The imposing pink-brick buildings of Toulouse have earned it the nickname ‘la ville rose’. But the city’s emblem is the delicate violet, la violette ‘Parme de Toulouse’. Throughout February, at the peak of the flowering period, the city celebrates the violet. The celebrations include a violet fair and market in the stately Place du Capitole, always held during the first weekend of February.
Visiting la fête de la violette in Toulouse was one of my 10 things to do in 2012. I was hoping to be able to tell you about it after visiting it myself. Alas, the Fates, in the form of the cold snap, were against me. Knowing that it was likely to be cold we accepted a lunch invitation yesterday instead of going all the way to Toulouse. However, by nine o’clock it was snowing hard and going anywhere was out of the question. I will have to content myself with recounting what I have read up about the violet fair and defer my visit to next year, weather permitting.
Why did Toulouse choose the violet? I read on one site that the violet has been associated with the city since the 14th century. At that time, an annual prize of a golden violet was awarded to the best poet in the city. Some also believe that soldiers brought violets back from the Napoleonic Wars. Growers and perfumers then cashed in on the 19th-century craze for violets.
La violette de Toulouse, which is a registered trademark, is a particular strain of Parma violet that is especially sweet-smelling. People prized Toulouse violets highly and the city exported more than 600,000 bouquets every year during the 19th century, even as far as Canada. However, they are very sensitive to disease and extremes of temperature. They almost died out but were saved from extinction during the 1980s. Cultivating this strain of violet is labour-intensive, too, since they require propagation by hand.
Nowadays, violets are an important ingredient in the cosmetic and food industries and are sold as bouquets or simply as plants. During the fair, you can sample and buy sweets, liqueurs, soaps, candles, syrups and food products – even mustard – all perfumed or flavoured with violets. I believed you can also buy pain aux violettes. In warmer Februaries, the flowers apparently release their delicate perfume as the air warms up.
During February, you can also take tours of greenhouses and the National Violet Conservatory. The latter was founded in the city’s municipal greenhouses in 1994 and houses a collection of 80 different strains of violet from around the world.
A barge moored on the Canal du Midi has been turned into a shop, la Maison de la Violette, specialising in violet products. A variety of other shops in the city centre also sell violet products.
This morning it was minus 13C and the snow had set like rock.
A l’année prochaine, alors.
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