I spent the last ten days in Toulouse, in the southwest of France. It's a warm, sunny city in the summertime, with a relaxed vibe and late night hours that remind me more of Spain than Paris. I had several good meals in Toulouse, but none better than the ones shared in friends' homes.
I wanted to show you one of them — a no-cook, no-sweat feast that was pretty splendid, and also so inspiring for laid-back summer meals.
We had this meal at the bohemian flat of Pierre, one of my husband's coworkers — a young research scientist who put this spread together with his girlfriend. Their flat was small and cozy, with a door wide open to the balcony. There was no table large enough to seat us all so we settled in on the divan and pulled up the coffee table for a seriously charming picnic-style supper.
One of the reasons, of course, that no-cook meals in France tend to be so much better than ones elsewhere is the quality and relatively low price of prepared foods. A southern French meal will probably involve pâté or terrines made of meat, and you can pick up gorgeous examples of these from almost any market. Toulouse has especially good markets; I visited just two of the indoor markets — Marché Victor Hugo and Marché des Carmes —and both were awe-inspiring and splendid in the array of meat, fish, produce, and prepared foods they had to offer.
And then there is that old cliche that happens to be true about France: that you could live on the bread and cheese alone. Great bread, good cheese, a handful of fruit, and you have a summer meal.
Pierre transcended that though with a spread that started as appetizers and slowly expanded into dinner. Here's a taste of what was involved:
- Carrot chips
- Homemade guacamole and chips
- Slices of melon
Pierre also brought out the most amazing cold soup — a gazpacho made with fresh tomatoes and probably a heart-stopping quantity of olive oil, judging by the velvety texture. After we put a dent in that, out came the meats. We had:
- Spanish-style ham
- Pâté of duck
- Pork rillettes
After we spent some time on all of this, the main event occurred. I actually lied a bit when I said this was a no-cook supper, as Pierre had actually obtained a foie gras lobe and cooked it himself. We ate it in big slices smeared on bread — amazingly good. And so typical of Toulouse, where foie gras is not a rarified restaurant bite, but a simple local food that appears on every menu and frequently in people's homes. I do still think of it as a no-cook option, as I certainly won't be cooking it any time soon! But I did smuggle back a few sealed pots of cooked foie gras to eat at home.
And then just when we thought we couldn't eat any more, the cheese! The cheese plate came loaded with five types of cheese.
Oh, and the wine? Did I mention the wine? There was a lot of it (and all so good). We finished up with a bit of cognac and tottered home past midnight to pack for our early morning flight.
The whole spread reminded me how easy and delicious it is to eat like this, and how conducive to a long night of companionship with friends. Serving one central hot dish requires you to sit down, pay attention, and eat up promptly. But a long series of many plates of cold food — sausage, fruit, olives, nuts, little nibbles — invites you to eat slowly and make conversation.
I think that meals like this often get romanticized, so I loved eating good food and learning about the intricacies of foie gras preparation from young, eager people in a very normal student flat, with posters on the walls, and plans for climbing in the Pyrenees the following day. It was low-key and delicious, with a serious enjoyment of good food and not a hint of pretension. And it gave me a renewed confidence to host in that way as well.
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