Looking for restaurants in Toulouse? Want to know where to eat in the Occitanie region? Travel writer Lucy Gillmore takes us on a foodie road trip through Toulouse, stopping off at boulangeries, ice cream parlours and chocolatiers.
How do you pick a good baguette? Well, for a start, look for a pointy end. That reveals that the baker cared enough to finish it by hand rather than with a cutter, explains American expat, Jessica Hammer, whose Taste of Toulouse tours teach tourists how to eat and food-shop like the French. It also suggests that it’s a ‘baguette de tradition’ – so worth a few extra cents.
After bread quality dropped during the 20th century, the French government passed a law, a décret du pain, stipulating what could and could not be called traditional French bread (no additives, just four simple ingredients: flour, water, salt and either baker’s yeast or sourdough leaven). An everyday mass-produced baguette is a ‘baguette ordinaire’ – which says it all.
I’m in the city’s Victor Hugo covered market making crumbs and genning up on the humble breadstick. A history lesson (18th-century bread riots and the French Revolution) is thrown in for free. Other tips: it should be golden in colour (the flavour comes from the caramelisation of the crust) and check for blisters on its base (caused by the stone floor of a traditional oven). Finally, good bread has a hollow sound, explains Jessica, tapping the bottom to demonstrate.
Toulouse, capital of both the Haute-Garonne department and the Occitanie region, in south-west France, has picture-postcard prettiness down pat. A tree-lined river (the Garonne) runs through it, the blush-toned bricks that have given Toulouse its nickname, La Ville Rose (The Pink City), are made from its alluvial mud. It is home to two Unesco World Heritage Sites, the 17th-century Canal du Midi, which links the Garonne to the Mediterranean, and the Basilique Saint-Sernin. Broad boulevards circle tangled alleyways crammed with cute cafés. There’s a vibrant pop-up restaurant scene along the riverbank in summer, and markets appear round almost every corner (don’t miss the sprawling Saint-Aubin farmers’ market on Sunday mornings).
From the outside, the modernist swirl of the Victor Hugo market looks like a car park – and it is. The city’s original food market, near the Pont Neuf bridge, was demolished in the 1830s in order to build a large thoroughfare through the city. It was replaced with three others in a triangle: Victor Hugo, Carmes (short for Carmelite) and Saint-Cyprien (on the Left Bank, its ornate 19th-century ironwork still intact).
After the Second World War, however, with the Victor Hugo market falling into disrepair and more people driving into the city, the town planners had a brainwave, rebuilding Victor Hugo in 1959 with a market on the ground floor, restaurants on the first and a parking lot on top – voila.
At Maison Beauhaire’s boulangerie stall the lesson continues. Jean-Luc Beauhaire is officially one of the best bakers in France. He has an MOF (a Meilleur Ouvrier de France). Once you have an MOF, you have it for life, unlike a Michelin star. His speciality is a boule meulière, sold by the kilogramme. We watch as loaves are cut in half and weighed, and chocolatines bagged up (don’t ask for a pain au chocolat in south-west France – chocolatines, derived from the Occitan word chocolatina, are the same thing but the locals are fiercely protective of the name).
Other grazing stops include Les Choux d’Eléonore, where we sample sticky choux pastries, and the Maison Garcia – a charcuterie stall known for its Toulouse sausage, the key ingredient in cassoulet, the city’s famous dish – before wandering outside to check out some of the gourmet stores that have taken root around the market. Criollo Chocolatier displays jewel-like ganache and praline creations, their flavours ranging from dry fig, balsamic vinegar and bay leaf to lime zest and red pepper.
Artisan fromagerie and affineur Xavier, meanwhile, is also an MOF and ages cheeses from small producers around France in the cellar beneath the store, around 80 per cent of them made with raw milk. “Cheese is seasonal in France,” Jessica explains. “At Xavier you can ask what’s good today – especially with the soft cheeses. A few day’s ageing can make all the difference.” In this tiny, exquisitely arranged store the different families of cheese are divided, from the fresh goat’s cheeses to washed-rind cheeses, sheep’s milk cheeses from the Pyrenees to blue cheeses and the hard cheeses. Another handy tip: “It’s a common misconception that you should eat cheese with red wine: 80 per cent of French cheeses are better with white wine.” At the end of the tour we head back into the market to Chai Vincent’s wine stall with our spoils – a basket of bread, cheese and chocolate – and camp out with a bottle of wine.
I’m staying in a small, family-run hotel, the Hôtel Albert 1er, a mere breadcumb’s trail from the market and round the corner from the main square, the Place du Capitole. It’s the first eco-label hotel in Toulouse and an advocate of slow tourism, encouraging guests to explore on foot or by bike along mapped-out trails and to support local businesses. Breakfast is an organic spread of freshly baked breads, yogurts, cheese, free-range eggs and fruit. The hotel doesn’t serve dinner but Toulouse has no shortage of good restaurants, including a twinkling firmament of Michelin stars.
At Le Cénacle chef Thomas Vonderscher’s refined take on traditional Toulouse cuisine won him his first star in 2019. The setting is theatrical with a magnificent floor-to-ceiling carved stone fireplace at one end, a copy of Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus opposite, and the menu more than a match for the dramatic backdrop. The amuse-bouche of veal tartare with mustard ice cream whips up a mouthful of icy fire. Decadent lobster is lightened with strawberries and salty caviar. The signature dish, pithiviers de pigeon du Quercy, is essentially a posh pasty.
But what Toulouse is famous for is cassoulet. The secret of this hearty white-bean-based pork and duck confit stew is in the slow cooking: seven hours of simmering with the crust broken religiously every hour. Where it was invented – Castelnaudary, Carcassonne or Toulouse – has been the subject of good-natured rivalry over the years. Each has its regional variations. In Castelnaudary they add goose confit, in Carcassonne lamb and partridge, and in Toulouse the local sausage. But it’s Toulouse that’s home to the world championships.
Founded by two comedians, Les Chevaliers du Fiel, as a joke in 2016, this is now a regular fixture on the calendar. The winner in 2017 was Christophe Fassan, head chef at Restaurant Emile in tree-shaded Place Saint-Georges. I take a seat on a sunny winter’s afternoon and plough through an earthenware-cradled meaty monster.
I greedily grab another during my stay at Le Genty Magre, where the sausage sits stolidly on its bed of beans. Le Bibent is another legendary pit stop on the cassoulet trail – but my arteries draw the line at two. Instead I wind my way to bright Bwamoa, an inventive ‘sandwich’ bar where nutritionist-meets-mad-scientist Vincent Menseau has devised a largely vegan menu of ‘burgers’, beverages and ice creams.
The burger buns, local artisanal organic breads, are naturally coloured – bright green (that’s the chlorophyll), orange (quinoa) and black (charcoal). The fillings range from smoked salmon, guacamole and cheese to grilled vegetable tartare, guacamole and aubergine caviar.
Then there are the drinks. I watch as Vincent mixes a rose, lychee and raspberry concoction in a test tube, adding raspberry ‘snow’, chia seeds, thai basil and aloe vera topped with raspberry and rose juice. The lychee bubbles explode in my mouth, the juice deliciously fruity and floral.
The 50 ice cream flavours are seasonal. A spoonful of tawny butternut squash ice cream delivers an earthy, autumn rush. Salty cep is pure pungent forest floor. “Camembert works in winter but it’s too strong in summer,” explains Vincent, while “goat’s cheese and honey, on the other hand, is flat in winter but refreshing in summer”.
And, of course, he does violet. The Pink City’s other claim to fame is violets and, on a purple-painted barge on the Canal du Midi, I meet another colourful character, Hélène Vié, dressed head to toe in mauve. The mini floating museum, La Maison de la Violette, introduces visitors to the delicate bloom – and a vast array of violet-infused products.
It was a soldier returning from the Napoleonic wars in the 19th century who is said to have brought the first Parma violets back for his sweetheart. The plants were then cultivated locally, a perfect crop for farmers, blooming during the winter months. In the 1960s, however, several harsh winters decimated the stocks and almost all the plants were lost. Now there are only four families still cultivating violets in Toulouse, including Hélène’s, whose glasshouses are near the canal.
As well as sweets and chocolates she has created some unusual violet-infused products, such as mustard and salt, and works with local chefs to create violet-accented recipes. A splash of violet vinegar in the sauce works well with duck, she tells me. Its delicate perfumed sharpness also lifts sardines and scallop carpaccio. And violet honey with goat’s cheese? Heavenly. In February, La Ville Rose also hosts an annual violet festival celebrating its floral heritage. It seems the Toulouse violet is, thankfully, once more in the pink.
Words by Lucy Gillmore
Photographs by Lucy Gillmore and Getty Images
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Rooms at Hôtel Albert 1er from £88 per night, check availability at booking.com
For more info, see toulouse-visit.com