Tuesday, November 11, 2014



Toulouse river walk
My friend Tom lived in France for over a year and often raved about a baked bean dish called cassoulet. Toulouse and a couple of nearby cities are the Mecca for cassoulet lovers, though according to writer Ann Mah, they are all virtually made the same way with the same ingredients these days. Long ago, various wild game birds and animals had been incorporated to give different flavors, but now those animals are scarce. 

It is a famous dish in a dish, a special crockery bowl, narrow at the bottom and sloping up to a wide mouth at the top. The key to a great cassoulet is to assemble the ingredients, and then without ever stirring, bake it again and again until it’s done, preferably over a two or three day time frame. The beans should be creamy and firm, not mushy, and the meats should be soft. It is made from haricot beans, actually a legume brought to Europe by Columbus from the New World. Prior to his discoveries, cassoulet was made with lima beans (yuk!) The haricots were so superior that societies sprang up to protect the strains of beans to keep them pure, and then other societies evolved to bestow medallions and awards upon chefs and restaurants that made the best.

The name Restaurant Emile kept coming up when we were looking for the best cassoulet in Toulouse. So we went there at 10am to get a reservation. They were closed. Posted in the windows was a Michelin emblem, and about a dozen awards over a number of years from several different Cassoulet Societies.  We returned at one minute till noon and entered the tiny restaurant (an illusion, as the restaurant occupied two floors of the building!)

There were several formula options, where you pick from a selection of starters, then main courses, and desserts for a fixed price. We asked if we could go ala carte and just share a cassoulet. We started with a small carafe of good Bordeaux and shared a plate of ravioli stuffed with foie gras du canard in a sauce of boletus mushrooms and cream. Every bite was incredibly good, and we mopped up the sauce with hunks of baguette.

Then the cassoulet, in a traditional casserole bowl, was brought to the table. Normally just one person eats the whole thing, but it would have been impossible for either of us to be that person. As Tom said, it’s hard to imagine beans being so good or so expensive! He was right, they were perfectly done, and the flavors were bits of goose, sausage, bacon, garlic, onion, and any number of other flavors I couldn’t put my finger on. But they were truly the best “beans” I’d ever eaten.

Dessert was a beautiful little chocolate cake called a moulleux, with nuts on top, sitting on a swath of chocolate fudge, and at the other end of the swath was a scoop of blood orange glacee topped with a curl of lacy caramel. The cake had a warm molten center that was nothing like the pudding so many lava cakes are made with. It was more like a melted semi-sweet chocolate bar.

Joyce and I have gone native. We took two full hours to savor every bite of that incredibly good and very expensive lunch, just like most of the diners around us.

Afterwards, full but not stuffed, we hiked around in the beautiful sunny day. There are several bridges, and some remnants of an old one, similar to the Pont du Avignon. Walks along the river are shaded by tall “plane” trees with white trunks and fluffy little seedpods.

The Augustine Museum of Fine Art, housed in an old monastery, has a wide range of paintings and sculptures. We only saw half of it, as it was closing just about when our feet gave out. Many of the sculptures were exquisite and it had a good collection of both older religious paintings and more modern impressionists. We appreciated the large plasticized cards for each section, written in several different languages, that explained the paintings and lives of the painters.
Augustine Museum
Earlier in the morning, while waiting for the restaurant to open, we were directed to a palace, the Capitole du Toulouse. While most of it has been remodeled into offices, some of the more exquisite rooms are open to the public. An entire room is devoted to the post-impressionist Henri Martin, whose monumental paintings fill a large hall. Another beautifully painted room is rented for weddings and ceremonies. A third, the most elaborate of all, is used for official gatherings. It is filled with sculptures in every niche between the tall windows that overlook the large plaza. The high ceilings are plaster friezes with paintings of angels and people reaching up to them, and every square inch of wall is decorated in some fashion. 

Henri Martin Hall in the Capitole, Huge paintings!
That tiny person is Joyce.

While we only spent one full day in Toulouse, it was one of the more memorable days in France. It deserved a longer visit. We barely scratched the surface.

Mirrors behind allow appreciation
of the full range of the sculptures
in the Capitole.

Hall where the city fathers meet weekly

Interesting architecture, this
is an apartment building and under
the plaza is a major shopping center.

The neighborhood of Restaurant Emile