Riding our bikes along the Canal du Midi to eat lunch at L’Écluse de Castanet is one of those perfect days that reminds us why we moved to France.
We had been meaning to do this since just about forever, but sometimes the grind of daily life gets you in a rut. Fortunately, my wife had a fit of inspiration and suggested an outing at the last minute. Pulling away from the inertia of routine is never easy, and work’s siren song is often hard to ignore. That is particularly true for us eat-lunch-at-our-desk Americans.
Still, we roused ourselves and took our bikes out of the storage shed below our apartment. In just a few minutes, the city was slipping away from us as we pedaled along the paved path that hugs the Canal du Midi.
L’Écluse de Castanet is about 11 km southeast of Toulouse, about a 30 minute ride at a leisurely pace. “Écluse” is the French word for “lock,” and the restaurant is located next to the first écluse outside of Toulouse.
We made a reservation for 12:30 p.m., and fortunately that was enough to beat the crowd and get a table on the terrace. After locking our bikes nearby, we were seated by our waiter who was smiling, friendly, and eager to speak English when he heard our terrible French tumbling off our lips.
After ordering, the waiter asked what we wanted to drink. The question hung there for a moment, as we looked at each other and rapidly calculated the stakes. We still had to work in the afternoon. A heavy meal plus the bike ride back would be challenging enough and a recipe for afternoon sluggishness and a productivity killer. Throwing a glass of wine on top of that seemed reckless and likley to ensure a lost afternoon.
“Yes,” we said. “We’ll have some wine.”
It was the right answer, because this led to another profoundly life-changing moment. The waiter beckoned for us to stand up and follow him. “You know you can try all the wines first and then pick the one you want,” he said, as if this was indeed something the entire Francophone world knew and that we obviously should have known as well. Of course, in more than four years in France, we had never been invited to try the wines at a restaurant before buying one.
Having now done so, let me just say this should be the law.
The waiter led us to a shelf and a refrigerator and briefly gave us an overview of the reds, whites, and rosés. Then he handed us two classes and invited us to try as much as we wanted and then to let him know which one we wanted. He left us, and we stood there stupefied a moment, trying to make sure we had understood that we had been left alone with about 50 wines and the potential for unlimited tasting.
One glass of wine already seemed like the height of folly. Now we were basically confronted with an all-you-can sip wine bar? Trying to find a reasonable strategy, I decided to try sips of three, which I poured as delicately as I could. The bottles had stickers on them with matching stickers on the shelf to tell you the prices. After the tasting, I settled on a Saint-Émilion and we returned to our table after placing our wine order.
Our food arrived in short order. My wife had ordered the menu, and so she started with a calamari dish.
That was followed by the fish of the day. I am embarassed to admit that we had no idea what it was beyond some kind of white fish. Such is life in France. Sometimes you get tired of asking questions and you just eat.
I ordered the entrecôte off the menu with a pepper sauce and a potato gratin. Everything was perfect, and it was probably one of the best cuts I’ve had in France. Cooked poorly, entrecôte can be fatty and chewy. In this case, it all seemed to melt as soon as I began to chew.
Finally, we shared her dessert, a fondant au chocolat with cream. Compared to all those poor suckers picking at a sandwich at their desk, this seemed like we had fallen into a decadent alternative reality.
Considering the restaurant’s location, which manages to feel remote, the terrace was packed. In fact, the restaurant is not so far from Labege, and accessible by car as well for nearby office workers who are desperate to escape strip mall fare. The inside seemed cozy enough, but with the sun and clear skies, clearly almost everyone wanted to be outside.
Of course, when it was over, we were faced with the dreaded return, which was not as painful as feared, yet still left us sapped. After storing the bikes, we made gameful attempts at work before succombing to the welcoming sofa and an afternoon nap. Living the French life, after all, is hard work.