Saturday, 21 January 2012

Woke up this mornin...

Emptiness has come into my life. I saw it coming. Maybe for the rest of the world it’s been over for years, but I kept my head in the clouds – I’m pleased I managed to... But what do I do now?

We’ve just watched the final episode of The Sopranos on DVD.  A bittersweet moment... the end of an era. Tony Soprano will be forever linked to the South West of France. Perhaps we should give French telly another go*... But, then again, this year Father Christmas brought me the first series of The Wire. How did he know?

The Marché Victor Hugo in Toulouse is reckoned to be among the best in Europe. This was our second visit, on a rare Saturday off. On the back of last year’s experience**, we got a room for the night: on a trip like this, lunch should flow into dinner via little more than a digestif, a snooze and an aperitif...

The market is worth celebrating. It heaves with people and produce. Under one giant, unbeautiful roof, traders group according to speciality: cheese; poultry; piggy stuff – mountains of rillettes, anaconda coils of Toulouse sausage, teams of suspended hams; piles of lamb; great slabs of cow; a whole section of bibbly-bobbly offally bits; and a collection of the most abundant and varied fish counters I’ve ever seen. Abundance is the key word – a hangar-sized cornucopia of fresh, good stuff. Sensibly, there are a number of small bars scattered around the edge of the hall for those who encounter bewilderment in the face of so much shopping, and need a moment to restore equilibrium. We bimbled about, gazed at the buxom displays, intimidated by the opulence, and by the business. Trying not to dribble.
All photos are click-on-able, if you want to get a better look.
A bee-line for the fish. It way surpasses anything we can get in our local market (which, in turn, way surpasses most English fish stalls). We joined a vaguely orderly queue and struggled to decide what to buy: 

Rascasse (Scorpionfish), Lemon Sole, Red Bream
un comme ça... 

un comme ça,

deux comme ça...

Merci. Brilliant! Now bring on the most expensive ham we’ve ever tasted!
100g cost 22 quid! But by crikey it was worth it. Jamon Ibérico Pata Negra de Bellota, 36 months maturation. The guy carved it by hand in front of us and advised us to serve it on a slightly warm plate. We had a bit of a chat, agreed to perform a small personal errand, and he spoilt us with 20g lobbo for our troubles! Glad to be of service! We’ll be back...

All this bustle is thirsty work and the bars were calling, but it was lunchtime already and we were holding out for something more substantial.

The entrance; the b&w photo at
the top of my blog was
taken inside here.
Lunch is served in a corridor of buzzing, interconnected joints which runs the length of the first floor of the market hall. You reach it via a grotty stairway in one corner – perhaps a ploy to keep the tourists out. It’s jam-packed with locals, and it rocks your socks off! There are four or five places, each specialising in a particular market product. Last time we had beef; this time we went for fish. We ate a simple, fresh lunch of grilled bream. Razor clams to start and a chocolate mousse at the end, with a fruity white to relax us into the noisy atmosphere. A proper French lunch.

Next, we planned to revisit a bar that we’d liked last time – but post-lunch sleepiness paired with a flair for getting lost had us on a tour of town. Toulouse is a mixed bag of scruffiness and grandeur; they seem to be doing the place up, but perhaps they’re too skint (or can’t be arsed) to finish. It was a pleasant change from small-town life, though: self-confident, friendly, multicultural and busy. We had a nice time. Eventually, I admitted defeat and we asked for directions. The couple we spoke to had never heard of the place but found it for us on a much posher phone than ours and our feet were saved.  (This was one of a number of examples of friendliness we encountered. Earlier, a lady led us right across town so we could find the market. Then she pottered off back the way we’d come: she wasn’t in a rush, she said!)

The place we had been prepared to struggle to find is called Au Père Louis – brought to our attention by Rick Stein in his FrenchOdyssey series†.  It’s a tiny wine bar with an on-the-face-of-it grumpy old barman, who was actually rather jolly. Perhaps he became jolly as we stayed in his bar grazing on a plate of delicate ham and drinking an enthusiastic quantity of Côtes du Rhône and Quinquina†† before we decided we needed a kebab.

We’d stumbled across O’Saj earlier and I’d had half a mind on it since. It’s a kebab shop with cookers shaped like big bin lids. Who wouldn’t be intrigued? It turns out the bin lid itself is the saj, a Lebanese flatbread griddle – like an inside-out tandoor. Bread dough rolled thin is slapped onto the surface, a filling spread on top like a pizza, and it all cooks from just one side. It was folded up, wrapped in a hankie and presented to us. Our lamb farce, scented with coriander and friends‡, was delicately cooked by the heat coming through the bread. Crunchy, chewy, fresh and spicy, a very sophisticated kebab.  We tried another, this time the simplest filling – just zataar. Now, I actually knew what this was thanks to the Moro books – a paste of olive oil, thyme, sesame and sumac‡‡ – but I’d never tried it. The first bite was weird; the second had me hooked – sour, scenty, dry and sweet. In that order. Complicated and good. Grown-up food for people who like eating.
The cushion is used to thwack the bread onto the saj. Great stuff!

We’d intended to eat on a park bench, but the staff were so friendly we ended up munching at the counter, chatting to the boys about food and music. And then we ordered the second one! Haha! Good times...

* No.

** Yup, very rare.

† In fact, old Rick’s researchers did us proud – the market and the restaurant upstairs are also mentioned. Splendid work Rick! He makes great programmes.

†† A sweet, bitter wine with quinine

‡ Erm... cumin? Sumac‡‡? Maybe a bit of fenugreek? We’d been drinking...

‡‡ This is a berry that is dried and crushed into a reddish-black powder. It has a lemony, sour taste and is used in middle eastern cooking. Apparently it used to stand in for lemons when they were out of season. It’s worth looking for. It’s lovely.


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