‘British’ Cassoulet re-ignites 100-Year-War

Cassoulet — pride of rural French kitchens — comes from Castelnaudary in the south-west, right? Well… imagine now for a moment that it originated in Britain. How might the locals react to this usurping of their pride and gloire?

The Vegetarian Cassoulet that nearly re-ignited the 100-Year-War

(Read more here online)

All totally hypothetical of course. Everyone knows the ‘C’ in Castelnaudary stands for Cassoulet.

Ah, but that was before France-based British actor, David Lowe decided to put the hypothesis to the test at the annual fair in Castelnaudary where inhabitants fiercely protect their status as the unofficial world capital of Cassoulet.

Thus was born — hypothetically of course —  Cassoulet Harry, the ‘true English Cassoulet’ in all its truely awful and truely English combinations – Cassoulet au Curry, Cassoulet au Marmelade and, connerie of all conneries, Cassoulet Végétarien!

This Cassoulet imposteur was carefully wrapped in patriotic colours and ostentatiously displayed in the midst of the marché ahead of a soon-to-be hotly-contested Britain vs France Cassoulet Challenge, a match our actor protagonist ensured was carefully recorded by a hidden video camera. Indeed all that was missing to complete the imperial moment, was a brass band blasting forth Rule Britannia.

As it turned out all this Union Jack waving was quite suffit to ensure a rowdy match! Rarely if ever, has this small country town, some 50kms east of Toulouse, witnessed scenes of such gastronomic pandemonium.  

The whistle had barely blown when the clashes began.  “Try some ‘British’ Cassoulet” the intrepid actor David ‘Harry’ Lowe ventured to anyone coming within earshot. “I eat French” came an irate response from one feisty home-team shopper waving her handbag at the impostor.

“You are sending Cassoulet country into total panic,” said another disgusted passerby. Pressing his perceived advantage challenger  ‘Harry’ responded with “but this is not Cassoulet country, England is Cassoulet country” as his hidden camera panned to a red poster proclaiming in French that Cassoulet Harry had been the “true Cassoulet for the past 650 years”! 

“British?” retorted our disgusted passerby, “our Cassoulet! I hope you’re having a laugh”, as he tactically disengaged to go in search of locally made produce by way of reinforcement.

Undeterred by braying and booing in the grandstands, our ‘Harry’ next turned his charms on two young women spectators assuring them that British Cassoulet offered a diversity of flavours: “You can have mint Cassoulet, curry Cassoulet, vegetarian Cassoulet, marmelade Cassoulet, and we are working on a sweet and sour Cassoulet”, he said. But again home team players remained implacably unconvinced with wry smiles and head shaking making clear there was to be no sale here.

As the sun got warmer so did the match and the next defender of terroir-and-taste, up for a skirmish turned out to be a well-groomed blond French woman who insisted Harry was guilty of staging a “provocation”.

She however didn’t dally long, and the ball quickly passed to another heated local striker who pertinently asked if ‘Harry’ had been born in February. February you see “has a few days missing, you must be missing some screws too if you talk rubbish like that”, he told the imperturbable salesman.

Of course the bowler-hatted actor urbanely shepherding his Union Jack Cassoulet team at the fair was being just a tad provocative. Indeed and possibly intentionally he had pitched his challenge match not too far from sites commemorating the 100 Years War, a recurring topic of conversation in south-western France still today.

To the puzzlement, consternation and concern of the vrai makers of Cassoulet ( basically a rich, heavy, meat and bean bouillon) all firmly ranged behind their home team, our unflappable challenger continued his proselytizing from a stall resembling Carry On Up the Khyber at its jingoistic worst.

With the challenge game now firmly playing on the defence, the fluently French-speaking Lowe and his helpful staff sallied out with samples of Cassoulet Harry – ‘the real Cassoulet, English Cassoulet’ -for all and sundry, in a bid to turn the tide.

Initially bewildered by this onslaught, spectators paused only to rub their eyes in disbelief, before volubly outpouring indignation at such effrontery unfurling before them.

The YouTube video of his rowdy day at the fair shows ‘Harry’ grooming a passerby: “You know what this is”? “Cassoulet of course”, came a very firm response. Yes,” said ‘Harry’, “English Cassoulet, the real Cassoulet”.

Well as would be expected from any red-blooded local, such provocation deserved and got an apoplectic response. This is after all the terroir of true Cassoulet connoisseurs one where every single restaurant in town, bar one — a specialist in fresh fish trucked in daily from Nice — features Cassoulet as its Menu Gastronomique.

One home-team enthusiast was quick to tell him: “You won’t sell much of that here, you know” to which the unperturbed ‘Harry’, clearly oblivious to the changing mood in the Cassoulet cauldron, bravely, if unwisely, rebutted with “Cassoulet is British”.

Behind him, like a red rag to a Languedocienne bull, a large red, white and blue history poster had raised match temperatures to boiling point. Lowe’s history lesson had clearly exacerbated the inflammatory moment: “During the 100 Years War it was the English who brought Cassoulet to the Chauriens (as the inhabitants of Castelnaudary are known)”.

Rewriting history is not taken lightly by the Chaurians

This lesson too far suddenly left the challengers looking as though they needed reinforcements. Cassoulet Harry’s provocations had broken the bounds, and one angered local player threatened to set fire to the stall.

The defenders, clearly rallied, decided that while a joke may be a joke, this joke had gone too far. It was funny at first, they conceded, but now this connerie is no longer amusing.

The skirmishes got tougher and rougher and ‘Harry’, clearly tired of his 100-year-war siege position, abandoned all caution with a defiant if foolhardy challenge: “We saved you in 1918, we saved you in 1945, if it were not for the British you’d all be speaking German”.

That did it. Into the melee swarmed a younger breed with a warning that the stall was now a target for a pack attack.

In heated ensuing exchanges, a bowler hat was sent flying, posters and vegetarian Cassoulet tins followed and in the nick of time the referee’s penalty whistle (in reality the video editor), ended the challenge with a diplomatic fadeout …

…but not for long.

‘Harry’, his co-star and tins of the authentic stuff — Cassoulet La Belle Chaurienne quickly resurfaced with the all important marketing kicker: “Of course British Cassoulet doesn’t exist”. 

Just to make sure his fellow Chauriens know he is on-side, he peeled off the mint-flavoured labels on the British invader to reveal a Castelnaudary-made product in all its French glory.

While it is clear to YouTube viewers this amusing piece of candid camera was actually a clever viral gimmick, advertising “the real Cassoulet, the La Belle Chaurienne brand, judging by the heat of the match that market day, ‘Harry’ might well stay away from the weekly marché for a while.

For when it comes to the 100-Year-War, gastronomy and history, the locals clearly have very long memories.

Story: Ken Pottinger


Update:According to La Depeche “In fact, the advertising agency which dreamt up the video is not that far from the truth in its assertions about the origin of cassoulet. This Languedoc specialty is the object of a longstanding, ancient feud between Castelnaudary, Carcassonne and Toulouse. The controversy is about the origin of the recipe, its ingredients and gastronomic quality. According to Prosper Montagné a leading chef and native of Carcassonne, legend has it that cassoulet was invented in Castelnaudary, during the Hundred Years War (1337-1453) … to steel the defenders against English forces then laying siege to the town. (Other legends claim the recipe was so successful that a post-prandial Chaurien onslaught beat the English troops into a retreat that only ended at the channel ports.) A fraternity was set up in Castelnaudary in 1970, to promote Chaurien cassoulet while for its part. Carcassonne has a Cassoulet Academy.”

A comprehensive history of the dish, which may have originated from Arab recipes, is found here. (in French)

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11 Responses to ‘British’ Cassoulet re-ignites 100-Year-War

  1. Simon Oliver November 14, 2011 at 12:19 pm

    The video is amusing, if a tad frightening. Once locals are provoked – anywhere – they can become menacing.
    Nonetheless, Castelnaudary market is one of the best in the Languedoc: very cheap, very busy and full of incident!

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