Out of the black and into the blue…
Toulouse saw a period of great prosperity after the black years of the plague. In the 15th century Toulouse began to enjoy a ‘golden age’. The ‘blue gold’ of the pastel plant created great wealth in the city.
La Fleurée de Pastel
Isatis tinctoria: woad in English and pastel in French: a flowering plant of the family Brassicaceae.
Pastel, the deep-blue dye extracted from the woad was cultivated in the Lauragais farming country. A triangle formed by Albi, Toulouse, and Carcassonne, became known as the Pays de cocagne ; the land of plenty.
The word cocagne comes from the word cocques – balls of concentrated dye.
Woad has also been used in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries.
The blue dye comes in many nuances, from the lightest blue to deep dark and is capable of a keeping the color stable even throughout centuries.
The technique of obtaining the pastel dye has been used since ancient times when Celts and Gauls that were populating what is now France, were using it not only for textiles but also to paint their hair and faces. The leaves were harvested in September and brought to a woad mill where they were crushed and mixed with water or urine to produce a paste that was left outside and turned over to ferment for several weeks.
The balls (cocagnes) the size of a grapefruit were left to dry in the sunshine for up to 4 months. They would reduce to the size of a small golf ball, become hard and brown-black. This was the only way to preserve the blue pigment as it would have to travel months and months to dyers throughout Europe.
During the golden age of blue pastel, the merchants of Toulouse who made their fortunes from it built grand houses out of brick, which had been mainly reserved for churches until then.
A mansion house from this time is known as a ‘hotel particular’. There are quite a few houses like this in and around the city of Toulouse.
Pierre d’Assésat was a wealthy pastel merchant who commissioned Nicolas Bachelier, a renowned renaissance architect from Toulouse, to design this ‘hôtel particulier’. The merchant lost his fortune and the ‘hotel’ became the property of the city. It eventually became the Bemberg Foundation, an art museum in 1995.
Although the term ‘hôtel particulier’ sounds like it should be a boutique hotel from way back in the day it is, and trust me on this, just a fancy old house built a long time ago by someone with money, for himself, and now used for something else!
A short lived fortune, whoa where did it go?
As quick as the golden age of pastel came, it went and was replaced by indigo.
Following the European discovery of the seaway to India, great amounts of indigo were imported from Asia. Laws were passed in some parts of Europe to protect the woad industry from the competition of the indigo trade. It was proclaimed that indigo caused yarns to rot. In 1577 the German government officially prohibited the use of indigo, denouncing it as that “pernicious, deceitful and corrosive substance, the Devil’s dye”. This prohibition was reapeated in 1594 and again in 1603. In France, Henry IV, in an edict of 1609, forbade under pain of death the use of “the false and pernicious Indian drug”.
“Bleu de Lectoure”
Founded in 1994 by Henri Lambert, The Lectoure Blue has become a key player in the rehabilitation of pastel.
Henri Lambert has, for several years, resurfaced the techniques of ancestral dyeing.
In the mid-nineties a couple of Belgian researchers, Denise and Henri Lambert came to live in an ancient tannery from the 16th century in the town of Lectoure, in the Gers department of Occitanie. Intrigued by the colour of the blue shutters Henri investigated and after several years of research in collaboration with the Ecole Nationale de Chimie de Toulouse (school of chemistry) found a way to extract the blue pastel more simply and in far less time. He created Bleu de Lectoure, and has been fabricating paint, ink, crayons and other products used by artists as well as cloth dye used in haute couture in Paris.
Flower power and the fountain of youth.
Graine de Pastel is one of my favorite shops in Toulouse.
In 2003, Carole Garcia and Nathalie Juin had the idea to create a research lab dedicated to the pastel plant.
” The pastel plant whose leaves contain the beautiful blue pigment that marked the regions’ history but above all, the ancestral medicinal plant, whose dermatological properties were forgotten!”
Two years of research revealed the beauty secrets of the plant: an extraordinary composition of the pastel protein in omega 3, 6 and 9, fatty acids essential to the skin’s beauty.
Graine de Pastel is true to its commitment to sustainable development, promotion of regional culture, and support of a local economy. The manufacture of products is 100% regional.
They make and sell anti- oxidant, anti-aging products that also smell divine.
Another colour, another flower, another little story…
The Violette de Toulouse is the official emblem of the city.
A soldier brought back the first plant from the city of Parma, in Italy, where he had been fighting. To his surprise, the flower intended for his beloved had an immediate success. The people of Toulouse fell in love with the violet for its purple petals, white heart and wonderful perfume.
The culture of violets spread in the Toulouse region, and it had 400 producers by the 20th century. The violet of Toulouse was one of the most popular plants until WWII and was exported throughout Europe. They were given to family and friends at Christmas or Valentine’s Day, as they bloom for 7 to 8 months from October to March.
They are very robust and can withstand temperatures of -18 providing they are not exposed to moisture; sadly they were in the dire winter of 1956. Coupled with the constraints of war this posed great problems for the violet industry.
After a period of difficulty the flower of Toulouse has been restored to its former glory and you will find violet perfume, violet candy, crème de violette (to be mixed with champagne) as well as the gorgeous purple flower itself to offer to your loved ones.
Toulouse violets are also known for their medicinal purposes. They aid breathing and calm headaches because they contain aspirin.
Violets represent peace, sweetness, modesty and shyness. Offering someone a violet is a way to declare your love in a discrete way, as the colour violet symbolizes deep feelings. It is the flower of lovers.
Suddenly I find myself wondering why I have never been offered violets!
Enjoy your visit to Toulouse and the blue and purple that add to the colour and history of the pink city.
Follow me! Read my journal and join me on my travels around Occitanie…….
à bientôt Christina.