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Toulouse - Where Rose is Really Violet

Toulouse - "La Ville Rose"

Currently breaking Paris box office records (well possibly not) at La Chatelet is an adaptation of the Julie Andrews/Rex Harrison version of My Fair Lady. Among its many memorable scenes is the one at London's Covent Garden market where, in awful cockney tones, Eliza Doolittle tries to sell Henry Higgins a bunch of violets.

La Ville Rose, Where the Violet is Making a Comeback
If you thought Doolittle's humble violet was merely a wonderful deep purple bloom, a popular posy from the past and particularly from Victorian and Edwardian England, then you've clearly never visited Toulouse.

Toulouse Violets
Violette de Toulouse

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.

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.

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 .

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.

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

Story: Ken Pottinger

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