One of the things that I love most about life in France is that high-quality products are so accessible – and eating well is a national pastime! Almost everyone you meet is eager to tell you about their favorite shops, their favorite regional dishes, their favorite family recipes. Going to the market is a cornerstone of French culture, not only to shop for produce, but also to meet people and take part in community life. BUT if you don’t speak French (and sometimes even when you do), it’s difficult to know where to start. Visits to the market can be overwhelming and intimidating when you’re not sure how to order, what you like – or even what the various options are.
The questions rush through your head: How can I even begin to pick between ALL these cheeses (and is it ok to eat the rind?!) – or – Which one of these wines with names that I’ve never heard of goes with dinner? What are all of those items in the case at the charcuterie counter? How do I know if I’m getting the best possible product when I don’t even know what most of this stuff IS?!
That’s what motivated me to start Taste of Toulouse – because I wanted to share the edible (and drinkable!) treasures of my adopted hometown in a way that’s fun and easy to understand, but still gives context and depth. My hope is that by taking away some of the anxiety and confusion and giving you tips that you can continue to use, I’ll inspire you to further exploration and discovery.
Help preserve a taste of place. By going on a Taste of Toulouse tour, you’ll also be supporting hard-working and talented local artisans and businesses that are, in turn, supporting the community and preserving the rich gastronomic heritage of SW France. I pick the locations we visit based on the quality of their products and service – not on cost – and spend generously at those businesses both on and off my tours.
In 2015, I had a lightbulb moment. I was on a food tour in Paris, and it was there that I was introduced to the concept of terroir – that each place has a taste. It was as if someone told me something that I had known all my life, but never put into words. In fact, there is no direct English translation for the word “terroir”.
You see, I grew up on a blueberry farm in southwest Michigan, the daughter of farmers and entrepreneurs. To this day, it pains me to buy blueberries in a store because I know they will never be as good as the ones I used to pick on hot summer days in our fields. As I grew up and moved to Chicago, I — without even realizing it — began to plan my vacations around food: the flavors of the souks in Marrakech and Fez, cheese curds in Wisconsin, new wineries in Michigan, a staycation exploring ethnic neighborhoods in Chicago. And then that fateful trip to Paris, where I discovered the wonderful and bewildering world of French wine and cheese.
It was as if all of the pieces of my life started falling into place. I had spent 8 years of my career supporting small local businesses in one of the coolest neighborhoods in Chicago through marketing and events – helping people discover what was unique, creating special events that enriched the community and drew in visitors – essentially, serving as a guide to the neighborhood and its businesses. It gave me a deep love and appreciation, not only for the passion and energy that it takes to be a small business owner, but also for the special place that small businesses have in sustaining the vitality of a community.
Eventually, I left that job, took some time off to see what was next (some of it traveling in France!), and then – inspired by my travels and wanting to learn more – I became a cheesemonger at one of Chicago’s best cheese and wine shops. I spent a year diving deep: learning everything I could about cheese and wine, tasting at every opportunity, answering all sorts of customer questions (there are no stupid questions, really!), attending and teaching workshops, and passing the WSET level 2 certification in Wine & Spirits with merit.
Then in 2017 my path led me to Toulouse, where I immediately fell in love with this city – the beautiful architecture, the weather (no more Chicago winters!), the warmth of the people here, and the food! The FOOD! I had stepped into a fantastical wonderland of wine, cheese, charcuterie, and more. But even with my background and experience, my first market visits were very intimidating – especially since I was very shy to try to speak French in the beginning. I discovered that, despite the rich culinary scene in Toulouse and a significant amount of expats and visitors, there was no way for English-speakers to learn about French food and wine or discover the gastronomic wonders of SW France in our own language.
So I decided to do something about it. I used my growing French-speaking skills to broaden my knowledge of the Toulouse food world – searching out my favorite market vendors, bringing home new items to taste, shopping at local businesses, asking for recommendations (Tip: If you want to start a conversation with a French person, ask them about food). I spent 3 months immersing myself (figuratively) in French wine to achieve a perfect score on the French Wine Scholar exam.
I want to build bridges with cheese, wine, and chocolatines. My food tours combine local knowledge with a foreigner’s curiosity and point of view. Because sometimes the things that are obvious from a French perspective are NOT AT ALL obvious to those of us who lack the same context. My goal is to give people tools to bridge that gap, not just by having fun for a few hours on a tour (though we do that!), but through learning about the culture, values, and food system in France – everything that contributes to the delicious things that we hold in our hands and taste during the tour.