The medieval fortress and citadel of Carcassonne.

Hors Course stage 15: Medieval Carcassonne and its signature dish, the cassoulet

We’re back in Carcassonne for stage 15, scene of history-making sprint victories and some delicious history.

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As heard on the Tour Daily podcast, José Been is taking us off the race route for some local historical and cultural context for each stage, from Denmark all the way to Paris.

Today’s finish is in the magnificent city of Carcassonne. In 2018 Magnus Cort won the 15th stage by beating Ion Izagirre, and last year Mark Cavendish won his fourth stage of that Tour de France to bring his total to 34

Carcassonne is a fortified medieval city and unique in Europe for its size and state of preservation. Its history is marked by 2,000 years of conquest and it was an important stronghold in Catharism, a minority religion in catholic France and during the Crusades. The walls of the medieval city are three kilometers long and count no less than 52 massive towers. Overhanging wooden ramparts attached to the upper walls of the fortress provided protection to defenders on the wall and allowed them to shoot arrows or drop projectiles on attackers beneath.

In the 19th century Carcassonne was struck off the roster of official fortifications under Napoleon. It fell into such disrepair that the French government decided that it should be demolished, causing an uproar among local citizens. 

A successful campaign was launched to renovate the entire city. However, it was a 19th century interpretation of the Middle Ages and therefore a slightly romanticized version of the original village. Plague ridden and infested with rats and disease, the average medieval city was not a fun place to live but who cares, the current Carcassonne is a fantastic sight to see. 

The component parts of a cassoulet… Is your mouth watering yet?

One of the signature dishes of the region is cassoulet. Carcassonne is home to the one and only Cassoulet academy which promotes the dish, all the ingredients involved, plus the culture and heritage associated with it. It also aims to bring together the men and women with knowledge of the recipe, to make known the culinary creativity, the traditions and the language of the inhabitants of the South of France and to organize events of a gastronomic, cultural, artistic, touristic and media nature. All with the sole purpose of promoting the development of His Majesty Cassoulet throughout the world and to make known the Master Cassoulet Chefs and winegrowers of the region. This all according to the official website of l’Académie Universelle du Cassoulet.

Yes, the French do take their food and wine very seriously.

Cassoulet is a stew of white beans, various meats and vegetables plus spices and herbs. The dish gets its name from the ceramic pot in which the stew is prepared. It is called a cassole, which is derived from the Occitan word caçòla, and is used to both prepare and serve the dish.

Cassoulet was born out of famine. According to popular legend, cassoulet was created during the 100 Years War between England and France in the 14th and 15th centuries. Due to famine, all residents of the community gathered their last supplies and stacked them together in a cassoulet. Each family contributed an ingredient to the recipe. This was then cooked for hours in the oven at the bakery. 

What was then a poor man’s meal became a traditional French dish. Throughout France, the stew still enjoys a high status and is extremely popular.

So, dive into your kitchen cabinets and find white beans plus some leftover veg and meat and start cooking. Bon appetit!

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