TOULOUSE – It’s hot in Toulouse.
Temperatures in this southern France city have been regularly hitting the upper 80s and even into the 90s. (That’s Fahrenheit, of course, even though folks in this part of the world prefer Celsius, which, granted, sounds a bit cooler when you hear it.)
But whether you’re talking 88 F or 31 C, we can agree that it is, in the words of Cole Porter, too darned hot.
I think we can also agree that on sultry evenings, one does not usually seek out dishes that are associated with wintery nights. Cassoulet would be among them.
But Toulouse is cassoulet country. Although there are arguments among people in the region about whether it was “invented” here or in nearby Carcasonne, it is celebrated as the local dish, and therefore available year round. And I wasn’t going to let a little heat keep me from sampling a true cassoulet during my stay here.
I chose Bistro Etoile to have my casserole, one of may in town that feature the dish but one of a handful with a reputation for excellence. It’s a reputation well deserved.
My companion and I arrived for our 9 p.m. reservation and were greeted by the owner, a matronly woman who spoke as much English as we spoke French. We’d be fine. There was a sole server, whose name we would later learn is Colette, and the two of them handled the entire dining room (which included a party of 19) with expertise and aplomb. (Compare this to the experience I had in Marseille a couple of nights earlier.)
Although there are variations, a classic cassoulet has certain necessary ingredients. There are the beans, of course. While the classic American dish for cold winter nights, chili, has beans and no beans factions, there is no such thing as a beanless cassoulet. There is also sausage and usually a bit of pork, including bacon and rind. Tomatoes and perhaps some carrots also figure in to many versions. And there is a leg of confit. Here is where there is room for interpretation. In most places you’ll find duck confit, but at Etoile — and many other Toulousian restaurants — goose is featured.
The cassoulet arrived at the table all abubble in the casserole dish it was baked in and from which it gets its name. It was difficult to leave it sit for a while while it cooled to a tastable temp. It helped to spoon a bit of it out of the casserole and onto the serving plate.
The flavors were sensational, the result of a long cooking process. Little extra seasoning is added to a classic cassoulet — it gets its flavors from the meats, sausages, fats and such. A bit of pepper may be all that you notice in the way of spicing.
It was a hardy dish, and it was difficult to finish it all, especially after our appetizers (called entrees here; the main course is the plat) of thinly sliced jambon and house pate. And we barely touched our “dessert” of assorted cheeses. This feast was just under 25 euros per person, or about $28 USD. A laughingly small amount for such a wonderful meal served in a pleasant atmosphere by two welcoming people.
I’ve made many a cassoulet; it’s one of my favorite wintertime dishes. But after my experience at Etoile, I just may add it to my summer repertoire as well.
For information about the restaurant, visit Bistro Etoile’s website.