We all know cassoulet, don’t we? Or do we? It turns out that there are three distinct styles depending on where the dish comes from. Try to define the dish itself and you’ll get arguments, but in all honesty, I don’t really care. In Toulouse, I don’t meet a single cassoulet I don’t want to bathe in immediately.
The finest I try during our visit is from utterly gorgeous Le Bibent. It’s set in the main Place du Capitole, minutes from where we’re staying in the wonderfully old-school luxury of Grand Hotel de l’Opéra, a 17th century former convent. The restaurant is a piece of Belle Epoque stucco history fully restored by its new owner, celebrity chef Christian Constant. Food is evolved-brasserie in style – scallops with tempura boudin noir(blood sausage) and truffle in a mustardy cream sauce; and the immodestly-but accurately described ‘la fabuleuse tarte au chocolat’ – but the star of the show comes in its huge, earthenware cassole, and is a beast of a cassoulet with extraordinary depth of flavour. We try to better it during our stay… and fail.
Like every other food-obsessed city, Toulouse has its fair share of markets. The main covered market, Marché Victor Hugo, is in a delicious warren of streets: chocolate shops a go-go; cheese shops – both the famous Xavier and the cute Fromagerie Betty that would make a turophile weep with lust. The market itself is all you would hope for, dripping with saucissons, stacked with tins of foie gras and cassoulet, and honking with the region’s beloved roquefort. The upper floor is a tourist-free cache of wonderfully French restaurants – the perfect choice for lunch. This is what I call a food court.
But I prefer the quieter, lower-key Marché des Carmes. It attracts mostly local shoppers and is notably friendly: I go to take a photo of some beautiful bread and the stallholder insists I ‘pay’ by eating a friand (a gorgeous little almond cake). Deal! We talk to the charcuterie chap, who offers us tasters of noir de Bigorre (the French equivalent of blackfoot ham and the area’s contender for iconic ‘pata negra’ status); and a cured liver sausage, a specialty of Toulouse as powerful as a smack in the chops. Then tastings of foie gras at Baron de Roquette (baron-de-roquette.com): cuit (cooked) and mi-cuit (semi-cooked). I’m now obsessed with their ‘ail rose’, the famous ‘Label Rouge’ pink garlic from Lautrec, minced and confit in duck fat for dotting over potatoes or pasta, seasoning meat – or simply for spreading on toast. To my astonishment, Lesley, la patronne, hails from, er, Glasgow. We lubricate the richness with a glass of sweet, potent Gaillac. This has become my new favourite breakfast.
Toulouse twinkles with Michelin stars. I’m so over the dreary, hushed rooms and tortured food that typify haute cuisine, so I approach Michel Sarran with a degree of weary caution. It’s a revelation: light, modern, buzzing; handsome M. Sarran at hand, distributing insanely good food and charm in equal measure. People are actually laughing: perhaps they’ve been rendered giddy by the cooking – a mix of superb local produce, creativity, technique and fun. Oily little slices of focaccia come with a toothpaste tube – but instead of Colgate, it’s confit duck purée. Here, cassoulet comes as an intense mousse of beans piked with morsels of pork, and is more sensation than food. There’s a haunting soup of foie gras, with a briny Belon oyster at its heart; and a purple breast of prized local ‘pigeon du Mont Royale’ wrapped in kataifi pastry with a slick of pungent, black squid ink purée – a kind of Maghreb-meets-Spain assembly that hints at Toulouse’s frequently Iberian influence. Sarran does something indescribably good with a whole Périgord truffle for a starter, making me issue a small moan. This is how the dreaded ‘fayn dayning’ should be done.
After all this, we’re in the mood for something a little… earthier. We ask our newly-made Toulouse chums, Morgane and Gabriel, if they can recommend an old bar, the kind of place tourists don’t usually find. Thus begins an evening of discovery. They introduce us to Chez Authié and I love the place; love it. It’s everything I want to find and more; ancient, quirky, beautiful; zinc bar and tiled floor and old photographs but with a modern sensibility which delivers a menu crammed with the owner’s own Aubrac family charcuterie, tomme de brebis cheese with cherry conserve and a deliciously reprehensible tartine laden with roquefort, cantal, cream and ham. We would’ve been happy to stay there – to never move again, in fact – but Morgane and Gabriel have other plans.
It’s over to the Rive Gauche: as ever with left banks more grungy and trendy than right. Streets bristle with ethnic food stores and tapas bars (that Spanish connection again). Our destination is Chez Carmen, aka Restaurant des Abbatoirs. I’m hoping this is due to its proximity to the gallery of the same name, but no: the menu is rammed with recherché animal parts: pig and veal feet, tête de veau (calf’s head), andouillettes (a very much acquired-taste sausage made from pig’s colon) and yards of tripe.
We have beef tartare and ‘à la ficelle’ (‘on a string’ – poached by dangling in boiling stock by a thread and served with ot-au-feu vegetables); pansette (lamb tripe) in a rich, tomatoey sauce; and calf’s brains. Raw. Uh-huh. They’re smooth and a little wobbly, served in the thinnest slices, as though someone’s shaved through an over-set, vaguely meaty panna cotta. Dressed with lemon, oil and spring onion, they’re a revelation. We are, unsurprisingly, the only rosbifs in the place.
We can’t leave Toulouse without wallowing in the pleasures of the bourgeoisie: restaurants like Emile (restaurant-emile.com) in its lovely little brick townhouse on the Place Saint-Georges, where I keep murmuring ‘textbook’ at ripely crusted cassoulet and amazingly pneumatic apricot soufflé. It’s full of families and couples; everyone feels like a regular. Or Le Bon Vivre, on elegant Place Wilson. It’s a tunnel of a room filled with well set-up locals straight out of le central casting. Here we enjoy the most heroic onion soup, topped with about a stone of gruyère and noodles dressed with seared foie gras. The idea of one more cassoulet defeats us.
We leave to effusive ‘au revoirs’ and ‘mercis’. When you say ‘merci’, the usual response is ‘de rien’ (‘not at all’). Here – and only here – it’s ‘avec plaisir’. Toulouse, you gorgeous thing, the pleasure is all ours.
By Marina O’Loughlin (@MarinaOLoughlin)
Written Summer 2014
Main image taken by Stephane Frances