We went to Toulouse yesterday, to visit the markets. This wasn’t a trip to stock up the larder though. This was a history lesson, as offered by Elyse Rivin, long term resident of Toulouse and great enthusiast for the city. She is a full fledged official guide and art historian, and runs Toulouse Guided Walks. We’d booked.
Minutes after we met, we found ourselves in front of Victor Hugo market. You’ll go here for meat or fish, but also for all the other foodstuffs that markets do so well – fruit, vegetables, bread and patisseries, drinks. At lunchtime you might pop up to the first floor to have a convivial meal at one of the several restaurants up there, all using fresh produce bought only an hour or two before from the stalls below. This market, like every other in Toulouse bar one, is a concrete horror story. Back in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, they demolished the elegant iron and glass Victorian structures: they needed car parking space of course, and somehow contrived to squeeze car-parks-with-added-market onto those old sites.
Toulouse has had markets since way before the 12th century, and most had a speciality. Victor Hugo’s (I’m guessing it wasn’t called that then) was wood.
We wandered along to the Capitole, the splendid central square of Toulouse. Usually it’s an an elegant place, airy and inviting. On Wednesdays it’s inviting for a different reason: There’s a market: a big one. Teeming with second-hand books, brocante of every kind, traders from every corner of the world…… And on other days, there’ll be organic food stalls instead.
I remember learning in history lessons how the streets of London were often taken over by particular trades – leather sellers, poulterers, bakers and so on. So it was in Toulouse. Many of these trade names have been lost, but there are still streets with the old Occitan names: the cauldron makers for instance. And some trades hang on, in an unbroken line from the 12th century. Rue Sainte Ursule for example, then as now, housed textile merchants. These days that means clothes shops, textile wholesalers, even small scale manufacture. This area is still named Quartier Bourse after the Bourse des Marchands (a trade association, an antecedent of the Chamber of Commerce). In the 19th century a fine new neo-Classical building was built, and this is the Tribunal de Commerce, where trading disputes are resolved.
On to Esquirol. Flour was measured here in a stone basin, by volume not weight, to prevent honest shoppers being short changed. A beady eye was kept on those who attempted to ‘cut’ their flour with chaff, dustings of rye flour and so on. Back in the middle ages, as now, white bread was prized. No market here now, because back in the 19th century, several long straight roads – in this case Rue de Metz – were sliced through the city, laying waste anything in their tracks. The market hall that was here has been rebuilt piece by piece at Lourdes, so you could go and see it if you liked, unlike all those other lost structures.
Next stop: a walk down down Rue des Filatiers. I love this narrow street with its tall, elegant houses, many dating from the 16th century. Take a look at the pictures. And then we were at Carmes, originally home of the Carmelites. The order eventually won a long battle with the city to be allowed to have a monastery in Toulouse. What clinched it was when they assured the pope that their long ministry in the area of Mount Carmel gave them a unique possibility of converting the area’s small Jewish population. The city fathers had to give in.
Carmes, like the other markets, is now a concrete box, instead of a complement to the smart 19th century character of this historic area. But we were here to sample cheeses, guided by a local affineur, at a shop called Sena. What this means is that the shop buys cheeses direct from the maker, and matures and ripens them to what it considers perfection. Our guide for the occasion wanted to share three fairly local cheeses with us. We had a young soft goat’s cheese ‘Cathare’, fresh and light, dusted with ash: this was 10 days old. Our cow’s cheese, yielding, tasty and with a volcanic looking grey crust was 5 weeks old. Best known was the Ossau-Iraty cheese, made from sheep’s milk from the Basque country and the Béarn, which had the most pronounced taste of all. He paired these with fruits: raisins, candied kiwi, and almonds. For tasting purposes, he explained, these are better than bread. We had a glass of the most local wine to Toulouse as well, Fronton. This was a Négrette, low in tannin and acidity.
I talked to him about English cheeses. He sells Blue Stilton, but I was alarmed to see, among all his hand-picked artisanal cheeses, a block of shrink-wrapped orange cheddar. He told me that people bought it for barbecues, to put on cheeseburgers. He had, he said, little incentive to stock English cheeses, which he knew could be very good, because the French would not buy. Presented with shrink-wrapped cheddar, are you surprised?
Still, by now it was long past midday. Back to Carmes to hunt for a lunch-stop, where we could discuss the morning over a leisurely plat du jour.