Travel: A taste of the Tarn

France is world-famous for its gourmet cuisine and Lauren Turner gorged on a gastronomic glut on a tour of the south-west region of Le Tarn.

By The Newsroom
Tuesday, 22nd October 2013, 7:00 am
A local market in Tarn, France. Picture: PA Photo.
A local market in Tarn, France. Picture: PA Photo.

No matter how hard I try, I can’t seem to get my suitcase shut.

Sitting forlornly on the bed is a bag of pink garlic bulbs, purchased from a farm close to Albi, a small town just outside Toulouse. A round of stinky cheese and a few bottles of biodynamic wine will also have to stay this side of the Channel. It’s probably for the best, as my clothes are already smelling decidedly Gallic.

To be honest, the cheese - gloriously oozy Epoisses, so soft it could be eaten with a spoon - is so pungent it could probably walk home itself.

In the end I manage to rehome the garlic with the head chef at my hotel, La Reserve, so everyone is happy.

Still, I bet the Queen Mother, who stayed at this fabulously chic five-star bolthole twice, it having been the only place she’d slept that wasn’t a palace or private residence, never had this problem.

I really have had the ‘eyes bigger than my belly’ issue going on during my four-day visit to France’s south-west region of Le Tarn. With so many delicious treats around every corner, it’s impossible to resist picking a few up along the way.

Take Toulouse’s Victor Hugo covered market. It’s been at the heart of city life for more than 120 years, with residents and local restaurants alike stocking up with supplies from the specialist stalls - there are more than 100.

It really is a foodie paradise, with off-the-boat-fresh oysters from Maree Toulousaine, black pork of Bigorre, crusty baguettes, ornate ice cream cakes made by a company called Octave, whiffy Roquefort and vast bags of crispy fried bits of duck fat (think pork scratchings with a certain je ne sais quoi).

With its bars, restaurants and generous samples handed out by many of the stallholders, I’m more than happy meandering around the walkways for an hour.

Judging by the exchanges between customers and shopkeepers over the fresh fruit and veg, this treasured market is also the place to pick up some juicy gossip too.

The Victor Hugo also sells vast jars of cassoulet, one of the specialities of the region that I’m told you really must try. It’s at the J’Go restaurant that I encounter this meaty wonder.

Bubbling and garlicky, the giant terracotta pot of cassoulet looks mouth-watering with its confit duck and pork, braised sausages and mounds of white beans. However, as a pescatarian, the sight and smell of this classic dish is the closest I’ll get to experiencing it. The French, it has to be said, don’t fully grasp the concept of not eating meat and I have to turn down foie gras on multiple occasions.

Those wanting to try the controversial delicacy in a distinctly unusual way should head to Philippe Faur, famous for his savoury ice creams. Eschewing the foie gras flavour, I go straight for the black truffle variety. And yes, truffle of the fungal rather than chocolate variety! Slightly salty, slightly sweet and with the most amazing aroma, it’s a deliciously bizarre experience.

But I decide to stick to what I truly enjoy - those cheeses. Xavier has to be the grand fromage in Toulouse, a mecca for lactose lovers, with tours of its cheese cellars available for a small price. It’s here that I also discover that white wine, rather than red, goes best with cheeses.

Wine shop L’Envie du Sud is a great place to go if you want to buy a little something to test out that theory. Wine lovers will also appreciate the chance to try before you buy here, with plenty of glasses to be sampled in exchange for a couple of euros. I end up buying some 1978 Armagnac.

Toulouse boasts six Michelin-starred restaurants. Hoping to join their ranks is young chef Pierre Lambinon whose Le Py-R is a white-walled subterranean oasis.

It’s special, but far from stuffy, and I immediately feel relaxed as I sit at one of the large round tables. Delights in store include slow-cooked egg with mackerel and nutty shards of parmesan crisps, and succulent white fish with white beans and mozzarella. It surely can’t be long before Lambinon is awarded that coveted star.

Those wanting a taste of the Michelin action can head to Le Bibent, run by popular French chef and chocolatier Christian Constant. It’s on the Capitole square, a perfect place for people watching. Here you can get a set lunch menu for just 30 euros, a snip given its baroque surroundings.

But fine food isn’t just restricted to the city. A visit to the surrounding countryside brings me to Chateau de Mayragues, in the Gresigne natural oak forest. Alan Geddes, a Scotsman, and his wife Laurence have been producing wine at this biodynamic vineyard for 30 years.

They even open up their beautiful home to guests, with two large rooms available to stay in.

While in the region, it’s worth visiting the tourist office museum telling the story of how wines have been produced in the region since the first Benedictine monastery was built in the 10th century.

I was sorely tempted to get stuck into another round of wine tasting and stay the night at Chateau de Mayragues, but I was lucky enough to get a room at La Reserve. The Queen Mother, The Queen actress Helen Mirren and Queen guitarist Brian May have all stayed here, making it quite the royal hangout.

I felt pretty regal myself, sitting out on the terrace overlooking the River Tarn, glass of champagne in hand. I was in for a treat with some dazzling creations from the chef Sebastien Faramond, including a chocolate dessert with popping candy that was one of the best things I have ever eaten.

The hotel is also the perfect base to explore Albi, the birthplace of artist Toulouse Lautrec. The beautiful town is dominated by Cathedrale Sainte-Cecilea - a cathedral of staggering proportions which has been likened to a fortress. I can’t resist a peek inside and am blown away by the scale and intricate stonework and paintings of its interior.

But it’s the Toulouse Lautrec museum that really draws me in. Set in a former bishop’s palace opposite the cathedral, it houses the world’s biggest collection of the artist’s work. Culture fans can also visit his childhood home at Chateau du Bosc, a short drive away, and be shown around by his great niece - for that added level of authenticity.

Despite its small size and village feel, Albi too has Michelin stars. Restaurant L’Esprit du Vin has a novel approach, with chef (and Albi native) Daniel Enjalran likening his food to the complexities and layers of flavours in wine.

There is no menu here; guests instead simply write down what they do not eat, and the culinary magicians in the kitchen create dishes from what’s in season.

Wine is also the focus at Albi’s Le Table du Sommelier, where each dish is perfectly matched to a glass of wine, with many local varieties available.

Perhaps it’s a good job that both Albi and Toulouse are such gorgeous places to walk around, with stunning architecture and ancient buildings, given how very special the food and drink here is.

From that staggering cathedral in Albi, to the Capitole Square in Toulouse, you won’t tire of things to see in the region, and could spend days happily strolling over its cobbled streets. Just make sure you leave plenty of room in your suitcase - and your waistband.

Travel facts

:: Lauren Turner travelled to Toulouse with easyJet (www.easyjet.com). Flights from London Gatwick to Toulouse start from £31.99 each way.

:: Double rooms at La Reserve (www.lareservealbi.com) start from 248 euros (£207), not including breakfast.

:: Double rooms in Le Pere Leon, Toulouse (www.pere-leon.com) start from 85 euros (£71).

:: For more information, visit www.toulouse-tourisme.com and www.tourisme-tarn.com