This is my first foray into writing a post about travel rather than just a recipe, so please bear with me. My wife decided to celebrate my birthday this year with a surprise trip to Toulouse over the early May bank holiday. This was nearly a surprise as she decided to let me know where we were going as she didn’t want to be responsible for not getting a booking at a good restaurant for one of the nights so revealed the destination to me.
Why Toulouse? My wife spent a year studying at the TBS (Toulouse Business School) and really she wanted to take me there to see the city and some of the places she used to hang out. More importantly, she made 2 really good friends whilst she was in Toulouse who still live there so managed to spend some quality time with them as well.
On top of this, the food culture in Toulouse is some of the best and oldest in the country so this would be a win/win weekend no matter what happened with weather or restaurant choice!
As soon as I found out this was the destination I did what everybody does these days and jumped onto Google to find out what and where to eat. I remember Rick Stein passed through Toulouse on his voyage down the Canal de Garonne and Canal du Midi on that huge barge (I always thought it ironic that he had a chef on board to cook!). Looking back through Rick’s programme, he really only made it to the Marche Victor Hugo in Toulouse, so that hit the list straight away and could be done on Sunday when a lot of the city is closed.
Otherwise, there are a few blogs and travel articles out there but not as many as you would expect for a city the size of Toulouse (France’s 4th biggest city with 1.3 million residents) and for a city with a food culture which is second to none.
Toulouse is famous for cassoulet, foie gras (from duck or goose), saucisse de Toulouse (Toulouse sausage), confit duck, Fenetra (a pastry) and many other dishes. So plenty to to build an appetite for. In general, we found good food everywhere we went (with only one slight mis-judgement). Food was cooked to a high standard for the price and the produce standards are high, a far cry from the state of the food offerings for similar prices in the UK. The food is good but you can’t afford to be fussy – this is France where most people eat meat, fish, salad and vegetables and the menus reflect this in that they can be limited in choice. There is a wide choice of food from cafes to Michelin star restaurants and everything in between (taco joints are everywhere and also Poutine from Quebec).
We arrived on the BA flight from Heathrow at about 1030 in the morning. Toulouse Blagnac Airport is the home of Airbus so if you like your aircraft keep an eye out for the giant Beluga freighters. We jumped into a cab €35 into the centre of the city, which took about 30 minutes, and dropped our bags off at the hotel.
The place we were aiming for, guided by the promise of fabulous frites by one of the blogs, turned out to be a pizza restaurant with not a frite in sight! So we went across the road to Le Bruit qui Court which is a small restaurant with most of the tables down stairs in the basement. Lunch was a prix fix of 2 or 3 courses; we went for 2 courses at €11. Duck salad followed by sea bass with vegetables and polenta with a cream sauce, washed down with a bottle of rose. This is simple, good, French cooking for a very good price. The French just aren’t fussy unless the food is bad or overpriced.
For dessert, we walked off lunch and headed to au Jardins du Thes at Place Saint-Georges. A carafe of rose ordered to wash down banoffee pie and a large slice of chocolate cake. Nicely prepared food and, again, reasonably priced.
We did find a good suggestion for diner at “the best wine bar in the world”. No. 5 Wine Bar is a small place, wine bar upstairs and downstairs for dining. The food on offer is a tasting menu, either the full menu or a vegetarian only menu, with wine pairing at different price points available. We went for the full menu with 5 glasses of wine for €100 each. The food was stunning – 23 small plates, most to share, all lovingly prepared with great produce. To say I was full by the end of the meal is a slight understatement. Great food, great wine and well presented by the team. If you are in Toulouse and looking for an interesting food experience go here!
We went French both days we were in Toulouse – simply coffee and croissant. Most of the cafes offer both. Normally, I avoid gluten, but when in France… Cafes in Place du Capitol offer a good spot to sit and people watch whilst planning your next move.
Lunch, day 2
To le Marche Victor Hugo! Of course, the big VH is omnipresent in all of France, and in Toulouse it is the main food market at Place Victor Hugo. A purpose built building in an art-deco style with car parking, the modern market was built in 1959 and is quite a stark building. Love it or hate it, it’s what’s inside that counts – meat, fish, vegetables, cheese, wine and a couple of bars on the ground market floor.
Upstairs, when you find them, for me is the real magic. Essentially, a balcony of small restaurants all serving lunch, all busy. We got there at 1230 and only just got a table (note, the market is open from 0700 to 1400). Next time I’ll go a bit earlier. It’s a bit daunting as there are lots of menus on placards and people pushing past; some serving; some eating; lots of noise from big tables of families; small tables of families; friends; couples; business lunches; you get the picture. We plumped for le Magret (translate as The Fat Duck Breast – wait, we could be in the UK) and were seated quickly. Another prix fix menu (there was an a la carte offering but what we came for was on the prix fix) this time €19 for 3 courses. Fish soup, cassoulet and tarte Tatin! oh and a bottle of rose. This is great food – prepared in a small kitchen for a packed, expectant clientele. Go here, you will not be disappointed.
That evening we visited our friends at their home. We all sat in the kitchen whilst they prepared a lovely meal which we ate over a 4 hour period while chatting and being entertained by their 3 year old daughter. This is a lovely way to eat – no hassle or rush, just good company, good food and good wine!
Black coffee and pain au chocolat!
We went on a road trip with our friends to see some of the southern French countryside – mainly vineyards. So we landed in the little town of Albi on the river Tarn. After a walk round the stunning Sainte Cecile Cathedral which is more fortress than church, and a wander round the Palais de la Berbie which is a museum, we had built up an appetite for lunch. We had booked a table at au Hibou (Owl) – when we got there it was fully booked. This is a mutli-function restaurant with dining on 2 floors, a small art gallery and a tattoo parlour!
Again, a prix fix €19 for 3 courses. Only 2 options for starter and 2 for main course and 3 desserts. But the chef, who is a young guy, really produced some great dishes with simple ingredients and nice twists in a tiny kitchen. Stuffed mushrooms or sardine; mackerel or duck; white chocolate with wasabi, apple with cream or ice cream with caramel sauce. Truly a memorable meal. I just wonder why food in the UK at this price point is not of the same quality – maybe we are too fussy which ultimately means we don’t get value for money.
A quick note on French coffee. Whilst the French love their coffee, France still imports Robusta coffee beans while most of us only ever drink coffee made from Arabica beans. The difference is for another post, but basically Robusta beans are not as smooth and you will notice the difference if you taste it. Be warned, you may get bad coffee.
The least favourite of our meals in Toulouse. We decided to go simple and have steak frites. 2 options: L’Entrecote or Meet the Meat. We went for Meet the Meat as it is a local Toulouse restaurant whereas L’Entrecote is now in a number of French cities with sister restaurants across Europe and further afield. Whilst we had good food, ravioli salad, duck gizzard salad and a large steak with frites and a pile of duaphinois potatoes, we felt it may not have been as good as L’Entrcote’s offering. Oh, we had a bottle of red as well. If you have not tried duck gizzards, they are well worth it – succulent morsels of tasty meat.
We found a really good cocktail bar called the Fat Cat. They served all the classic cocktails you would expect but they also have seasonal menu on a black board with some really interesting drinks. My favourite was le dessert – a combination of vanilla whisky, lemon juice, rhubarb cordial and salted butter caramel. A great find!
Toulouse, we will be back.