Toulouse – Where Rose is Really Violet




If you thought the humble violet of Eliza Doolittle fame was merely a wonderful deep purple bloom, a popular posy from the past and particularly from Victorian and Edwardian England, you’ve clearly never visited Toulouse.
The Pont Neuf over the Garonne at Toulouse (Credit Google Maps)

The Pont Neuf over the Garonne at Toulouse (Credit Google Maps)

 

For those who love musicals the Julie Andrews/Rex Harrison version of My Fair Lady was among the most glamorous ever made. That is certainly the view of Laurent Valière, France Musique’s musicals expert who returns to it regularly in his Sunday morning radio spot. Not long ago he had a field day when La Chatelet in Paris staged an adaptation of the work including that memorable scene at London’s Covent Garden market where Eliza Doolittle tortuously tries to sell Henry Higgins a bunch of Toulouse violets.

La Ville Rose, Where the Violet is Making a Comeback

Toulouse: The Rose City of the Violet (Credit Wikipedia)

Toulouse: The Rose City of the Violet (Credit Wikipedia)

Introduced into France under Napoleon III, the Violet of Toulouse, a hardy winter bloom, had a place of glory and economic importance for the city.For here, in France’s fourth largest city – perversely known as the “La Ville Rose”, because of the colour of the tiles and brickwork on many of the public buildings – Violet is making a comeback.

Toulouse Violets in Darkest Purple
“La Violette de Toulouse” originating from Parma in Italy, is much more than just a romantic winter blossom however, it is the basis of a whole craft-based range of foodstuffs, recipes, perfumes, beauty products, small shops, romantic stories, a barge on the Canal du Midi and it is even regarded in some ways, as a very distant cousin to the violet garlic, a unique purple streaked variety grown just 55 mins west of the city, in Cadours 31480!

violet garlic from Toulouse
L’Ail Violette

Since about 1850 the Violet of Toulouse had been cultivated at Lalande, Aucamville, Saint Jory, the market garden belt north of Toulouse in a region that today has been split asunder by the recently completed Toulouse-Paris motorway (A20). The Violet of Toulouse is a “double purple ” with between 30 and 40 petals, very fragrant, grown in greenhouses, reproduced only from cuttings and it flowers every year!

In the early 19th century, more than 600 small farming families lived off the winter cultivation of this plant, making very fashionable bouquets exported to the UK , Germany, Russia, Morocco and elsewhere. The city held Violet Tea Dances, there was the annual election of Miss Violet and personalised bouquets were delivered by romantic young blades wooing their belles. Peak production of the Violet of Toulouse came in the last century when apart from bouquets, the flowers were also dusted with sugar and used for decorating cakes, opening up an entire new industry .

Bonbons made from Violette de Toulouse and found in specialist shops in the city centre (Credit: Wikipedia)

Bonbons made from Violette de Toulouse and found in specialist shops in the city centre (Credit: Wikipedia)

 

Decline and Natural Disaster
Nevertheless, despite an ancient reputation and the romantic attachments of the flower, violets began to fall out of favour, prey to natural and predatory events. The worst natural disaster occurred in the big winter freeze of 1956 which devastated the local crop, by 1980 only 3 violet growers were left in the area, Toulouse was in danger of losing a much prized emblem.

In 1984, the Haute Garonne Chamber of Agriculture and the Midi Pyrenees Regional Council, launched a research program, to save the violet. Scientists succeeded in reviving production and a new more robust variety of the Parma violet emerged with seedlings grown in pots, above ground, and on shelves at eye level and under glass. The “Violette de Toulouse” brand was protected and trademarked. Production today is in the hands of a dozen horticulturists while an Association of Friends of the Violet and the Brotherhood of the Violet have helped contribute to the revival of the traditions of the violet by staging associated cultural events.

Here is an excerpt of My Fair Lady starring the famous violets:

Maison de la Violette

The Violet shop
Violets – Eat them, wear them…

Canal du Midi Barge
The Violet of Toulouse is a long time passion of Hélène Vié whose House of Violets barge is anchored on the Canal du Midi near the Toulouse central station. In 1998, she decided to buy “Vulcan” a 30m long barge, restore it and open a unique outlet for violet products on the UNESCO-heritage classified canal. By combining two strong heritage symbols representing Toulouse – the Violet and the Canal du Midi, she aimed to revive the once blossoming violet traditions of France’s fourth largest city.

Hélène Vié, Maison de Violettes
Hélène Vié
Maison de la Violet

In a recent interview Hélène Vié says the starting point for her violet adventure related to her passion for all shades of purple.

“When I first arrived in Toulouse I was disappointed not to find much left of the violet tradition, so in 1993 I started to create scents and embroidery, goumandises, marketing them through my company “Jardin de Elen”.

She opted for opening her store on a barge for several reasons: “I wanted a very original store associated with a world heritage site like the Canal du Midi and right in the city centre, what better than a barge here?”

Until 1907 bouquets of violets were sold directly by producers on street corners of the city or at the Marché aux Violettes des Jacobins to brokers or dealers who would ship them around France and abroad. So important was the trade that in the early 19th century, a special train departed daily from Toulouse to Paris, between March and June with wagons overflowing with bouquets of violets! Prior to 1914, it was common to send shipments of violets to Russia, Austria, Hungary, Germany.

In 1918, the French railroad operator SNCF introduced special measures on the route to London to ensure the flowers arrived less than 24 hours.

World Trade
In 1950, 400 boxes (about 5000 bunches) departed every evening to Paris for redistribution by agents to Canada, Africa, Switzerland, Italy, USA, USSR .

Violets were crystallized into sugar around the end of the 19th century.

In 1936, Etablissements Berdoues created the perfume “Violets of Toulouse.

In 1950, a Mr. Serres created a liqueur based on Violets.

These companies still exist and Toulouse ships their products worldwide

According to Mike Briley and Chantal Moret, writing on their blog – Violets of Toulouse

The Violet of Toulouse flowers from October to April. Today violets are used to make violet syrup, violet jelly, violet ice cream, violet honey, violet cocktails and even violet incense are now available.

They are urging readers to try this special New Year champagne concotion…

Kir Royal à la Violette

To make the Violet syrup:

150 g violets
500 ml water
750 g sugar

Method
Separate the petals of the violets from the other parts of the plant. Put them in a bowl and cover with 250 ml of boiling water. Place a small plate on top of the flowers to keep them under the water. Let them macerate for 1 h 30 to 2 h.

Put the sugar and 250 ml water in a saucepan. When the sugar has dissolved heat it to boiling, skim and let simmer.

When the syrup is “cassé” (dip the handle of a wooden spoon into the syrup and then plunge it immediately into cold water. The sugar which remains on the handle should be brittle and snaps (“casser”) between the teeth) remove from the heat.
Mix immediately the violet infusion and the syrup and stir for several minutes until well mixed. Let cool and poor into a bottle for storage.

Champagne + violet syrup = Kir Royal à la violette – delicious
To view other Violet Recipes click here

Links:
Violet recipes by Vivienne Bolton
Violets of Toulouse blog
Maison de la Violette (Hélène de Vié)
Violet Garlic from Cadours

 

Story: Ken Pottinger
editorial@french-news-online.com

 

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