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CARCASSONNE AND CASSOULET (Voyage to Villemoustaussou 4)


It is all my friend Adrian Smith’s fault! Here we are in the historic, medieval town of Carcassonne in the south of France … having lunch in a restaurant in the crowded Place Marcou … and a waiter is down on one knee proposing marriage to my wife?! My French has improved considerably since the last time we were in France but I can’t quite keep up with what he is saying? I think, however, that it is something along the lines of ‘Dump the old guy and run away with me!’

It was Adrian who, when he heard we were planning to visit Carcassonne again this year, told me that we were to definitely have lunch there and make sure we had the local speciality dish – a Cassoulet of Duck and Pork and Beans. To be honest it is probably difficult to get anything else. There are loads of restaurants and they all seem to be selling various versions this particular dish. We find a really nice restaurant, with plenty of shade, a nice atmosphere, and a reasonably priced menu. The strapping young waiter, with a great line in banter, seats us at a nice table with good views, and we place our order for the famous Cassoulet … plus a couple of cold beers to be going on with … and half a Pichet of Rosé for later with our meal.

I should have known, of course, that today was going to be ‘one of those days’? When I went down to the Reception Area first thing this morning … to check the weather and the news and our emails, etc (the Reception Area is the only place where you can get a Wi-Fi signal on site) I found a copy of the Daily Mail lying around! ‘Oh! No!’ I thought, ‘Monsieur Brexit has followed us down here to Carcassonne?’ On reflection, however, I realised that it might have belonged to Mr and Mrs Grimsby. To be honest I (probably very unfairly) always thought that people in Grimsby only read the Sun newspaper? But then again if you live in Grimsby, but can afford to come and live in the south of France for six months of the year, you might well have ‘upgraded’ to the Daily Mail?

My paranoia continues when we get to the old city of Carcassonne. I haven’t seen the Writer, Peter Mayle so far this year yet (he is probably still in Provence) but I keep running into the Composer, Karl Jenkins. He (and his wife) are wandering around the various restaurants also looking for somewhere have lunch (a Cassolet?). I have my photograph taken with him! Well, actually, he is just behind me looking at the menu while I am having a coffee before our tour of the city!? He probably knows that I love his music and have every one of his CDs. Also, when we are seated in the restaurant, enjoying our beers, the people on a table just across the way keep looking at us, pointing at us, and talking about us. I suspect that they have been told that I am a famous English Rugby Player?

We have been to Carcassonne before so we don’t do the ‘walk around the walls’ again, although it is well worth doing if you are a ‘first-time’ visitor to Carcassonne. Instead we wander through the city remembering various places we enjoyed last time we were here, and visiting other places we previously missed. Caracassonne is not as crowded as usual … the poor weather, social unrest, and (I guess) the ‘football’ tournament that is soon to begin, seems to have put people off coming to France this year. Carcassonne is as beautiful and interesting as we remembered, and it is good to be back. Fortunately, the shops are just as expensive as well so Julia refrains from buying any scarves or hats … she says she will wait for a visit to the weekly local market near where we are staying.

Anyway, there we are enjoying our pre-lunch beers, in the centre of this packed restaurant, when the handsome, young waiter comes over to our table, gets down on one knee and proposes marriage to Julia? I am quite taken aback … so taken aback, in fact that I quite forget to get my camera out and take photo of the scene? How remiss of me? Everybody else in the restaurant has stopped eating, drinking, and talking … and now they are all watching the unfolding scene? Fortunately, for me, a pigeon lands next to our table at the crucial moment … and the strapping, young, handsome waiter shrieks with fright and runs away to hide in the corner of the restaurant!? Everybody in the restaurant dissolves in laughter at the sight of the waiter running away from a pigeon?

It turns out that he is afraid of birds? He tells us later that when he was a child he got locked in a chicken run by accident. Julia feels sorry for him … I think he is a ‘wimp’ … but I don’t say as much to Julia. The waiter spends the rest of the lunch hour throwing empty bottles at the pigeons (several other pigeons have come to join in the fun) to try and scare them away. A nice French couple come and sit at the table next to us. They wonder what the waiter is doing. I tell them (in French) that the restaurant has run out of duck and that the waiter is trying to kill pigeons to put in the Cassoulet. For a moment they actually believe me … before they realise that this is an ‘English joke’?! The duck, pork, and bean Cassoulet is actually wonderful. We are given huge portions and it takes us ages to eat … but it is absolutely superb!

We return to our campsite after an excellent day. We are so ‘stuffed’ that we settle for just crackers and cheese for supper. If you are ever in this part of France you must visit the old city of Carcassonne, and you must have the duck, pork, and bean Cassoulet for lunch … but do keep an eye on the waiters … or bring a pigeon or two with you!

Jim Binney

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