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In the third city of the Aude, so much closer to Toulouse that it is no longer really a Languedoc town, but well anchored in the South-West, time seems to have stopped. It has left its sheen on the numerous old town houses, the homes of judges and other notables of the Presidium established in the upper village by Catherine of Medicis, the countess of Lauragais. It still rings with the bells of the Collegiate Saint-Michel, flagship of the faith sitting atop the old neighborhoods, almost menacing, tickling in its way the nostrils of visitors who have come for the most part to taste the iconic local dish, the ancestral cassoulet of Castelnaudary.
It is useless to try to find its roots elsewhere, cassoulet is the quintessence of rural Lauragais, of which Castelnaudary is the gastronomic epicentre, especially on the day of the ‘foire au gras’, the first Sunday in December. The famous stew from the surrounding countryside that women took to the bakers in the town in their conical dishes, made of clay from the slopes of the Black Mountain and the banks of the Canal, to have it cooked there is the cement of a festival celebrated at the end of every August. Town and villages dazzle for a family festival and countrified celebration of the old days.
When goose confit, pork jowls, sausage and beans release their endorphins, the weight of the present is lifted and at the Grand Basin the history of the sumptuous inauguration of the Canal Royal of 19 May 1681 is revived. This canal was the fulfillment of the dream of the engineer Pierre-Paul Riquet, the dream of linking the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. Castelnaudary has always sailed between the two sea without being able to choose one or the other.
At the end of the day, or on some winter mornings, in the shadows of the Black Mountain, which provides its water, the Grand Bassin, the starting point of riverboat cruises heading for Narbonne, reflects the gold of the sun and the white peaks of the Pyrenees to give new sparkle to sleepy facades.
Text and photos © Jérôme Yager