Les Jacobins, Toulouse

Les Jacobins was built by St-Dominic to ensure the converted heretics didn't revert after the fall of Toulouse during the Albigensian Crusade.

Les Jacobins, Toulouse

Polychromatic decor in les Jacobins









Les Jacobins, Toulouse

Glass-filtered light on the inner walls of les Jacobins

Saint-Sernin Basilica, Toulouse

Saint-Sernin Basilica is another of Saint-Dominic's post-crusade construction / evangelical efforts in Toulouse

Saint Sernin Basilica organ

St-Sernin Basilica organ

Carving, Toulouse

Toulouse façade

Scrolling grillwork is common on old-Toulouse façades

Buses stop running on many routes in Toulouse at 8:30 P.M. Which is right about the time we made it to the bus stop after an afternoon seeing the sights and dining early (for France). A bus that earlier would have taken us directly to our hotel did eventually come along, but the driver informed us that service was finished. Instead he wrote out directions for an alternate way back—one that required three transfers.

I thanked him profusely, we returned to the sidewalk, and I turned to Gaston: “We’re taking a cab.”

Fortunately, the taxi was only €15. Clearly, this isn’t Victoria.

Back at the hotel, our next task was to find a gas station and fill up our rental car’s tank. We had filled up in Mirepoix earlier, so had almost a full tank, but the rental agency isn’t interested in “almost” full.

“Do you want me to come along?” I asked.

Gaston: “If you want to, I would be delighted.”

Mimi: “I’m thinking that, as it’s dark out and we don’t know the area, it will be easier if there’s a set of eyes watching for gas stations and directions, and one set of eyes watching the road.”

So off we merrily went, remembering vaguely from two years earlier, that we’d filled the then-rental tank en route to the airport, and that the route to the airport is well indicated.

However, we failed to remember in time—vaguely or otherwise—that the gas station the two-years-previous hotel staff had directed us to back then was off to the right at the first traffic circle. We instead followed the signs to the airport.

I’m happy to report that route to the Toulouse–Blagnac airport is indeed very well signed.

I’m not so happy to report that there are no gas stations along the route to the airport.

We arrived at the Departures level, swung around the roundabout, and headed back the way we came.

And you know what, the route back to our hotel from the airport is not signed at all.

In desperation—because, after all, we had cleaned the car out earlier in the day and so had no maps on hand—we took one of the exits to Centre ville (city centre), and headed towards the bright lights in the distance. After just having been driven through centre ville by a taxi driver who knows the town intimately, we quickly realized that navigating downtown Toulouse is not an experience for the inexperienced or for strangers-to-town up the creek without a map, so to speak, and we’d better find another way that avoided the maze that we were heading into.

A sign for the Péripherique (the ring road freeway) flashed by. The road curved and we drove along the bank of a canal. After some consideration, while Gaston was getting tenser and tenser at the wheel and beginning to breathe more and more shallowly, I laid out my Navigator’s plan: “The hotel is near Exit 29 off the Péripherique. Turn around. We’ll get back on the Péripherique and we’ll follow it around until we get to Exit 29, even if we have to drive all the way around the city.”

Gaston kept driving. A left-hand turn over the canal loomed.

“Turn here.”

“But …(blah, blah).”

“Just turn.”

He slowed at the lights, and turned over the dark water, and headed up the road on the other bank. At the next set of lights, he made to turn left again.

“Stop! Where are you going? The Péripherique is up ahead.”

“But what if that is the road by the hotel?”

“It’s not. The hotel is nowhere near the canal du Midi.”

“How do you know this is the canal du Midi?!”

“The hotel is nowhere near any canal. Keep straight on.”

Onward we went. Signs for the Péripherique and another major throughway appeared. We followed the arrows.

And merged onto a freeway, with signs indicating exits and routes to Boulogne, to Gaillhac, to Montpellier, back to the airport, and to the Péripherique, and cars and trucks whizzing past us.

“Go there,” I said, pointing to the exit that was upon us.

Gaston signalled, swung the car into the middle lane, made it into the exit lane, but couldn’t get through the traffic into the next lane to make the next exit off the exit.


Wailing and gnashing of teeth. “This is going to be a very, very long night,” Gaston said.

Montpellier, here we come.

Not at all what we had in mind.

Stunned, we kept going. Signs to the airport flashed by.

Then, suddenly, a sign for Purpan l’Hôpital.

It looked familiar. It looked very familiar.

“This is it! We’re on the Péripherique!”

Another sign: to l’Hôpital. And Exit 29!


We made it back to the hotel, but had even more room in the gas tank to fill up. This time, as we drove towards the first traffic circle by the hotel, I instructed Gaston to take the exit to the right, and yes, sure enough, there was a 24-hour supermarket with gas station about half a kilometre on.

As we drove up to it, we both exclaimed: “Ah, yes, I remember this!”



Gaston belies his French name in preferring a tankard of beer over a glass of wine any day. In fact, he professes to finding few wines palatable—Most engender a twist of the mouth and a shudder to swallow.

We were out for dinner at les Remparts in Mirepoix one evening, and being basically ignorant of local wines, I asked the waiter to suggest something red that would go nicely with both of our meals. A half-bottle, as we had to drive afterwards.

Of course, she suggested the most expensive half-bottle on the list.


Well, I did ask her advice, so we ordered it.

Gaston did the pretentious bit, swirled the glass, stuck his nose deep inside, snorted…. All to delay the inevitable grimace and shudder.

A sip: And a wormhole opened onto a whole new dimension in the Gaston multiverse.

It was lovely. Smooth, rich, and multilayered. He marvelled, he swirled some more, he examined the long, luscious legs (or larmes, if you’re French), and sipped some more.

We took down the name of the vignéron, but couldn’t—of course—find it in any of the shops.

Several days on, en route from Carcassonne to Bézier, I took full advantage of my prerogative as navigator to direct Gaston off the main autoroute onto smaller byways. One of these—conveniently and with deliberate planning on my part—brought us to Pépieux, the address of the winemaker.

“Shall we go for a wine tasting at a cave?” I suggested to Gaston. Knowing that his best interests are best served by following all directions and suggestions put forward by the Navigator, he agreed.

“Great. We’re looking for a left turn onto such-and-such highway.”

“Yes, memsahib.”

We drove through town and came out the other side. No highway north. We turned around and tried it from the other direction. Nothing. Then back again. Still nada.

By this time, it was about 3:00 in the afternoon, we’d had a very busy morning and a lingering lunch out, it was hot in the car, and I was tired, hot, and getting fed up with being in the car.

“What do you want to do?”

“There’s a supermarket up ahead. It’s September, the foire des vin (wine festival), the wine we’re looking for is as local as you can get: maybe the supermarket carries it.”

So we stopped in, walked in, found the four long aisles of wine, and scanned each shelf, bottle by bottle. No luck.

“What do you want to do?”

“Well, we’re here. We’re not likely to ever be here again, so let’s drive through town once more and see.”

Fourth time lucky. Right where the main road was at its narrowest, one ordinary town street intersected with our path at a 90º angle, stone buildings perched right on the corners, leaving maybe a foot for curb and sidewalk. A small, hand-written cardboard sign, about seven feet up: Massamier la Mignarde, with an arrow.

The highway north was so narrow, we had to stop and backup on the main road in order to make the turn.

Once out of town, an official directional sign, courtesy of the highway department: Massamier la Mignarde, 400 m. We checked our odometer.

At 300 metres, there was a turn to a closed gate. At 500 metres, we arrived at the intersection with highway DX. At the corner, a gravel road led into a farmyard. Nothing at 400 metres. So we turned around and drove back and forth again, just to make sure we hadn’t missed anything, and to check to see if the gated driveway was more likely. We returned to the corner and peered into the farmyard. It was busy: trucks and small tractors were moving around.

“Let’s give it a try.”
We drove in, tentatively. We found a place out of the way to park. We got out of the car and looked around. A tiny, handwritten cardboard sign: Dégustations, with an arrow pointing around the corner (Tasting, with arrow).

We followed. Went down the slope and around the corner, and came to a deep, unlit archway connecting two buildings. On an even tinier handwritten sign next to a giant, iron-studded oak door: Dégustations: sonnez (Tastings: ring the bell). We pressed the buzzer and waited.

And waited.

Pressed again.

A few minutes later, an ancient bouvier came plodding around the corner and flopped down in the archway’s shade, panting.

Soon after, Madame arrived.

Bonjour, bonjour,Vous voulez dégoûter?”

We came away from the cave with a box of six bottles of wine to enjoy over the next week and to take home with us.

Cuvée Aubin and Domus maximus

Cuvée Aubin and Domus Maximus. The Domus is named for the Massamier estate, originally settled by a Roman named Maximus. Hence, the estate is Massamier, and the wine is House of Maximus.

And we did indeed return. The next fall, we found the place easily, knowing the tricks. Also the signage in Pépieux had improved. The harvest was scheduled to begin the following Monday, the young woman attending the cellar told us. The dog came and said hello.

And this year, when we drove up, old hands at navigating there, a young woman from Korea greeted us, which permitted Gaston to practice his six words of Korean with her. She treated us to a full tasting of each of the kinds of wines offered by the cave (although not each of the vintages). Halfway through, Madame appeared and joined us, but the dog didn’t. We asked her about it: “Ah, c’est triste. Il a été écraser par un camion le décembre passé.” (He was hit by a truck last December.) She went on to tell us how this long-time four-legged companion had served as her doorbell for years, alerting her to visitors to the farm who wanted to taste the cave’s wine before they’d even had a chance to walk around to the cave’s entrance and ring the buzzer. Gaston shared some of his bouvier de Flandres experience. We commiserated.

Another party had joined the tasting, but were interested only in getting a mouthful of the 2005 Domus, the vineyard’s premium libation, voted as the best wine in the world by the vignérons of France. It wasn’t on offer, but the 2009 was. They left.

We bought some of our favourite, and a couple of bottles of the 2008 Domus (there is no way we could afford the 2005). Madame threw in a bottle of rosé.

We like to think she did that because we asked about her dog.

Abbaye Villelongue

Abbaye Villelongue

Abbaye Villelongue

Abbaye Villelongue apse

Abbaye Villelongue apse

It can be difficult to find fresh herbs for sale in the supermarket and even the markets. In the south of France, flavourings in the regional cuisine is defined by the herbs that grow wild and free in the fields and wild lands: thyme, rosemary, savoury, bay, even lavender.

So although there is demand for these herbs, if you can forage these ingredients for free, or can effortlessly grow them outside your kitchen door, why would you pay for them?

Bay (laurel)

Last visit, I resorted to harvesting a handful of bay leaves from bushes growing in the precinct gardens of the abbay at Caunes-Minervois, and parsimoniously eked out their use through the following weeks.

L'Abbaye de Caunes Minervois

The cloisters at l’abbaye de Caunes Minervois

Behind the abbaye, with bay laurel growing in the precinct

Behind the abbaye, with bay laurel growing in the precinct



















This visit, I noticed—a sign perhaps of my improving mental health—a massive bay hedge across from the Mairie in Belloc. Right next to the bottle and paper recycling bins. And it’s not as if we didn’t have reason or opportunity to notice said hedge when we were unloading our glass-ware and paper last time around…. However, there we are: a boundless source of fresh bay, of which I availed myself a number of times for the purposes of making soups and other savoury dishes.

Oregano (0rigan)

This herb grows wild on the approach to, and within the confines of, the ruins of Roquefixade fortress. Culling the herb was a reason to stop and catch my breath on the way up.

Fennel (fenouilh)

The Aude Departement of France has many towns named for this aromatic herb. I found fennel going to seed along hiking trails leading out of the village of Hounoux in the Razès region and along a seldom-used road west of Fanjeaux.

Rosemary (romarin)

I didn’t need to forage for this herb, as there is a pot of it growing on the terrace in front of the house we are renting. However, I did find it growing wild on the hillsides west of Fanjeaux.

Fanjeaux barely visible on the hilltop

Fanjeaux barely visible on the hilltop

Thyme (thym)

Wild thyme is stronger and more distinctively flavourful than domesticated thyme, and is a key addition to herbes de Provence. Even though the Aude and Ariège regions are hundreds of kilometres from Provence, and lack the “garrigue” or limestone-hilltop scrubland that Provence is known for, the Aude does have terrains de genêts: similar, and similarly aromatic, scrubland.  This herb grows in great perfumed profusion along the westerly Crêtes d’Hounoux (Hounoux ridges) hiking trail, and the most-western slopes of the Boucle de la Hille (La Hille circle) trail out of Fanjeaux.

Savoury (sarriette)

My will broke when I saw live savoury plants for sale at the Esperaza market. With Victoria’s cool summer nights and the multitude of insect pests that the area’s mild winters don’t kill, I haven’t been able to grow savoury since I left Drumheller.

I bought a plant and inserted it into one of the planters at Mirepoix. Now that autumn has arrived—bringing intermittent rainy days—it might even survive until next summer. Regardless, I tipped the branches and was able to season my sauces with the leaves from this particular plant throughout September.

The first time I visited this region, I paid little attention to the flora around the house. It was green.

The second time I came, I noticed that, lining the long driveway to Montplaisir, were hundreds—thousands—of bright green heather shrubs. All native. Many more than a metre tall. It being September, none were in bloom, as had been the case before.

This visit to France, we went first to the Tarn, where heathers were in bloom. Being slightly further north and with a slightly different climate made the difference.

When we moved on to the Mirepoix area, heathers, again, everywhere. This time, I was able to identify that at least two varieties grow around here: the bright green, tall kind, and a lower, leggy, dark kind. On one trail, the tall variety was blooming: greeny–yellowy–white flowers, rather typical of the heath-tree flowers one can see in Victoria.

Then we too a day trip down into the Pyrenées to Axe-les-Thèrmes. The hillsides above Axe and below the fresh-snow–covered peaks were aflame with fall colours and bloomin’ heather.

bread and thyme. Photo © Moyan Brenn Berkut82@hotmail.it
If you ask Gaston what he considers to be the defining qualities of good French bread, his eyes lose focus and a dreamy expression comes over his face.

You may prompt him: “Crusty? Fluffy?”

That snaps him back into the moment. “No! Absolutely not.”

I agree with his disagreement.

The best French bread bears little resemblance to the loaves and sticks we find in most North American supermarkets.

Good French bread has a slightly tough, crunchy, chewy crust. The bread’s flesh is very springy and slightly chewy—with substance, yet also with measurable, sometimes even large-ish air pockets. The texture tells you whether the dough was adequately worked before set to rise, activating and harnessing the long protein chains of gluten in the wheat, or wheat, rye, even barley or oat, flour combination.

The French take their bread seriously. No fluff-puffs or tasteless roll-into-doughballs for them. Bread, after all, is part of French heritage, and figures prominently in the history of the country. For instance, when told that peasants and workers were marching on Paris in 1789 because they had no bread to eat, Marie Antoinettes is said to have suggested, “Let them eat cake” (or brioche, more likely, given what she ate instead of peasant bread). The story is apocryphal; regardless, a lack of flour for bread was a trigger for the storming of the Bastille in July, 1789.
boule of country bread. Photo © by Brett Neilson

And we all know where that led.

Yet, in recent years, bakeries across France have been closing. And, yes, it is now possible to get a baguette or loaf in France that just doesn’t measure up.

A baker’s life is difficult, and the returns are low. A baker’s long hours preclude much of a social or even family life. Working conditions are uncomfortable, and rents and fuel costs are high.

Then there are the regulations. These regulations dictate, on one hand, staff wages and hours, and require immense amounts of paperwork. The regulations also limit how much a baguette can be sold for and how much time a baker and his family can take for vacation each year.

Further, the French are eating less bread in a collective effort to reduce waistline creep. Unfortunately, this also reduces bakers’ profit margins.

It’s little wonder few young people choose the trade.

Syndicates and corporations have stepped up over the last few decades to provide solutions. These organizations source and negotiate  lower prices for flour and other essential ingredients. The buying power comes with being able to purchase in bulk for thousands of member–bakers directly from producers. The syndicates and corporations also handle warehousing and shipping of ingredients across France, reducing individual bakers’ hassles immeasurably.

As you drive through towns and villages, bakeries display signs and logos for these organizations. They announce to passersby which of the organizations enables a baker to continue working his trade. Few independent bakeries now exist in France, although rare exceptions continue.

The organizations have changed baking in France in other ways, providing a number of optional services their member–bakers can subscribe to. One of these services is regular provision of ready-made starter, or leavening, for more traditional, sour-dough-type bread recipes.

The corporations can also supply bakers with factory-made pre-mixes or even frozen dough shaped into loaves, buns, sticks, and even croissants and sweet breakfast pastries. Bakers need only order a month’s supply. They can keep the goods frozen until needed, defrost the number of items needed for a morning’s bake, then pop them into the ovens.

These options have improved bakers’ lives considerably, but  at a cost to bread quality.

The pre-made loaves are sold as basic, or regular, baguettes or loaves. The state sets the price of these basic offerings, ensuring that the French will always be able to afford bread for breakfast, lunch and supper.

These baguettes and loaves are usually disappointing, with crusts that explode into crumbs as soon as you break the loaf, and a light, disappear-into-nothing crumb inside. That said, it’s still better than most supermarket bread we find at home.

Many French bakers, fortunately, provide alternatives. A 1998 law prevents businesses that use only pre-mixed dough and frozen-ready loaves from calling themselves “bakers.” As a result, any baker who wishes to be recognized as a baker must provide some product made from scratch. Some are true craftspeople. I recommend you bypass regular bread in all French bakeries except those on the Best Baguette of the Year list, and choose instead traditional options—called traditionnela l’ancien or d’antan. These are made more in the old-fashioned way, with sour-dough starter and blends of flour the baker can adjust.

Truly artisanal bakers create and nurture their own starter over months and years, imparting a distinct (and very satisfying) taste to their loaves and sticks. Some create taste–art by incorporating seasonal fruits or produce into specialty breads. I remember enjoying baker Cédric Diant’s exceptional pain aux figues (fig bread) and pain aux noix (walnut bread) during one fall vacation to the Mirepoix area. Both loaves were heavier than Diant’s traditional pain or boules, but they were so, so good.

French artisan bakers are becoming a rarity. When you stumble across one, return often, and buy from them. Help keep them in business, and enjoy the bread they clearly are passionate about making.

Boulangerie/Patissierie de Cédric Diant, Mirepoix. Photo © Scott Mair 2012
It took Gaston and I a week to find Diant’s bakery in Mirepoix. Now it is one of the many reasons why we keep returning to the region. Sadly, the rigours of running a bakery has changed even Diant’s business. He no longer offers the range of bread available even a few years ago. The menu is usually whittled down to everyday varieties sure to sell.

He was also closed for the first three weeks of this visit. Given that two bakeries on the town’s more-frequented central square have closed since we last visited, Gaston and I feel fortunate that the door to Diant’s establishment was locked only temporarily.

For his bread remains outstanding—the best bread in the region.

A French bread glossary

Baguette: a long, very thin loaf of bread

Pain: a loaf that is similar in shape and size to what North Americans call French bread

Boule: a round loaf of bread.

Pain traditionnel: country bread—often sourdough and made with rye, barley and even oat flour, in addition to wheat flour.

Chateaux Lastours

This was our first big hike of the vacation. It occurred towards the end of the day, after a visit to our favourite vigneron (and accompanying wine tasting—by Mimi. Gaston abstained from more than a few slurps, as he was DD), lunch below the troglodyte village of Minerve (two stars on the Michelin road map), and a winding journey across the southern slopes of the Black Mountain.

It was one of the first days of 35° temperatures, and the climb almost did Gaston in.

chateau régine, at one of the four lastours castles