Toulouse, called La Ville Rose or the Pink City, in southwest France, is a place whose food culture over the ages has explored strange and varied flavors.
First there were the Romans bringing dormice (yes, the rodent!) poached in honey and fish pickle sauce. Then in the Middle Ages, Toulouse became rich from the woad plant of blue dye fame. Its leaves, soaked and sipped, were used for medicine.
In the 19th century, the violet became both the symbol of the city and a culinary prize. Violet fairs, violet markets, and violet festivals flooded city squares with swaths of purple flowers and dozens of edible offerings. This tradition continues today, and on a recent visit I stopped to sample some floral gourmet creations at La Maison de la Violette, a specialist shop on a barge anchored on the Canal du Midi.
Here I discovered that there are 400 varieties of violets, and that the popular Parma violet is believed to have come from Turkey. Every year top chefs vie to produce violet-themed dishes for the Festival of Violets held in February. The offerings at La Maison de la Violette were more modest than last year’s winning dish of Filet Mignon de Veau Fermier à la Violette, but every form of candy, cookie, bonbon, vinegar, or liqueur on display paid homage to the flower.
My personal favorites were the pale lavender meringues filled with violets and the violet syrup taken in a cup of tea. The flower added more aroma than flavoring but made me think of fairy tales in which magical food was a prominent feature.
Moving from violets to foie gras is a short step in Toulouse. At the Victor Hugo covered market, all of the edible riches of the French countryside are spread out in rows of alluring showcases. The city claims that it produces the best foie gras in France, and it’s hard to dispute.
The market stall of Maison Samaran offers a foie gras that dissolves like butter on the tongue. As I wandered through the aisles of gustatory glories, cases of delectable French cheeses sat next to haunches of Serrano ham, and on the market’s exterior, overflowing stands showed off, in a rainbow of reds and oranges, the first soft fruits of the season: strawberries, cherries, peaches, and apricots.
Sampling is a great way to get a taste for a town’s cuisine, but by now I was hungry and headed for Le Bibent on the Place du Capitole, the main square of the city.
The home restaurant of celebrity chef Christian Constant, Le Bibent celebrates the regional food of Toulouse. Located in a florid, historically listed building whose interiors boast painted ceilings and gilded mirrors, the outside setting is simple, with only a few tables and chairs, flourishes of pink oleander, and a busy open market a few steps away.
My crispy Shrimp en Papillote, served with sweet mustard and some fresh salad greens, was pretty on the plate and a nice way to start the meal. The main course of delicate hake was some of the best fish I’ve ever tasted. Sweet, moist, crusted with almonds, and served on a bed of spinach with a tease of lemon, it melted in the mouth.
Dessert was a trip back to my childhood—a pot of creamy rice pudding scented with vanilla and served with a rich swirl of caramel and two side swirls of meringue.
Just across the square, a stall selling West African carvings was doing a booming business while its owner munched a kebab sandwich smothered in hummus, a grace note of the exotic in the eclectic panoply of foodie Toulouse.
Susan James is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. She has lived in India, the U.K., and Hawaii, and writes about travel, art, and culture.