Margaret and Dick   


August '06: La fête qui pète – The Festival of Cassoulet de Castelnaudary


In French it rhymes:  La fête qui pète.
In English it alliterates:  The fart festival.
Eh oui, it’s real!  Read on. 
The French language makes great use of the verb péter.  The language is very economical – why invent two words to designate fart and explode, when one can (usually) distinguish the meaning from context?  Idioms abound:  fart your fuses (to go crazy), fart higher than your ass (to be pretentious), fart in silk (to be rolling in dough), fart flames (be full of enthusiasm), fart sideways (something’s wrong with that person), and our favorite, nun’s farts (puff pastry).  Now back to the story.

The city of Castelnaudary has set its sights on becoming a tourist destination like nearby Carcassonne, the famous walled city you see in almost all movies set in medieval Europe.  Castelnaudary will accomplish its goal thanks to its annual “Fête du Cassoulet de Castelnaudary,” three days celebrating a dish based on white beans, duck, and sausage.  It’s hard to imagine they’ll attract two million visitors a year as Carcassonne does.  And just imagine the air pollution.

Cassoulet is a very heavy dish: white bean stew with confit de canard (duck potted in its fat) and pork sausage.  It is served piping hot from the oven with a crisp brown crust formed by the duck fat.  It induces a siesta of coma proportions, as I learned the hard way.  Ask me about my bungled first appointment to meet Limoux’s mayor Dupré.
Local legend credits cassoulet with defeating the English during the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453).  Under siege, the citizens of Castelnaudary put into a casserole all they had left, cooked it up, and served it with lots of wine.  Suitably fortified, the soldiers repelled the English, who fell back in panic and did not stop until they reached the English Channel.  Or so goes the legend.  

I think of cassoulet as a humble peasant dish, but others hold it in higher esteem.  A new “Bible of Cassoulet” offers hundreds of versions of what the author considers “the second-favorite dish in the world after potatoes.”  Toulouse has its version; so do Carcassonne and Limoux.  But Castelnaudary is generally credited with the invention and doesn’t hesitate to blows its own horn, so to speak. 

This year the cassoulet festival has an official anthem, written and performed by the band Bistek.  The anthem is entitled “La fête qui pète” – The fart festival.  Yes, of course we looked up the web pointer so you can listen:  (Click on the knife symbol in the lower left corner.  The anthem is the first song.  The recurring chorus line “Ca pète partout, c’est la fête!” translates as “Farting everywhere, it’s the festival!”)

Castelnaudary gives visitors three days to experience this treat.  Friday’s official dinner honors the “Chapitre de la Grande Confrérie du Cassoulet”, with dignitaries in ceremonial robes and floppy hats.  They chow down on foie gras, cassoulet, cheese, and dessert, with lots of wine to help digest it all.  Saturday and Sunday, organizations such as the farmers’ wives club host mid-day and evening cassoulet dinners for the public.

The cassoulet festival is not just about eating, however.  There are strolling Bandas – brass bands with music loud and energetic although not always in tune.  The free concerts run into the wee hours.  Trade associations such as the Beans Brotherhood organize a gourmet market featuring the foods that go into cassoulet.  On Saturday there’s a ‘we’ll see if it floats’ race in the lagoon of the Canal de Midi, featuring homemade UFOs - Unidentified Floating Objects. 

On a more serious side, the festival features a conference on nutrition.  A round-table discussion featured chefs, food journalists, a professor of urban studies, and the president of the French branch of “Slow Food International,” debating serious topics such as “Social Transformations and New Eating Habits.”  I couldn’t resist wangling an invitation to the conference and dragging my jet-lagging wife with me.  There were some interesting observations:
  • Cuisine is like a sponge but also like a mirror – it absorbs but also reflects social trends.
  • English has one word for food; French has many (cuisine, alimentation, nourriture, mets, …)
  • Cuisine and sex are the two basic animal needs, but humans distinguish themselves in using cuisine and sex as recreation.
  • Regional ownership of food labels has gone global.  Just as the name Roquefort is reserved for cheese from that specific French town, the Greeks now have exclusive rights to the name Feta, as Indians have for Basmati rice.
  • There was the predictable slamming of fast food.  McDonald’s is the undisputed villain, but several speakers rose to its defense.  “Now and again I take my grandchildren to MacDo, since I can’t imagine taking them to a real restaurant.”  “Before MacDo, fast food in France was a disaster.  Today’s sandwicheries are a big improvement.”  (This is a somewhat backhanded compliment, since a sandwicherie is itself anathema to French cuisine.)
Combine chefs, a talkative professor, a slow-food devotee, and food writers, and you get a predictable popcorn event with random thoughts expressed with great fervor.  Luckily, we attendees were invited to a conference lunch of…cassoulet. 

The Chamber of Commerce has big plans to inaugurate “The Route of Cassoulet of Castelnaudary.”  Like the “Routes de Vin” of Alsace or Burgundy, it will guide pilgrims with signposts and guided tours of cassoulet producers, bean farmers, duck farmers, winemakers, potteries, and approved restaurants.  

Castelnaudary won the rights to label this regional route with their town name, claiming “Carcassonne has its walled city, but cassoulet is all we’ve got!”
(You can find Dick's own cassoulet recipe in his Global Gourmet cookbook.)

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