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Holy Grail with a difference

Holy Grail with a difference

01 Oct 2013 BY Tim Wells

Culinary traditions are often among the most fervent expressions of a people, and to attack them can ignite passions to near warlike pitch. Even proposing unacceptable variants of a single dish can cause controversy: think of the different types of paella found along the Mediterranean coast of Spain: with chicken and seafood, seafood only, rabbit and chicken, with or without squid ink, or, as friends in Valencia swear is the only true paella, rabbit and snails only. Or clam chowder: tomato-based Manhattan style versus the creamy New England version; there have been more peaceful ice-hockey games than some discussions of the two dishes. But certainly no one recipe has ever enjoyed such stout defense as the humble-seeming beans-and-meat dish of cassoulet. It is the raison d’être for the Carcassonne-based Académie Universelle du Cassoulet (The Universal Academy of Cassoulet), with its Restaurant Charter, its Board of Founding Members, its foreign ambassadors, its culinary school, an informative website (also in excellent English), and much more.

Like choucroute in Alsace, or bouillabaise in Marseille, cassoulet is the culinary identity of a region, one which stretches from Narbonne in the Aude north to Toulouse in the Haute-Garonne, and the Route du Cassoulet, roughly following the Autoroute 61, takes in two of the three principal centres of cassoulet cooking styles: Castelnaudary and Carcassonne; the third centre is Toulouse. The AUC’s Charter closes with the fervent devotion: “The Restaurateurs of the Route of Cassoulet remain faithful to the principles of Prosper Montagné [born in Carcassonne, 1865-1948, author of the “Larousse Gastronomique” (1938)]:

Nothing good can be made except of the very good,
Cassoulet is the God of the Occitan kitchen.

The cassoulet of Castelnaudary is “the Father”;
The cassoulet of Carcassonne is “the Son”;
The cassoulet of Toulouse is “the Holy Spirit”.

Even in a country traditionally as devout as France such a litany intends no religious irreverence.

The Academy was formed in September 1999 by Jean-Claude Rodriguez, head chef at the Restaurant Château St-Martin Trencavel, Hameau de Montredon near Carcassonne, along with 3 other cassoulet specialist chefs and 4 passionate connoisseurs, thus bringing up a happy 10th anniversary of “organizing and participating in gastronomique, cultural, artistic, touristic, and media events with the sole aim of promoting the development of His Majesty Cassoulet in the world, and achieving recognition for the Master Chefs of cassoulet in the region.” Praiseworthy enough, but the Academy’s objectives also extend to promoting a wider awareness of the region’s cultural heritage, its language, traditions, and creativity, and “to bring together men and women for whom expertise, quality, and originality equate to a love of life in thought, word, and deed, and to eating well, (and whose) human values and warmth remain the prerogative and custom of those living in the south of France.” Heady stuff: somehow the British beans-on-toast congregation seems a bit lightweight by comparison.

The Academy maintains an active profile in the gastronomic life of the region, promoting fairs, village fêtes, banquets and dinners, colloquia, and seminars, all devoted to promoting the traditional culinary value of bringing out the best to savour in the local terroir. They publish strict guidelines for restaurants and chefs for inclusion in the Cassoulet Trail, and members of the Admissions Committee vet all prospective chefs, who upon successful inauguration undertake to adhere to the precepts of the Charter. The Academy will also study and evaluate special gastronomic propositions by chefs and academicians: a kind of Cooking Code of Conduct; they even operate a recipe telephone consultation service, and of course, present their very stringent rules for the cooking of the cassoulet itself. Happily, the various recipes for the Trinity of cassoulets can be found on the Academy’s website:

The Academy’s emblem is the distinctive earthenware dish which gives cassoulet its name: the cassole has been used since time immemorial to serve “this unsurpassed dish, much appreciated by lovers of good food who compliment each other with a cry of ‘ACO V’AIMI!’” We don’t know what this means, but it’s probably something like “Get it down yer gob,” or as Leonard Cohen would say, more poetically, “Hallelujah!”

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