Toulouse was the final stop on our tour of France before we entered unchartered Spanish territories, a final salute to French eating. It was here we met a good friend from university who will be joining us until the end of our trip. With a new companion on board we had much reason to celebrate and Toulouse proved to be a suitable destination to do just that.
As soon as we stepped off the train at 7pm on that Friday evening a flood of young faces swam around us. We were in student town. From afar, Toulouse appears to be a sleepy, picturesque French city, characterised by the meandering Garonne River adorned with ancient bridges. We, however, were immersed in the heart of the student section of the city, a brief walk from the historic and touristic centre, and it was anything but. Carefree undergrads spilled out of bars, a constant note of laughter hung in the air and the musky smell of cheap tobacco hovered in dense clouds in the narrow streets. Gripped by the energy, we immediately joined the hoards having dropped our bags at our apartment.
After a short walk, perhaps just a few a streets, it became clear that we would have to eat some cassoulet. Rich, meaty smells poured from every other restaurant and we struggled to move for the blackboards that blocked the cobbled pavements advertising the local dish. Exhausted, however, after a tedious train journey, we decided to enjoy cassoulet on an evening when we could really appreciate it. Instead, we opted for a burger at the funky L’atelier Burger. My steak hache was devilishly thick and pink, beef juices and egg yolk ran down my hand with every bite. Perhaps it was the delirium of starvation but in that moment it was the best burger I have ever eaten. You have got to love France, even their local burger bars make our Byron Burgers and Gourmet Burger Kitchens seem feeble. Keen to partake in the Friday festivities, we scoffed our burgers and joined the delinquents on the river bank. If you are looking for a party in Toulouse, just head for the river after dark. Armed with a few bottles of cheap wine, we immersed ourselves in the crowds of French teenagers and twenty-somethings. I don’t remember much beyond this point but I do know I have acquired a liking for French rap.
The next morning, with thick heads, we struggled to Les Halles Victor Hugo, Toulouse’s most frequented and largest weekend food market. Given our apartment had a well equipped kitchen and our finances were under scrutiny, not helped by our ongoing deposit dispute with our London landlord, I decided to cook cassoulet myself with some excellent local ingredients. I did not need to venture outside of Victor Hugo to wrangle everything required for the dish. The chicken thighs – although many would use duck – resembled that of an Olympic weight lifters’, enormous, dense and meaty, the largest I had ever seen. I bought a similarly huge length of Toulouse sausage from the jolliest of French butchers, who was thrilled to hear I was making a local dish with his produce. Opposite the butcher stood a shop selling tripe. Immersed among the bull hearts and sheep’s brains were the infamous delicacy, Andouillette, the intestine sausage I had encountered in Troyes in east central France. I felt compelled to buy some for dinner on another day. The vegetables, herbs and haricots blanc – a small butter bean – were easy to locate in the sprawling array of food vendors. With all my ingredients stashed in my trusty canvas, we ambled down to the river for lunch and devoured a fresh baguette, still soft and warm from the oven, a saucisson and some Buche de Chevre, all of which I had bought from Victor Hugo just minutes before. In the light of day, Toulouse was idyllic.
As the afternoon turned to evening and a chill crept into the air, we hurried back to our apartment to assemble what we had bought earlier in the day. To make the cassoulet, I first sealed the chicken and the sausage by briefly frying them in oil and butter on a high heat, this locks in flavours before it is added to the stew. Once golden, I removed the meat and threw in smoked lardons, when these were crispy I added a chopped onion and three cloves of garlic. When the onions were soft and translucent, the meat went back into the pan for a few minutes with a tablespoon of dried thyme. Once the flavours had infused, I added a pint of fresh chicken stock, also bought from the market, four large, chopped tomatoes and two tins of haricots blanc. Next, I turned up the heat and reduced the stew before heaving on the cast iron lid of the casserole dish and leaving the ingredients to simmer for forty minutes.
The eating was sublime. I hadn’t tasted cassoulet in years and the first mouthful bought back vivid memories of my mother’s excellent sausage stew. The salty bacon, creamy beans, garlicky sausages and tender chicken all play their part in the symphony of flavours. We ate this dish with a full-bodied bottle of red and nothing else. I would strongly recommend you conquer winter’s chill with this cassoulet recipe – found on the BBC Good Food website – or just visit the South of France.
Our final evening in France was marked with another French staple. I didn’t fall in love with Andouillette in Troyes when it was grilled and served with a thick cream and wholegrain mustard sauce. So, in order to rectify my relationship with the intestine sausage I decided to cook it myself. I removed the Andouillette from its casing and fried the insides with garlic, lardons and onion. I served the tripe on a bed of bitter greens which I had steamed over chicken stock and then gently fried them with onions and garlic. Finished with a large spoonful of Dijon mustard, I much preferred my attempt at Andouillette, however, I am not yearning for more just yet.
Predominantly occupied by students, the charming city offers far more than cheap club nights. Whether you visit its beautiful churches, indulge in the hectic nightlife or become immersed in the bustling food markets, Toulouse is a destination for every personality, well except perhaps vegetarians.