Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, published a book about a small village in the high Pyrenees. Montaillou, village occitan de 1294 à 1324’ (Montaillou, an Occitanian village, 1294 to 1324) recounts the daily life of this medieval rural community of 200 people, farmers, shepherds and mountain men.
To everyone’s surprise (including the author and his publisher) the book became an international best seller. Interest in regional history, in particular the Cathars, was undergoing a revival, and Ladurie’s book, with its detailed picture of this peaceful, progressive, egalitarian community, its complex social organisation and fascinating local characters, brought a unique perspective to this mysterious ‘branch’ of Christianity. It was based on the records kept by Jacques Fournier, Bishop of Pamiers (later Pope Benoit XII), the zealous Inquisitor tasked by the Catholic church to root out the heretics in this ‘Cathar-infested’ community. But what happened in Montaillou was the end of the story. Fournier, like his fellow Inquisitors in the region, was busy hammering the final nails into the coffin of a ‘heresy’ which, until the end of the 12th century, had coexisted peacefully alongside traditional Catholicism in the Midi.
So how did it all start? Why did the Cathars suddenly come under the scrutiny of Rome? One reason was the movement`s success. Albi, Agen, Toulouse, Carcassonne Mirepoix, Limoux-large swathes of the Languedoc had been seduced by this interpretation of Christianity. It was a spreading ‘leprosy’ that had to be cut out before it went further. Looking at what happened from a 21st century perspective (and not a little influenced by George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones), I’m guessing that human nature hasn’t changed all that much, and that some aspects of Catharism more than others must have been particularly alarming to the established church. One was the idea that the relationship between believers and their God was personal, private and direct. It had no need of a hierarchy of self-appointed interpreters, particularly those who surrounded themselves with pomp and riches.
Along with this anti-clericalism was the practice of an ascetic, spiritual way of life as a way of transcending an earthly domain dominated by Satan. The ‘bons hommes’ and ‘bonnes femmes’ were tolerant and non-violent, but they firmly believed that their version of Christianity was the true one. (In one of those fascinating historical and literary loops, over in the east of France another ‘heretical’ movement was also growing. The Waldensians make an appearance in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, along with Inquisitor Bernard Gui, who happened to be the Inquisitor in Toulouse from 1307 to1323 and who, like Fournier, kept detailed records of his interrogations.)*
One can see how, at the time, all of this would have been a serious pain in the Papal derrière. If things carried on unchecked, a lot of people would be moving out of their sumptuous free housing, abandoning their well-stocked wine cellars and making their way to the medieval job centre. What was to be done about those rebellious Occitans, Cathar communities and the uppity, independent southern counts and viscounts who supported them, who didn’t speak ‘proper’ French, and who had somehow resisted all attempts to be brought back on the right path?
And therein lay another problem. Centuries later, Riquet, planning his Canal du Midi through the same territory, was flummoxed by a geographical handicap, the watershed at Naurouze. In medieval times, an equally vexatious watershed divided north from south, this one linguistic. The Northerners spoke the language of ‘oil’, while the southerners spoke the language of ‘oc’ (‘oil’ and ‘oc’ being the words for ‘yes’). The land of ‘oc’ (Languedoc) at that time extended roughly southwards from Bordeaux almost to Nice; and its lilting, musical language was that of the troubadours and their lyric poetry. In the Dictionnaire of 1762, the word ‘patois’, meaning non-standard French, is defined as ‘rustic, vulgar language as spoken by peasants or lower orders’ **.
History is full of examples of what happens when one lot of people start thinking things another lot don’t agree with. A frustrated Pope Innocent III, having in vain tried to get the Occitans to change their ways, decided enough was enough when one of his Papal legates, having failed to get the Count of Toulouse to toe the line, was mysteriously murdered on his way back to Rome. He appealed to the men in the north, the King of France and his vassals. The dogs of war were unleashed and a terrible revenge descended on the rich and fertile lands of the Midi. The days were numbered for this courtly society where religious tolerance was practised and the arts flourished.
In 1209 thousands of northerners donned the Crusader’s cross and marched south down the valley of the Rhone. We all know about the Crusades, right? All those books and films about the heroic time in the Middle Ages when brave and chivalrous knights set out for the Holy Land to fight against Saladin. Richard the Lionheart, Ivanhoe, Robin Hood…
But these French crusaders were not marching to defend the Holy Land. They were marching against their fellow countrymen. The Albigensian crusade was under way, flying the flag of the true faith against the Cathar heretics. Their noble mission was of course spurred on by the usual baser motives. Crusading may have been a way of getting to heaven but it was also a way of getting rich. Those nobles of the Midi, the Counts of Toulouse, the Trencavel family of Carcassonne, long engaged in their own political chess, were masters of rich territories that were not subject to the French crown.
The military struggle would last for decades until Toulouse, and the devastated and blackened countryside around, would finally belong to the King of France after the signing of the 1229 Treaty of Paris. After that would come the second, equally terrifying, prong of the attack, the Inquisition. By 1330, with the last turn of the Inquisitorial screw, the Cathars of Languedoc were finished.
We started our journey to the A61 north east of Toulouse in Lavaur, the peaceful market town which has been home for the past six years. Spring is a particularly beautiful season with gardens and hedgerows bursting with pink and white blossom. It`s hard to imagine what took place here in May 1211, two years after the Crusaders had first been let loose in the south. Lavaur was an important Cathar stronghold. In a terrible punishment for its intransigence the biggest bonfire of the whole campaign took place, with 400 heretics burned at the stake, 80 knights hanged in violation of the chivalric code, and the town’s Chatelaine, Dame Guiraude, handed over to the soldiers before being thrown down a well and stoned to death. The leader of the troops was a man called Simon De Montfort
But back to July 1209. The first city to feel the weight of the sword was Béziers, near the Mediterranean, where four centuries later Pierre-Paul Riquet would be born, and later build his incredible staircase of locks. The sack of Béziers was particularly horrifying. The town was heavily fortified and the local population had taken refuge inside the walls, refusing to hand over the Cathars. But there was a slip up; the defences were breached and the mob rushed inside the walls, killing and plundering indiscriminately. The leader of the troops, Papal Legate Arnaud Amaury, asked how to distinguish Cathars from Catholics, gave the infamous reply ‘Kill them all, God will know his own.’ In this first shock victory for the Crusaders, an estimated 20,000 people were massacred.
From Béziers the army wheeled into the Corbières, a great machine destroying everything in its path. The rugged, bleakly imposing landscape, parts of it unchanged over the last 800 years, is a fittingly dramatic backdrop to the atrocities carried out here. From the Autoroute des Deux Mers there are glimpses of ruined fortresses on hilltops, forlorn reminders of more doomed sieges. The Cathar way, running from Port-la-Nouvelle on the Mediterranean to Foix in the foothills of the Pyrenees, takes in the dramatic sites of Quéribus, Peyrepertuse and Montségur, medieval ‘villages in the sky’. Montségur, built on a rocky hilltop at 1207 metres, fell after a siege lasting 10 months. 225 ‘bonshommes’ were burned at the stake. Quéribus, defying gravity on a rocky ridge, was the last to secede, in 1255.
But the most coveted and perhaps the most spectacular of all Cathar strongholds in the Corbières was that of Carcassonne, the seat of Viscount Raymond-Roger de Trencavel. It appears on the left as you drive down the A 61, inevitably bringing a gasp of surprise from those who have never seen it before. Fallen into a sad pile of rubble, the fortified city was rebuilt in the 19th century by Violett-le-Duc in a 60-year long restauration project, and if you pull off the motorway and park at the viewpoint you’d think you were looking at a fairy-tale castle in a Disney film 😉 *** The air is full of the sound of cicadas and the smell of hot pine-needles, and in front of you, set against the shimmering blue of the distant mountains, a dreamlike vision rises from the vines, its slate turrets and stone ramparts transporting you back to the world of childhood, and stories of knights, castles, minstrels and troubadours.
In August 1209, de Trencavel and his knights watched and waited, stunned by the news from Béziers. The city had been expected to hold for forty days, the standard length of service for crusaders. De Trencavel’s hopes, that the army continuing on to Carcassonne would be much reduced in size, had been crushed. Now thousands of people had taken refuge inside the walls as a crushing heatwave descended on the region. On their arrival, the Crusaders occupied the bank of the River Aude, cutting off the water supply. Dysentery and typhoid broke out. With the situation worsening, deTrencavel offered himself as hostage in exchange for the free departure of those under his protection. Amaury allowed them to leave in what they were standing up in, then threw de Trencavel into the dungeons where he died three months later. The city and its fiefdoms were handed to a Catholic knight, Simon de Montfort.
Having completed their 40 days of service, many barons now went home. But De Montfort stayed on. He would become one of the richest of the conquerors, pursuing his campaigns with a zeal and a bitter relentlessness which made him the terror of Occitania. Ambitious, pitiless, he continued to burn and massacre until 1218, when he was killed during the siege of Toulouse, with some versions of the story recounting that the stone which fatally injured him was launched from the barricades by a woman…
With Carcassonne and the Corbières behind us, neat round silhouettes of pins parasols signal the approach to the Mediterranean. The Autoroute des Deux Mers is ending. Just north of Narbonne the road splits as we hit the A9, the motorway which runs along the coast between France’s natural barriers, the Pyrenees and the Alps.
We turn right, heading west, down through the vineyards of Fitou towards the snapping flags and screaming gulls of the Côte Vermeil. Canigou, Mountain of the Gods, dominates the horizon, its snow-capped peak dazzling against a cerulean sky. Signs announce we’re on La Catalane, the motorway through Catalonia, the province at the Mediterranean end of the Pyrenean range, with one foot in France and the other in Spain. It’s a province with its own language, Catalan, and its traditional dance, the sardana.
At the other end of the Pyrenees lies the Atlantic Ocean, where another region straddles the frontier between two countries, one with an even more mysterious culture and language, le pays basque.
On one side, the ghostly whalers of the Atlantic, on the other, the ships of Ulysses drifting across the wine dark sea.
But that’s another story, and another journey through history.
*An excellent, detailed account of Catharism can be found in Sean Martin’s book: The Cathars.
** Graham Robb, in his fascinating book The Discovery of France (thank you Margaret W. for this gift!) explains it all from a historical point of view. For a thrilling fictional account of 12th century political and religious intrigue, plus a great love story, read Jean’s Gill’s Song at Dawn, Book 1 of The Troubadour Quartet.
Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour…
The Canterbury Tales: The Prologue, opening lines
Geoffrey Chaucer, genial English troubadour of the 14th century, tells us that burgeoning April is the time that ‘folk long to go on pilgrimages’. But for us lucky dwellers in the home of French troubadours, Occitania, March is the month to take to the road and head south, eager to enjoy the first greening of the branches and the spectacle of the almond blossom. The amandier is one of the earliest trees to flower, its shimmering bridal bouquets of pink and white heralding the approach of spring along with the sherbet fizz of mimosa in bloom.
Early March found us setting off down the southern section of the Autoroute des Deux Mers, the Motorway of the Two Seas (las doas mars in Occitan), the road link between Atlantic and Mediterranean. The A62 section goes from Bordeaux to Toulouse, the A61 from Toulouse to Narbonne. During my many years as an adoptive Toulousaine, the A61 was the weekend escape route to sea and sun. Throw a toothbrush and swimsuit into a bag, head off straight after work on a Friday evening, and you could be at the coast in time for an aperitif au bord de la mer in less than an hour and a half.
But the A61 is not just a fast way to get to the waters of la Grande Bleue. It is also a reminder of some of the most fascinating pages in the history of this part of Languedoc. Today’s blog covers the first part of our March journey, through the Lauragais, past Castelnaudary, into the Aude and the beginning of the Corbières.
In 1662, Pierre-Paul Riquet, a man with a head full of projects and dreams, wrote a famous letter to Colbert, Finance Minister for Louis XIV, outlining his idea for the construction of a ‘royal canal of Languedoc’, linking France’s two great ‘seas’.
At the time, he was living in a chateau near Toulouse, known today as the Château Bonrepos-Riquet. One hundred years earlier, another chateau dweller, Michel De Montaigne, had left us a vivid record of the kind of man he was through his writings. But Riquet The Man is harder to pin down. Historians have portrayed him variously as over-ambitious, a dreamer claiming to act through divine inspiration, a misunderstood genius, and a wily player who managed to overcome different obstacles thrown in his path, mostly from Colbert himself who initially approved Riquet’s plans, but who then kept sending inspectors from Paris to check up on him, even considering replacing him for the second phase of work. The exchange of letters between the two men show numerous disagreements, as well as Riquet’s temerity in frequently disobeying Colbert’s instructions.
My own picture of Riquet, the 17th century man of my imagination, has taken shape through what is known of his practical achievements, notably his wonderful legacy to inhabitants of successive centuries, the Canal du Midi.
First, there is Riquet the visionary and problem-solver, the man with the ambition, ingenuity and tenacity to bring to fruition a project that had long shimmered like an unattainable mirage in the minds of many before him. The Romans, Charlemagne, various French kings, had all dreamed of a waterway linking France’s west and southeastern coasts. If such a link could be built, as Riquet proposed, in the form of a canal, its economic and political significance would be enormous. Merchandise from the Mediterranean would no longer have to travel by ship on the long, hazardous voyage through the Spanish-controlled Straits of Gibraltar and round the Atlantic coast in order to reach Bordeaux and the west.
When he finally received official approval for work to begin, in 1666, Riquet had already started a series of experiments near his chateau in Bonrepos. He was in his sixties, rich, married with five children. He was at a time of life when most people, particularly in those days, would be thinking about putting their feet up and enjoying the fruits of a successful life and career. A spot of hunting, a nice glass of claret in the evening, banquets and balls at the weekend, leisurely strolls through the grounds to check on the progress of his park and formal gardens.
But instead he had been messing about in the 17th century equivalent of green wellies, testing his theories with a 300-metre model of his dream project, a prototype complete with reservoirs and channels. Why? Because the most difficult obstacle he would face, if ever work got started, would concern an unbudgeable geographical feature bang on the route of his projected canal.
In 1857, almost two hundred years after the opening of the Canal du Midi, bargemen were able to see trains speeding past on the new railway line from Toulouse to Sète. Today, tourists on barge holidays can also see cars, whizzing along the nearby motorway.
We join the A61 south of Toulouse, at Villefranche-de-Lauragais, and within minutes a sign announces we are crossing the Seuil de Naurouze. This is the symbolic moment the traveller leaves behind the rolling hills and wheat fields of ‘Atlantic’ France to join the cypresses, vines and olives of the Mediterranean. It is the highest point between Toulouse and the coast, the partage des eaux, where the water naturally divides, flowing on one side towards the western ocean and on the other towards the sea. It was this watershed that, in the 1660s, proved the biggest headache for Riquet. If we look to the left, beyond the canal, we see in the distance the looming mass of the Montagne Noire, the Black Mountains crucial to his success.
We know that Riquet was both a cultivated man and a man of the country. Born to an upper-class family in Béziers in 1609-ish (the date is disputed), he showed a keen interest in scientific studies. Through his career in the Languedoc salt trade, where he was responsible for transporting and storing the salt and collecting taxes due on it, he travelled widely in the area, settling, in 1648, in the town of Revel, in the Montagne Noire. It was here that he explored the countryside, observing the different mountain watercourses, noting their geographical and natural features and the possibilities of harnessing their power. Fortified by his subsequent experiments in Bonrepos, he became convinced that the water of the Montagne Noire could be used to feed into the canal at the Seuil de Naurouze and thus overcome the problem of the divided water flow.
We may also surmise that Riquet was an inspiring leader, one who was able to convince others of the feasibility of his theories, imbue them with enthusiasm for the project, while intelligent enough to realise his technical limitations and enlist the help of experts in the field, notably Pierre Campmas and François Andréossy. Once approval had been granted by a king who shared his ambition to leave a mark on history, Riquet threw himself into the project. From now on he would spend the rest of his days working to construct this marvel of engineering, ruining both his health and his finances along the way. In the Montagne Noire a channel system was devised to bring the water from the slopes and into the Lac de St-Férreol, where a huge dam was built, creating a reservoir whose waters were taken to Naurouze along a long supply channel, la Rigole de la Plaine. The first phase of the canal, from Toulouse to Trèbes, was completed in 1672.
The second phase got under way, with Riquet’s debts mounting. The whole project was gigantic, lasting for 15 years, encountering numerous practical and engineering challenges, and involving 12,000 workers, peasants, stonemasons, blacksmiths, as well as technical experts. As an employer, Riquet was in advance of his times, paying good wages, granting holidays and sick leave. Communication with such a large and diverse workforce was vital; Riquet was able to discuss with them in their own local language, Occitan. It’s interesting to note that among his army of workers were many women, some of whom came from the High Pyrenees and whose experience of managing the rivers and torrents in that area, constructing weirs, sluices and other ways of controlling the waterflow, was particularly valuable.
May 19th 1681. The great day of the inauguration of the Royal Canal of Languedoc had finally arrived. In Toulouse, a procession of boats set off, following a magnificent barge carrying various dignitaries including the Cardinal de Bonzi, who would perform the blessing, and Riquet’s two sons, Jean-Mathias and Pierre-Paul II. But sadly, Riquet himself was not with them, having died the previous year, on October 1st 1680, just months before the canal reached its final destination. His sons inherited the difficult task of its completion, along with huge debts.
A sad end to the story? The last major enterprise in which Riquet was involved was tunnelling through a mountain. This audacious project resulted in the 170-metre tunnel of Malpas. On the other side was Béziers, city of his birth, only a few kilometres from the coast. Did the visionary canal-builder have an inkling he would one day be revered as the architect of this wonderful 17th century monument, largest of all those commissioned by King Louis, and today, the oldest European canal still in use? The Canal du Midi is a UNESCO world heritage site and the many marvels on its 241-kilometre course from Toulouse to the Etang de Thau include Riquet’s last construction, the Malpas tunnel, and almost 100 locks, in particular the spectacular ‘staircase’ at Fonsérannes.
On the A61, we have passed the Seuil de Naurouze. The next motorway sign is for Castelnaudary, home to the major port on the canal. Most people, though, associate the town with its famous local speciality of beans, sausage and duck, le cassoulet. It’s tempting to think this peasant dish played an important culinary role in helping Riquet’s army of workers to keep digging. Mangez! Mangez! In the hands of a local grandmère it offers a marvellous blend of savours worthy of its standing as a classic of provincial cuisine. The three rivals for its invention are Toulouse, Carcassonne and Castelnaudary. In spite of my Toulouse connexions, I have to go along with Elizabeth David when the Queen of Cuisine plumps for the Castelnaudary version. Along with her delicious recipe, she also recounts an equally delicious anecdote by Anatole France, about the cassoulet served at small tavern in 19th century Paris, Chez Clémence.
‘We know,’ he writes ‘that in order to bring out all its qualities, cassoulet must be cooked slowly on a low light. Mother Clémence’s cassoulet has been cooking for twenty years. Occasionally she throws in goose or pork fat, sometimes a piece of sausage or a handful of haricot beans, but it’s always the same cassoulet.’
He goes on to explain that only in this way can the dish acquire its unique amber colour, similar to that found in the paintings of the great Venetian masters. One can only imagine what a European Union Health and Safety Inspector would have made of La Mère Clémence and her 20-year-old Venetian-hued cassoulet.
The kilometres pass, the scenery changes. In this increasingly stark landscape, fortified villages huddle on hilltops, church spires echoing the sombre lances of the cypresses below. Stunted bushes and leaning pines are whipped by ferocious, rampaging winds. In the distance, hills stand out in profile, impressive masses of stone and granite contouring the sky, the bleakness of their treeless slopes reminding us of much darker pages in the history of Languedoc, the bitter wars of religion and conquest that lasted for two centuries and would end, in 1229, with a re-drawing of frontiers in which the independent lords of the Midi would be brought to heel, replaced by conquerors from the north. Languedoc would henceforth be ‘royal’, a part of the kingdom of France.
Vous êtes en pays cathare...
To be continued…
On the link below you can find more information about the Canal du Midi plus a list of books written on the subject: