Toulouse is often referred to in France as the Pink City (La Ville Rose), due to the colour of the bricks used to construct many of its buildings. Sounds romantic, but I’ll be honest, I didn’t exactly fall in love with Toulouse at first sight.
First of all, brick is definitely not my favourite construction material. When it comes to architectural beauty, I’ll take wood, sandstone, marble or even adobe over brick any day of the week. And then there was the fact that, not only was it raining when we arrived, it was also May 1st, i.e. Labour Day, which the French take verrrry seriously.
So everything was shut, and there was no public transportation running at all. Not even the shuttle to get from the airport into the city centre. Hmph!
As soon as we arrived at our lodgings, though, things started to look up. Nick had booked us into an apartment through AirBnB, which turned out to be the converted attic of an 18th century building. Honestly, even if it had never stopped raining I would have been happy to hole up in our little attic nook for the whole weekend and just watch the city from the bird’s eye view out the window.
Luckily though, it did stop raining, so we soon ventured out to check out the town and look for dinner. Since Nick wanted to try the local specialty cassoulet, when we saw a restaurant called La Maison du Cassoulet we figured that would be as good a place as any [UPDATE 3 August 2018: The Toulouse branch of Maison du Cassoulet is now closed].
In my pre-trip research I hadn’t come up with much at all in the way of vegan local specialties, so I didn’t expect to find much to eat in a traditional place like this. This part of France is the home of foie gras, after all, and most dishes seem to feature goose or duck meat in some form. While there were a few salads on the menu, the descriptions seemed to indicate that even those didn’t contain many vegetables. I couldn’t help asking myself, “Where do these people get their vitamins??”
The restaurant did offer gazpacho, however, which the waiter confirmed to be vegan (after I explained what vegan meant). I didn’t think just a bowl of cold soup would fill me up, though, so I asked if they might be able to do a vegetable risotto, since there were a couple other types of risotto on the menu. The waiter was very eager to please and went to the kitchen to ask the chef.
He soon returned, however, to say that the chef didn’t have all the ingredients (read: vegetables) that he would need to make a risotto. He did offer to make me a salad, though, so I took him up on the offer. I was wondering where he was going to find the ingredients even for that, but he inventively borrowed some apples from the dessert menu, so I ended up with a perfectly respectable salad consisting mainly of lettuce, tomato and apples, with a sprinkling of red bell peppers, onions and croutons on top.
If you’re a vegan or vegetarian travelling alone or with other herbivores, then there’s not much reason for you to go to La Maison du Cassoulet. Still, it’s always comforting to know that, with a bit of compromise, it’s perfectly possible to please both herbivores and omnivores alike in even the most meat-heavy destinations. And, as you’ll soon see, the rest of our stay in Toulouse was decidedly more vegan-friendly.
Saturday morning began with my obligatory oatmeal in our cozy attic.
Here’s a tip for fellow oatmeal lovers: when you don’t have access to plant-based milk, try brewing tea as an alternative base liquid for overnight oats. I brought a tiny bit of soy milk in my toiletries bag (as much as I could get through airport security) and mixed this with some masala chai-spiced tea, and it was just perfect.
We then spent most of the morning wandering around Toulouse’s markets – first the used and antique book market followed by the Carmes food market. We didn’t buy anything, but they were both great places for just browsing, and the food market was particularly colourful.
I later read that some of the most highly-prized produce items grown in the area are boletus mushrooms (cèpes in French) and melon de Lectoure – a type of melon similar to cantaloupe that is grown in underground tunnels in the nearby town of Lectoure – so if you visit the market keep an eye out for these.
And just when we thought we’d had enough of markets, we stumbled upon an all-organic produce market right in the city centre, which is apparently held every Tuesday and Saturday morning. Note that until February 2015 the market was held in the Place du Capitole, but it has since moved a few hundred metres to the back side of the Capitole building, next to the dungeon-cum-tourism office.
While the displays weren’t quite as eye-catching as at the Marché des Carmes we had just visited, the fruits and vegetables were all local and organically grown, which I would choose over big, shiny and filled with chemicals any day. I was still full from my bowl of oatmeal, but when I came across a stand selling “tofu snacks” I just couldn’t pass them up.
They come in a variety of flavors, including tomato, vegetable, curry, garlic and herbes de provence, which is the one I chose.
You can even buy them vacuum-packed if you want to take some home with you. I had a lovely chat with the woman running the stall, who is vegan and makes the tofu snacks herself. She is part of an association called “L’Amour de la Terre” (Love of the Earth), which itself is part of the Alliance Verte based in Simorre, a tiny village about 75 kilometers from Toulouse.
If you can read French, be sure to check out their website. I’d never heard of Simorre before, but it looks like a great rural getaway destination for vegans. They have a very reasonably-priced guesthouse and offer vegan cooking classes every Saturday. They even run a vegan summer camp for adults (!!) on the Atlantic coast, with loads of activities like surfing, kayaking and yoga classes (there’s a flyer in English for the camp here).
Around lunch time we passed by a tiny eatery called S com Saj and decided to check out their mana’iches (a toasted wrap typical of Lebanese cuisine).
These come either on their own or as part of a planche – a set meal with hummous or baba ghanoush, fatoush salad and the side dish of the day, which when we were there was a delicious spinach dish. Most of their mana’iches are vegetarian, and of those about five appeared to be vegan. Ask to be sure, however; apparently the sauce normally served with the falafel is not vegan, so ask for it without sauce or with a vegan sauce such as tahini.
For dinner we ended up at Delhi Spicee – an Indian restaurant just a bit further down the same street.
There were several vegan options in the vegetarian section of the menu, all of which were extremely good value, especially compared with the meat dishes. I settled on the eggplant curry, which only cost 4.50 euros. I’m not sure how authentically Indian the dish was – it featured large chunks of chopped eggplant rather than the skinned and roasted kind used in the typical dish baingan bharta – but in any case I thought it was quite tasty, though very oily. You can actually see pools of oil in the photo below. Eek!
This brings us to Sunday morning, with time left for just one more meal in Toulouse, and without a doubt we saved the best for last. La Belle Verte is an organic, mostly vegetarian restaurant that does a killer brunch every Sunday morning (and well into the afternoon). It’s deservedly popular, so book several days in advance if you can (we called the night before and were very lucky to get a table).
The brunch menu changes weekly according to what’s available at the nearby organic market, but they always offer a vegan version and are also happy to accommodate any allergies or other special requests. Here’s what the standard vegetarian menu looked like the Sunday we were there (the vegan version was similar, with just a couple of substitutions).
And if you’re wondering how they managed to fit all of that onto one plate, well, it was quite a balancing act:
Yes, this was a ridiculous amount of food, and yes, I ate every last bite. But it was so healthy and nourishing that I didn’t feel too guilty about it. Now, speaking of guilty pleasures…
You might have noticed that much of what I ate in Toulouse, while delicious, was not exactly local or traditional fare. I did try really hard to find some vegan local specialties among the decidedly meat-heavy traditional dishes of the region. And, while I didn’t come up with any savoury dishes, I did discover a couple of treats to satisfy your sweet tooth.
The first was a cookie called a croquant, which is quite similar to what is known in Italy as cantuccini or biscotti di Prato and in the United States simply as biscotti. But while biscotti are normally made with eggs, the croquant of Toulouse are totally vegan! I first spied them in a delightful shop called Péchés Gourmands that sells regional cookies, chocolates and other sweets:
While the most common type of croquant is an almond-flavoured cookie, Péchés Gourmands also offered hazelnut and chocolate chip varieties. I took one of each, all in the name of research of course.
The other vegan specialty I turned up is one that you will find all over Toulouse in a variety of forms: violet. Yep, the flower. The purple-coloured petals are highly prized in this region and are used to make not only bath and beauty products but also a number of edible treats, many of which are vegan, like violet liqueur, violet syrup, dark chocolate bars with violet, hard and soft violet-flavoured candies, etc. The one that is probably the most typical, however, is also the simplest: sugar-coated violet petals. I bought a small bottle (they can get pretty pricey) from a souvenir shop called Regals, though you can find them just about anywhere, including at the tourist office. This particular shop also sold several other types of sugar-coated flowers, so I chose a mix of violet and lilac.
I guess I had imagined that they would be soft, as flower petals normally are, but no, they were quite hard. Not oh-crap-I-just-broke-a-tooth hard, but there was a definite crunch factor going on. The lilacs tasted quite sweet and, well, flowery. They reminded me of rosewater-flavoured Middle Eastern sweets I’ve had in the past. The violets, however, had a more subtle flavour, and one that I can’t compare to anything else. So if you want to know what violets taste like, I guess you’ll just have to go to Toulouse! Bon voyage!