Want to get a better understanding of French gastronomy and culture? Take a food tour of the Victor Hugo Market in Toulouse.
Visiting the Marché Victor Hugo is on every list of things to do in Toulouse, but I didn’t fancy trying to decode various foods with unpronounceable French names. Thankfully I didn’t need to play roulette with my food choices, or use my pigeon-French at the market stalls – because I took a food tour of the Victor Hugo Market with Taste of Toulouse.
The fact that our host Jessica was from the United States was the first thing that surprised me! I’m not saying I expected Jean-Luc with a handlebar moustache, but I was surprised. She moved to Toulouse from Chicago and spotted a gap in the market to educate tourists about French gastronomy, without the stereotypical references to snails or frogs legs! I was with a group of journalists and we all had some knowledge of French cuisine, but she anticipated perfectly what we wanted and needed to know. My sister married a French chef, so I do know my pomme from my pomme de terre, but I did get a much better understanding of French gastronomy and culture on this tour.
Another surprise was that we spent the entire three and a half hour tour inside the Victor Hugo Market. I take food tours regularly on holidays, but this tour was unique because we never left the market. The ground floor is packed with circa 100 vendors selling everything from foie gras to candied violets (a local sweet in Toulouse). Upstairs there are five restaurants that only offer fresh produce from the market located below them. Walking around with Jessica, sampling the delicious produce was one of the highlights of my weekend in Toulouse.
Jessica started the tour by introducing us to the French staple, the baguette. She purchased baguettes from Maison Beauhaire – who are proud winners of Meilleurs Ouvriers de France, a unique and prestigious trade award in France. This was one of those situations where I can only say ‘you had to be there’! How Jessica made a 15-minute conversation about baguettes interesting, I will never know – but she did! I was well and truly amazed about how little I knew about something that I bought in my local supermarket every week.
Did you know that a traditional baguette (baguette de tradition) is made only of water, flour, salt and yeast – nothing else should be added. When you buy a baguette in France, there is no fear that it will be soft by the end of the day, despite having no preservatives added. I learned how to tell the difference between a hand-made baguette and one that sits on a conveyor belt. I learned that the naturally-occurring sugars should caramelise to give a sweet taste on the crust, and therefore never to buy a pale or undercooked baguette. I have found myself studying baguettes in my local SuperValu since I returned home. Cuisine de France no longer makes the grade I’m afraid…
After the intriguing baguette lesson, we stopped at various stalls including Maison Garcia, which was one of my favourites. Their saucisson sec (dried pork sausage, flavoured with only salt and pepper) and their rillettes d’oie et lapin (goose and rabbit rillettes, which is shredded meat cooked in fat) were delicious, so much so that I brought some home, vacuum packed. I am convinced my son Luke (11) will be a food critic one day, he has an incredible palate. He devoured the saucisson that I brought home and asked if we can order more online – sadly they don’t ship outside of France.
Our next stop was the Papaix et Fils, a farm-to-counter foie gras producer. Jessica explained about the feeding process and somewhat alleviated our concerns about how the geese were fed. Of course it is impossible to find a truly humane way to make foie gras, but it was nice to be able to talk to the farm owner and hear how he cared for his ducks. We tasted foie gras ‘entier,’ the purest form of foie gras, which I had never tried before. This is a whole lobe of foie gras, only seasoned with salt and pepper, then sliced – not spread like regular paté. It was delicious.
With sustainability being on everybody’s minds, to witness how there is little or no food waste in France was remarkable. In true French style, Papaix et Fils didn’t only sell foie gras. We tasted the 100% duck boudin (blood sausage), fritons (fried duck skin – almost like snack), and slow-cooked magret de canard (duck breast) too.
Jessica picked up a selection of cheeses from Fromagerie Emilie, Chèvre de Pic (raw milk ash-rinded goat cheese from the Tarn & Garonne), Cantal Entre Doux (pressed, uncooked raw milk cow cheese from Auvergne), Brebis Artisanal (pressed, uncooked raw milk sheet cheese from Béarn, in the Pyrenees), and Roquefort (raw milk sheep blue cheese from Aveyron).
Although we enjoyed light bites from various food stalls during the tour, most of Jessica’s purchases went straight into her large straw basket. Much to our delight, at the end of the tour Jessica led us to a wine bar. There was a large wine barrel with a reserved sign on it and a waitress arrived immediately with sparkling wine and an ice bucket. Lunch was looking good! Jessica proudly displayed her purchases and poured us all a glass of wine. Once again Jessica described what we were eating and paired the food with different wines. Last but not least we had various ganache and praliné chocolates from Criollo Chocolatier. It really was the perfect ending to a superb tour.
My visit to the Victor Hugo Market was one highlights of my weekend in Toulouse. Don’t let the ‘modern brutalist’ architecture put you off – although brash on the outside, it is anything but on the inside. Opened in 1892, the Victor Hugo Market is the largest market in Toulouse with over 100 top-class vendors. It was wonderful to see locals shopping here instead of at large supermarket chains. The Victor Hugo Market is the beating heart of Toulouse. I only wish we had something similar in scale and quality in my own home town.