February is officially Violet Month in Toulouse France and it’s a great time to visit for a Valentine’s Day treat. Swap the winter blues for a weekend in the Pink City says Jane Gifford as she explores the historic town and samples its many delights…
La Fête de la Violette in Toulouse
Toulouse (in the department of Haute-Garonne) is most famous for its own species of scented violet. Once many small family concerns grew Toulouse Violets on land to the north of the city. Tied by red string into highly fragrant balls, they were sold by young girls on the city streets of Europe. The Victorians were crazy for them. Over 600,000 posies were sent every year to northern markets – Paris, London, Russia, even as far afield as Canada. Then fashions changed and the craze for violets faded. Today the violet business has undergone an imaginative transformation.
The Fête de la Violette takes place on the first weekend of February on Place du Capitole, the impressive centre-piece of Toulouse. There is a market here every day except Monday but this weekend is devoted to violets. There are scented goodies and potted plants for sale. You can sample free candies, violet macaroons and delicious breads stuffed with crystallised flowers. At the display of violets from around the world, they are giving away free baby violets to all comers. Violet cocktails and liqueurs by Benoit Serres (a family business since 1841) are on offer. And, if it all gets too much, free head and hand massages with violet and pastel lotions are available. L’Académie du Pastel are demonstrating woad-dyeing, children are happily painting at easels, while an elegant lady in a long green robe with a quilted violet-petal stole and a violet straw-boater is judging the stalls. This is Madame Christine Calas, Grand Master of the Violet Brotherhood (la Confrérie de la Violette).
This all takes place in front of the wide pink sweep of the Capitolium. With grand colonnades and statues above and horizontal stripes of red and white below, this has been the town’s administrative centre since 1190. The building has been embellished over the centuries to become a vast edifice housing an enormous theatre, the town hall, the Tourist Information Centre, the Registry Office and much else besides.
Seek out La Maison de la Violette on the east side of town on the Canal du Midi. Hélène Vié’s violet and green houseboat is the fruit of 20 years’ work reviving the fortunes of the Toulouse Violet. On the top deck violets are grown for sale during the flowering season from October to April. Below deck, shelves are straining under violet conserves, mustards, salts, sugars, honeys and liqueurs, as well as perfume, incense and scented candles. Try a violet cream tea. Delicate little pastries melt into creamy fragrance, served with a large pot of – you guessed it – violet tea.
Food & Drink in Toulouse
Toulousains love any excuse to eat out, with much guitar-playing outside numerous street cafés and bars. Strong ties to Catalonia mean many great tapas bars. My favourite restaurant is tiny Préférence on Place Bachelier. Described by chef-owner Patrice Shakir as ‘cuisine française semi-gastronomique’, where else can you easily afford to enjoy the inventiveness and skills of a Michelin-starred chef and even bring your own wine? There’s no need to. Drinks too are very reasonably priced. Charming Patrice says he gave up his flashy business in the town-centre to do something just for himself. To celebrate Violet Month he treats all his guests to a glass of champagne and violet syrup. Children receive a bright orange daisy.
Ironically, some of the best food in town is found inside one of the least attractive buildings, a concrete multi-storey car park which houses the most excellent Victor Hugo Covered Market. On the ground floor there are100 stalls, open 6am – 1pm (except Monday), offering a range of local produce amongst the best in France. The first floor conceals Les Loges de Victor Hugo where five chefs with different specialities prepare lunch with the freshest of ingredients from the market below. It’s open until 2.30pm every day except Monday and always busy. For chic but still affordable, try py-r, Chef Pierre Lambinon’s restaurant on Rue des Paradoux, a winding medieval back-street close to the river.
Jane Gifford is a writer and photographer specialising in travel, garden, wildlife and environmental issues: janegifford.net