From Bayonne, we had took a train to Toulouse, and then changed trains to arrive in Carcassonne in the heart of the Languedoc région. The second train was not air conditioned, and the hour-long ride through the sunny South of France was uncomfortably hot - not the best of my train rides. It was hot when we arrived in Carcassonne, too, but luckily it was a short, mostly shady walk from the train station to the hotel. Sadly, the hotel did not have an elevator, but happily it had wifi and was climate controlled, and we took advantage of the cool for a while before deciding it was time for dinner.
Carcassonne is one of the top tourist destinations in France, attracting visitors with its well-preserved (just as Viollet-le-Duc) medieval walled city on a hill, called la Cité (literally, the city). I'll have more on the history of la Cité in my next post, but for now I'll just say that while la Cité has about 200 residents, most of Carcassonne's inhabitants live in the Bastide Saint Louis, the neatly arranged (really, I've never seen such straight, precise roads in a town this old!) town at the bottom of the hill. Our hotel was in la Bastide.
A little past 7:00, we headed out to find some dinner. The sun was still blazing, but the temperature had cooled down from scorching to quite warm. I had chosen l'Ecurie, a former horse stable turned restaurant. But before we could dine, we had to find the restaurant. Despite the straight roads in la Bastide, I had a terrible time finding my way in Carcassonne. It didn't help that the streets were completely deserted. Even though it was still perfectly light out, la Bastide felt a little eerie - like you didn't know who was waiting around the next corner to pounce on you. I haven't felt that way often in France - even the streets of Paris at night always seemed fine to me - but in Carcassonne, the dry, dusty, hot air just didn't seem entirely welcoming.
Finally we did find the restaurant, which included a large open terrace where we could watch the sun go down as we ate. I started with a tatin de tomates:
A tatin is a pie that is baked under a pie crust, then flipped upside down for serving so that the crust is underneath, the way a traditional French tarte would be. This tatin was topped with caramelized tomatoes, with just a hint of rosemary. The caramel brought out the sweetness of the fruit as a counterpoint to the acidity of the tomatoes, while the rosemary added a little earthiness. The crust was perfectly crisp around the edges, though a little soft in the middle. It also came with a small, overdressed green salad.
For my main course, we are in Languedoc, so of course I had to go with the cassoulet:
This is down-home comfort food at its most down-homey and comforting. Cassoulet is a casserole of white beans and meat, usually made with duck confit, pork, and mutton and cooked with goose fat, onion, and herbs. My small casserole was brought out still bubbling, and slightly crispy on top. The rich flavor of the duck had really spread throughout the dish - there was a lot of flavor that had clearly taken a long time to develop. The meat fell apart on my fork and practically melted on my tongue next to the beans. It's a beautiful, deep, rich dish that would have been perfect if it were November instead of August - definitely the wrong weather to fully appreciate this dish. Oh what sacrifices I made!
To go with my cassoulet, I had a glass of Minervois rouge, a Languedoc-Rousillon AOC wine. It's a blend of Syrah and Grenache, and had a very deep red color. This is not a wine for the faint of heart; it's full bodied, with blueberries in the nose and a mild astringency in the mouth. The flavor really builds in the finish, although I must confess it mostly just tasted like red wine to me. It was a little strong for my taste, but its boldness did match up to the heaviness of the cassoulet well.
Now, I can't talk about wine in Carcassonne without mentioning the Languedoc accent; it's just too funny. It's kind of like they chew the n's more - vin becomes ving, pain becomes paing. I almost didn't understand the server when he asked me if I wanted some ving to go with my meal. For those of you who know what a classic Loire French accent sounds like, here's an example of the Languedoc accent. It makes me giggle. Okay, end of digression, I'll get back to our regularly scheduled programming now.
For dessert, I ordered a soupe aux fraises:
While this was called strawberry soup, and it looks like strawberry soup, the overpowering flavor was mint. There were mint leaves in the soup, and the green drizzled on to the whipped cream on top was a mint syrup. The strawberry flavor only really came through in the finish. After such a hot meal, it was wonderful to cool down again with this refreshing soup.
After dinner, we walked to the Pont Vieux (old bridge) to have a look at la Cité at night. We had our look for about 2 seconds, then turned around to rush home with a big group of tourists passing by us so we wouldn't be alone in the long, lonely, dark streets. It definitely felt a little creepy and opressing after dark, and we were glad to get back to our hotel and shower and relax in our cool room.
Coming soon: The medieval walled city, home of Best Western and noisy toy swords and too many tourists.