Toulouse, France: The Exciting Heart of the Southwest
Gourmet Secrets from the South of France, Toulouse
By Cindy-Lou Dale
Toulouse is the birthplace of Concorde, the Ariane Rocket, and home to Airbus.
It also boasts sixteen-hundred boutiques, a thousand restaurants, and a myriad other gourmet finds which demand further investigation.
Which is why, upon arrival at Toulouse Blagnac Airport, I made my way to the prestigious Victor Hugo market, famous throughout France for its gourmet stalls and where I was told, I would definitely find something new to like.
Across the street from the Victor Hugo market is Xavier, a divine cheese-shop where I partook in numerous fromage treasures. Lunch, which took place on the opposite the Victor Hugo market, is a memorable, silver-service gastronomic event at Le Py-R – fresh décor, contemporary furnishings in a listed building, which reflects the cuisine of Chef Pierre Lambinon.
His is a modern cuisine while upholding traditional Gaulic values. I took my dessert at the ice cream boutique of a gourmet ice-cream maker, Philippe Faur (12 Place du Capitole), who has added an unconventional twist to his already impressive line-up of 73 products by introducing luxurious savory flavors like foie gras, caviar, saffron, and black truffle.
Capitole City and Opera House
To work up my appetite for dinner, I took in a few sites including the great Square of Place du Capitole presided over by the Capitole City Hall and Opera House.
It’s a remarkable building with eight columns of pink marble; a 16th century Renaissance palace once owned by a wealthy Woad (blue dye) merchant, now the Hotel d’Assezat; and the palm tree nave of the Jacobins Convent who host an international piano recital each September.
Gastronomy of Toulouse
In Toulouse, gastronomy is part of the lifestyle. Here eating well is of the utmost importance. Dishes like foie gras, cèpes, and goose confit or duck fillet are all created around traditional products sourced exclusively from the region. Therefore, dinner at J’Go (Rue Notre-Dame) is a feast of authentic local cuisine — their specialty being a full-bodied Cassoulet, with fries cooked in duck fat. J’Go is loud and popular with the locals.
A night-time walk along the banks of the River Garonne to admire its bridges, especially the 16th century Pont Saint Neuf, the oldest preserved bridge in Toulouse, is a must. But as I was out I felt compelled to take in a hazelnut and praline ice-cream from Octave, before bedding down for the night (marginally fatter) in the three-star Le Père Léon – a stylish and modern 41-roomed hotel in the heart of the city.
Breakfast on a sticky bun and a take-out coffee, then head to the outskirts of Toulouse to the fascinating Terre de Pastel museum and spa before visiting their Woad cosmetic and dyeing workshops where you’ll learn about the unique color of the Kings of France. They have a fabulous little shop filled with all things pastel blue, including gastronomic treats.
Another place in Le Gers where you can learn all about using Woad in dyes is at the Bleu de Lectoure, where proprietor Denise Simeon-Lambert does everything in this shade of blue.
Continuing my gourmet tour towards Albi, I had a light lunch at the rustic Le Club – a beautiful country house in Garidech with a shaded veranda and long views across the surrounding picture-postcard countryside.
Just 26km short of Albi I stopped off at the historic city of Gaillac.
The city gave its name to the renowned region for cured meats and cheeses from Lacaune, sweet pink garlic from Lautrec and specialty almond biscuits as well as lemon puff pastry.
Albi, itself a World Heritage site, is a pretty pink-hued city of art and history that conceals many architectural treasures.
On a clear summer evening, when the sun sets, the city’s reddish-pink buildings seem to blush. Maybe it’s hiding its embarrassment as it’s a little worn around the edges, with great paintings hung against crumbling walls – which all adds to its character.
It’s imperative to visit the old city, taking in the impossible-to-ignore work of French painter, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, whose theatrical depictions of life in Paris in the late 1800s is on permanent display at the impressive Palais de le Barbie.
The garden of the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum, planted at the end of the 17th century is quite spectacular with jaw-dropping views of the River Tarn.
For an interesting diversion, I drove to nearby Carmaux and its Glasswork Museum and Arts Centre who, every year, host an international exhibition of contemporary glass art.
Another find is the tranquil Royal School-Abbay of Sorèze with its wonderful exhibition of the work of Dom Robert, a famous monk/artist; and colorful, modern-looking tapestries.
There’s an excellent restaurant located in what was once the pupils’ refectory and a beautiful village to explore.
Hotel La Reserve
The end of a long day took me to Albi’s fringes and the gated five-star luxury Hotel La Reserve.
Perched on the banks of the River Tarn in five hectares of leafy parkland it’s evident why it’s become the bolt hole for royalty, the great and the good of the big screen, and those who appreciate a gentler way of life.
Benefiting from the long line of hoteliers she descends from the owner, Helene Hijosa-Rieux, knows what her discerning guests want and presents this in an impeccably maintained hotel and gourmet food worthy of a Michelin Star.
We’re talking first-class all the way with a vast outdoor pool offering views across a post-Impressionist landscape, 22 spacious and tastefully decorated river-view rooms, a manicured landscape, terrace dining – all delivered with impressive attention to detail.
Back at Toulouse Blagnac Airport, my checked-in luggage bursting at the seams with oozing cheeses and bunches of pink garlic, I reflected on the time spent appreciating some of France’s finest cuisine.
I came to the conclusion that I’ve just become an expensive date, as now I could never again bring myself to look at a laminated, slightly sticky menu card, depicting photographs of food.