Mmmm... warming thoughts for cyclists from France's 'Black Prince Country' - the Canal du Midi . So what do pancake day and Castelnaudary have in common? Head out on a bike tour in France’s Canal du Midi area and you’ll find history providing plenty of fascinatingly straightforward explanations.
The Canal du Midi, edging alongside Provence down in the south of France dishes up some superb gentle cycling along the canal tow paths - and a very healthy helping of history too, with some really satisfying local cuisine just waiting to be washed down by the warm, tongue-tickling reds of the Languedoc Roussillon. It’s both temptingly rich and remarkably straightforward, so with our new Canal du Midi cycling tours already proving popular not just with the Cycle Breaks team but with our customers too, we thought it time to share a bit more of the taste of the place.
Cassoulet. The ubiquitous herb-flavoured pork, bean and vegetable stew is a hearty and would you believe, historical affair. It’s a firm favourite in the Canal du Midi area and part of southern France furniture and has its home in Castelnaudary, the destination you reach on the first day of our Canal du Midi cycle tour after a short train ride from Carcassonne.
According to legend, it’s a bit like the hot-pot version of a pancake – a chance to eat all the leftovers at once to get one’s strength up before a mighty challenge. Only in this French case, the challenge wasn’t Lent, but a tussle with England’s famous Black Prince…
Tradition says that the people of Castlenaudry invented cassoulet during the 100 Years War, when the Plantagenet Black Prince besieged the town in 1355. They simply threw all the food they had into a pot to feed the soldiers who, fortified by the meal, threw the English out. Only thing was that the Black Prince sacked and burned down the town before they went. Oops. Perhaps English visitors best park that thought along with their bikes...
What is beyond doubt is that Cassoulet is named after the cassole: the shallow clay pot in which it is traditionally cooked. The cassole was made in Issel, a small village to the north of Castelnaudary where a pottery was established in the 14th century. Fundamentally, it’s the local clay used in the pots that is said to give Castelnaudary cassoulet its delicious, unique flavour.
But there’s more. According to purists, true cassoulet should also be cooked in a baker’s oven with wood from the nearby Montagne Noire hills; its haricot beans lovingly soaked in the town’s own spring water. Hmmm, there’s always a black art it seems to any special local dish. Wherever your bike takes you in Castelnaudry though, the authentic dish is bound to taste extra special on its home territory. A good excuse if ever you needed one to tuck in and like those besieged soldiers, fortify yourself before the bike ride back to Carcassonne.
Our bike tours around France’s Canal du Midi lead through gentle countryside, along shady tow paths and take in the region’s magnificent vineyards too. Since 2007 Languedoc has enjoyed “AOC” (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée - Origin-Controlled Wine) status and recognized for some refreshingly wonderful wines. But alas, history has not always been so kind…
The Greeks made wine-making a pressing pastime in the area between Carcassonne and Narbonne as early as the 5th century BC. Rolling the clock forward to more modern times prior to the construction of the famous Canal Royale (the Canal’s name until France and its royalty parted company), this was traditionally known as an area of high quantity, low quality wines supplying cheap vins de table to the industrial regions of the north.
The arrival of the Canal du Midi, and then in the 19th century the railway, greatly improved this trade, but the root-eating Phylloxera aphid descended and nearly destroyed the industry in the 1860s. The solution came in the form of grafting European vines onto American rootstock and by 1900, the wine industry was back and booming – not for long though, as over-production and wine made from sugar beet nearly destroyed the industry again, provoking an uprising in 1907 amongst the growers in the South.
Since the turn of the 20th century, and particularly after 1945, the story of the Canal du Midi as a wine region has been one of improvement. It has shrugged off its disappointing reputation and has achieved a position in the quality wine market.
The two wine areas that the Cycle Breaks bike tour passes through are the AOC Cabardès, to the north of Carcasonne, and the larger AOC Minervois stretching from Carcassonne to Narbonne, along the foothills of the Montagne Noire. Most of the wine produced here is red, typically from the Mediterranean grape types such as Grenache, Mourvèdre or Syrah, vines introduced during the restructuring of the industry over the last 30 years.
Whether accompanied by a hearty helping of local cassoulet or enjoyed soaking up a spot of evening sun on the café terrace, a glass or two of Languedoc Roussillon has to be a great, straightforward sort of way to round off any day spent exploring the Canal du Midi by bike.
Consume with moderation, but without hesitation! What better way to get to a taste for the true flavour of the delicious Canal du Midi area…
At Cycle Breaks, we won’t just organize your self-guided gentle bike tour to France and really inspiring destinations like the Canal du Midi. We make sure that you have all the info and personal top tips you need to experience everything at your own pace, from local landmarks to delicious regional dishes and wines worth discovering.
Bike tours France – Canal du Midi. See our full portfolio of bike tours in Canal du Midi and Provence.
Canal du Midi - ‘Petit’ (Tour FM5) is our great little short break from Carcassonne to Béziers.
Or take in Castelnaudry to taste cassoulet ‘sur place d’origine’ on our Canal du Midi – Canals & Cathar Villages (Tour FM8)
Contributed (& pondered over) by : Andy W. & Win.E. Buff