France’s fourth city is a great place to find yourself next to a stent salesman

Toulouse Letter: In a city not known for much, rich fare and French punks stand out

Below the English sign for the Toulouse School of Economics, the Canal de Brienne takes a gracious autumnal turn. A surface of floating pointillist leaves, it flows into the Garonne. Undergraduates sit on the coincidentally socially distanced cement cubes that punctuate the riverside as seats rather than bollards. They stare into each other's eyes: student love for ever. The fleuve is still. Peaceful. Beautiful. Without an ounce of energy.

The fourth city of France may be nestled under the wings of its aerospace industry. But sky transport modes do not travel deeply enough into the global imagination. No icon lodges Toulouse in the general cultural consciousness. No tower. No bridge. No sight. Nothing springs readily to mind. But it is known for its food.

Wheels of the city's eponymous sausage sit coiled like snakes on butcher counters. Heaving duck breasts tempt the passerby. Legs of the same bird are embalmed in fat as white as the beans with which they will subsequently be slow-cooked into Toulouse's signature cassoulet. This is the Victor Hugo market. A wine bar owner surrounded by such fine raw fish and meat is bellyaching about having to use a credit card just to take for two coffees. It's Friday afternoon and he has been sampling his own wares.

A metal-capped staircase twists up to the first floor. Behind a shut door lurks the type of functional corridor that can only lead to a toilet. And it does. But beyond that is a bustling line of restaurants. Like half a dozen mutually supportive dominoes, they are each a hearty lure for the casual bon viveur.


Small gaps between each rival establishment demarcate ownership. Such gaps also feed excess clientele out to a long, shared balcony. In these slivers between each crowded restaurant, resigned queues form. They are waiting for the next table to become free.

Unlikely lads

Here you have the Magret, the Attila, the Louchebem ... Each blackboard declares fish and meat temptations typically in the form of a €22 three-course menu. Try the foie gras, the salade de gesiers, the duck slices with cep sauce, the duck leg with fried potatoes. There’s still some tarte tatin? The last two slices if you please. More wine? No. (Subtitle: Yes.)

Some unlikely chaps carry rigid guitar cases into a bar not far from the Japanese Gardens. They emanate the threat of laidback, jazzy doodlings or cut-price Charles Aznavour, the type of tedious music that might characterise the November mood of this unenervated city.

That circular box contains a high hat, that oblong one a keyboard. They set up at the back, the bass player settling for a pillar-blocked view. But within hours, darkness descends. As the bar becomes populated, they strike up. Effing and blinding in US-swaggered lingo, they crank out blistering Ramones tunes and The Trashmen’s Surfin’ Bird. Then The Clash’s White Riot. Their other songs struggle with the inherent diction flaws of the French language and how its diphthonged oohs and aahs can fall musically flat, their roundy pronunciation not making it much past the emergent mosh pit.

Vinyl discs are cemented into the facade of the bar, between the counter and a footrail made of cast ripped-out car wiring. Decals dismiss fascism and Nazis. One declares “Trotsky & Hutch”. One urges us to “Legalise Intelligence”. Another “Hey! Ho! Let’s Go”! The engine of a motorbike hangs from the ceiling. There are skulls and masks. A small but dedicated audience enact the mayhem that music can induce.

Inappropriate leaning

All hell breaks out. Jumping and shoving. Beer gets spilled. A guy is kicked out for leaning in over the counter in an inappropriate way. Some frenzy connects with the wider world here, away from the streamlines of aerospace and punctual trams. Songs fuse and produce smiles that transcend the phonetic strengths and weaknesses of any language.

But back to a three-course lunch above the market. A fine wine feels very velvety indeed. Each sip of its 14.5 per cent full-bodied flow washes down the foie gras at least as well as it does the carpaccio de boeuf. The rich and fatty fare glides down deliciously. Suddenly, in this Toulousean world with its greasy fowl and heavy meat cassoulets, a conversation with a man at a neighbouring table takes an amusing turn.

You really sell stents? Manager for the Sud Ouest region, he proudly declares he works for a medical device manufacturer. He is a charming and friendly guy. I point at the food and then at my heart. Stents? In these anxious times, we laugh uproariously at a joke almost as heavy as the food we are eating.