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Gastronomic confréries, or brotherhoods, have grown into one of the most active (and, because of their fantastic costumes) visible food movements on the Continent. France alone has 360 groups registered in the national association with additional outfits that have chosen not to join. Confréries have also sprung up all over Belgium, Spain and Portugal, with each chapter devoted to a particular dish, food product or beverage. Some, such as those promoting the culinary uses of the once-popular and now-overlooked dandelion, have as few as two members. Others boast several hundred. In all cases, the product or recipe to which each is devoted must speak to local history and terroir, making the movement particularly strong on the regional level.
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In May, for example, Charleville-Mezières, near the Belgian border of the French Ardennes and most famous as the birthplace of Arthur Rimbaud, hosted the 10th annual Festival International des Confréries des Ardennes. The event’s warmth and joviality, held in the magnificent brick-and-stone Place Ducale of 1606 (the twin to Paris’ more famous Place des Vosges), defies its most famous citizen’s allusions to the city as an infested backwater.
The festival began with a grand parade, syncopated by several marching bands, of more than 50 confréries wearing fanciful costumes, medallions and banners. The Brotherhood of the Amateurs of the Blood Sausage of Saint-Germainmont wore deep green cloaks trimmed in blood-sausage maroon. The Brotherhood of Amateurs of the Pigs’ Feet of Saint-Ménehould sported crimson and black trimmed with gold as one white-bearded member showed off a stuffed pig, while members of the Confrérie de la Cacasse à Cul Nu marched in potato-colored, monastic-inspired robes and carried a giant stew pot. Liège’s Confrérie Tchantchès, representing local beers as well as bouquettes, a beer-battered, raisin-infused variation on a crêpe, had an elaborate entourage that included Charlemagne and his guard as well as humble serving wenches.
French tradition of Medieval confréries reborn
These quasi-Medieval/Masonic outfits whimsically yet unmistakably point to the fact that the movement began as a revival of the ancient confréries, which started in the Middle Ages as religious brotherhoods but by the 12th century quickly expanded to include professional guilds.
The French Revolution of 1789 swept the guild system away and it remained dead until the Chaine des Rôtisseurs (the Roasters’ Chain) was revived in 1950. In the following decades, other ancient brotherhoods were resuscitated and new groups created, often in collaboration with local tourism offices or agricultural coops.
Although it encompasses well-known products such as Leffe Beer, the movement is overwhelmingly grassroots. It includes farmers, such as Maurice Massenavette, grand master of the Commanderie Cassis and Berry, who grows Berry-region lentils and who produces his own crème de cassis. However, many members have no professional affiliation to the food world at all.
Eric Schreiber, who works for an automobile company, and his wife Catherine, an administrator at a vocational high school, along with some friends in 2001 created a confrérie devoted to the Cacasse à Cul Nu, which roughly translates as “bare-assed potato stew.” The name is a humorous acknowledgment of the fact that one was too broke to add anything more substantial than bacon into the mix. If sausages or meat are added, the dish becomes a Cacasse culottée (in panties).
For the Schreibers, the dish recalled their grandmothers’ cooking and stories of wartime rationing. However, they date its origin to around 1740, when the cook of Gauthier, prince de Château Regnault in the town of Bogny sur Meuse proposed making him a fricassee of potatoes, a food only newly coming into use in Europe.
The prince, who purportedly sat on his commode at table and who suffered from a severe stutter, struggled to repeat: “fri … fri … frifri … fricaaa … cacasse … cacasse!” To this, his servant replied, “Not bad, Monseigneur! And in view of the so delicate position that you find yourself in, we will call it Cacasse à cul nu.”
Cheerful celebration of local specialties
Apocryphal or not, the story evokes the dish’s longstanding status as a regional favorite not least because of its naughty name. The confrérie devoted to it now boasts approximately 150 members.
One of their chief annual activities has been to assist in organizing Charleville’s International Festival, which brings together brotherhoods from both the Belgian and the French parts of the Ardennes. Groups from other French regions also participate.
This two-day food festival featured bountiful free samples and cooking demonstrations. Meals, served under a grand marquee at one end of the square, highlighted local specialties such as the Ardennes’ famed jambon sec and a bacon salad. With free Champagne, speeches and entertainment by the local chanteuse the event felt more like a village wedding. The confréries successfully brought together children, retirees and everyone in between to celebrate the regional cooking of the Ardennes.
La Cacasse à Cul Nu
By Violette Visentin, Daniel Schneider and Patrick Rostier, courtesy of the Confrérie de la Cacasse à Cul Nu, translated by Carolin Young
1 kilo (2.2 pounds) long, firm-fleshed potatoes
4 thick slices of lean bacon
2 onions, cut into rounds
4 tablespoons oil (or lard)
2 tablespoons flour
1 sprig thyme
1 bay leaf
Parsley for garnish
2 or 3 cloves of garlic
Salt and pepper
1. In a casserole over medium heat, brown the bacon. As soon as the bacon is golden, remove it from the casserole and reserve. Add the oil and turn up the heat.
2. Brown the potatoes whole or cut in two, depending on their size. As soon as they are golden (not black) remove them from the casserole and reserve them on the side.
3. Add the onions and a bit of oil, and cook them over medium heat until they become translucent.
4. Add the flour and make a roux by scraping the bottom of the casserole well.
5. Return the potatoes to the casserole and add enough liquid to just cover the vegetables. Add a branch of thyme, a bay leaf, two or three cloves of garlic, salt and pepper.
6. Let it cook over low heat for about 45 minutes. Then put the bacon slices back into the casserole.
7. Just before serving, sprinkle the dish with fresh parsley and correct the seasoning.
The cacasse can be served with pork, sausages or chicken breasts cooked with the potatoes. It can be advantageously accompanied by a fresh salad.
Members of the Confrérie de la Cacasse à Cul Nu carry a giant pot through the Parade of the Confréries on May 4 in Charleville-Mezières. Credit: Carolin C. Young
Once a year cows, pigs, sheep, goats, birds, flora and fauna — not to mention a vast cornucopia of foods, wines and liqueurs made from them — make their way to Paris from France’s diverse regions, including its overseas colonies, for the Salon de l’Agriculture.
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The Salon de l’Agriculture encapsulates France’s commitment to its agricultural heritage, especially on the part of the capital, which has, since the late Middle Ages, depended upon importing food into the city. Unlike medieval antecedents, such as the Foire Saint-Germain, the salon no longer plays an essential role in supplying such products to Paris. Nevertheless, no other event so effectively offers Parisians and others the opportunity to sample and learn about them.
For many Parisians, an annual visit to the salon is their primary contact with rural France. One father from the edgy 20th arrondissement explained that he’d brought his daughters, who are 5 and 8, because although they had no trouble recognizing exotic zebras, lions and elephants, they had difficulty with common farm animals.
Salon de l’Agriculture exhibits beckon with specialties
With more than 4,000 animals, the feeling is that of an old-fashioned county fair blown up on an epic scale. However, all of the counties are represented against the backdrop of the most cosmopolitan of cities.
Gourmandizing visitors often find it hard to spend more than a perfunctory moment visiting cows, watching sheep-shearing and equestrian feats, or perusing the somewhat disappointing fruit and vegetable pavilion, which is admittedly challenging to mount in winter. The fair’s largest section, which features two football-stadium-sized floors filled with French regional foods and wines, beckons too strongly.
It is tempting to nickname this area, “infinite variations on pigs and grapes, punctuated by ducks, geese and plenty of cheeses.” Sausages of every shape and size dangle alongside hams from Bayonne, Auvergne, Franche-Comté, Corsica and numerous other regions. Oenophiles sample grand cru wines and engage in prolonged, sotto voce negotiations with winemakers in the subdued Burgundian section. The overseas area, however, buzzes with Caribbean music, tropical fruits and Creole boudins, as visitors jostle to purchase cups of Planter’s Punch. Waffles, caramels, ice cream and oysters proliferate in the Breton area; while a cacophony of cheeses, sweets, honey and preserves vie for attention at nearly every turn.
The Île-de-France features bakers, who prepare baguettes on the spot, and members of the Confréries de l’Île de France, wearing Masonic-like robes and medallions, who proffer samples of protected-name brie de Meaux. This guild-like organization has plenty of other regional counterparts, whose members can be found parading around in similarly antiquated garb.
The fair’s layout bears no relation to geography, which produces surprising juxtapositions. This year, the Norman area, replete with artisanal Calvados and seafood, adjoined the southwestern section, overflowing with foie gras and a staggering array of other duck-based treats.
Those who prefer not to graze on take-away items and free samples can opt to dine at one of more than 30 restaurants, each specializing in a different region.
For the artisanal producers who exhibit at the salon, it represents big business, not because of retail clients but for the numerous wholesale buyers who attend from across France.
The competition for the annual Concours Générale Agriculture, which has since 1870 awarded medals to the best examples of a broad range of foods, wines and liqueurs, takes place over the fair’s nine days. On opening day, visitors visibly flocked to stands flaunting gold medals from 2012, such as for duck foie gras at Jean-Pierre G. of Landes; or for Champagne over at Champagne Sanger. By the closing day, attendees sought out newly minted winners such as Biper Gorri for its Basque piment d’espelette and the Nyonaise Cooperative, which won medals for several Côtes du Rhone wines and for its olive oil. Every winning product can thereafter carry a sticker announcing its award, so the prestige and profits of winning reverberate long after the fair.
A powerful political stage
Politicians keenly milk the Salon de l’Agriculture’s symbolic potency. French President François Hollande opened this year’s event, while former Prime Minister François Fillon of the UMP and Marine Le Pen, head of the right-wing FN party, also made conspicuous appearances. During last year’s lead-up to the French presidential election, overt campaigning was rampant.
So too, fast-food corporations such as McDonald’s, which has been wildly successful in France since emphasizing the use of French products, and agribusiness invest in large stands.
Nevertheless, with a host of rare, conservation breeds, plenty of demonstrations and interactive displays, and especially the strong presence of so many artisanal producers and vendors, the salon powerfully promotes and protects France’s agricultural heritage and gastronomic culture.
Rare Casta and Lourdaise cows, now under conservation, at the 2013 Salon de l’Agriculture. Credit: Carolin C. Young
No sooner does Paris finish ringing in the New Year than its bakers and grocers unveil copious displays of galette des rois or king cakes. These commemorate the visit of the three Magi to the infant Jesus on Epiphany (Jan. 6), which marks the end of the Christmas season and the start of Carnival. However, they are so popular in the City of Light that they can be found there throughout the month of January.
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King cakes, also known as Twelfth Night cakes or Epiphany cakes, are found throughout the Christian world, with variations found through continental Europe, Great Britain, New Orleans and even Mexico, although the recipes vary widely from one place to another. The English variant, for example features preserved fruits and brandy, while the Provençal version uses a ring-shaped brioche base topped with candied fruit. The cake made in Paris and the rest of northern France since at least the early 14th century is composed of a frangipane or almond-cream filling sandwiched between two layers of puff pastry and should be served warm.
King of the bean
What all versions share is the inclusion of a fève (bean), which since the late 19th century is just as likely to be a porcelain or metal charm. Whoever finds it is crowned “king of the bean,” and all galettes des rois come with a handy cardboard crown for the “coronation.” Some cakes also had a hidden dried pea, whose discoverer became “queen” for the night.
The ritual often takes on the gender-bending hilarity of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” but, historically, this inversion of the social order released tensions accrued during the rest of the year.
At Versailles, the queen and king of the bean received magnificent outfits in which to dazzle during their short-lived “reigns.” One especially intricate party held there in 1684 included five twelfth-night courts, seated at separate tables, who appointed “ambassadors” to negotiate with their neighbors.
When the French Revolution of 1789 put the kibosh on kings in addition to Christianity, a brief but failed attempt was made to squelch out, or at least rename, kings’ cakes. The Revolutionary Committee would have done better to take their cue from the fourth-century church fathers, who fixed the date of Christmas as Dec. 25, although most scholars agree that the historical Jesus was probably born in summer. The reason was a “if you can’t beat them, join them” acknowledgement that the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia was too popular to stamp out. Instead, its raucous atmosphere, and, indeed the tradition of the “king of the bean” were co-opted and renamed, with a thin veneer of Christianity, Twelfth Night.
Traces of the tradition’s pagan origins survive in northern France, where it remains common for the youngest child of the household to sit under the table while an adult cuts the cake, calling out “Phoebe Domine, pour qui la part?” (“Lord Phoebus, for whom is this piece?”) The child replies by allocating the first slice to the Good Lord. This is also called the “piece of the poor,” or “the piece of the virgin,” which would be kept for the first needy person who requested it. The child then names the next person to whom each subsequent piece will be given.
King cakes a January treat
Parisians have a special attachment to the king cake that in part developed because an ancient law for centuries required the capital’s bakers to offer them free to clients as a form of étrennes, the requisite New Year’s gift, which is still popular in France. One early 20th-century baker complained that so-called “clients” appeared from the four corners of the city to claim a cake, never to be seen again.
The abolition of this onerous law in 1910 might well have killed off the galette des rois, which had already virtually disappeared in other cities. such as London. However, Parisians stood in line to pay for them and have done so ever since.
All January long bakeries sell them in dedicated, outdoor stands or stack their windows and display cases full of examples that range in size from the diameter of an English muffin to that of a truck’s wheel.
Monoprix, France’s version of an upscale Walmart, features them on the cover of their weekly bulletin, offering gift certificates as a prize to those who find a “golden bean.” Even the most pedestrian grocers offer a cheapo version.
However, according to the Jan. 5 edition of Le Parisien, the new trend in 2013 is for Parisians to bake their own. This phenomenon is evidenced by a recent spike in web searches for recipes for galette des rois, sales of frozen pâte feuilletée, and the surging popularity of cooking classes specializing in the cake.
In truth, it’s fairly easy and certainly lots of fun — just don’t forget the bean!
Parisian-Style Galette Des Rois
For this cake you need to make or buy two sheets of your favorite pâte feuilletée (puff pastry). Julia Child offers intricate, illustrated instructions, if you’ve never made this before. Roll them out and cut out two disks of equal size, whatever size you prefer. Place one disk on a baking tray.
Make your favorite filling. Frangipane (see below) or almond cream are the classics. In fact, the component parts of a galette des rois are the same as those of a Pithiviers, as described by Child. The galette, however, being a more rustic preparation, is easier to assemble.
Spread a thin layer or egg yolk or water along the border of the bottom pastry layer. Then, spread an even layer of the filling across middle, leaving a small border at the edge.
Don’t forget the bean! You can use a dried bean, or any sort of small charm(s) that won’t melt in the oven.
Quickly cover with the second layer of pastry, and pinch them together gently but firmly, pressing slightly inward so that the two sides stick together well.
For a golden sheen, glaze it with a thin layer or egg yolk diluted with a bit of water
Cut diamonds or whatever pattern you’d like along the top with a sharp knife.
Bake in a hot (425 F) oven until golden brown; for a medium or large galette this will take approximately 30 to 40 minutes.
Let it cool only slightly before serving, or, if prepared in advance, reheat it for a few minutes in a moderate oven.
True frangipane is a mixture of ⅓ crème patisserie and ⅔ almond cream.
For the crème patisserie:
½ cup milk
2 tablespoons. sugar
1 egg yolk
1 tablespoon flour
1. As you gently bring the milk to a boil, beat the sugar into the egg yolk for 2 or 3 minutes.
2. Beat in flour until it is very smooth and ribbon-like.
3. Pour the boiling milk over the mixture in a thin stream and whisk in a saucepan over low heat until smooth and thick.
For the almond cream:
½ cup melted butter (unsalted)
¾ cup sugar
1 cup ground almonds
Optional: a splash of rum or almond extract
1. Add the almond cream ingredients together.
2. Add the two creams together and refrigerate until ready to use.
Two-person galette des rois by Régis Colin, 53 rue Montmartre, Paris, who won the 2008 prize for best galette in the Île de France. Credit: Carolin Young
Thanksgiving seems a consummately American holiday, embodied by nothing more succinctly than the roast turkey, a creature native to North America. However, in France, a feast not dissimilar to Thanksgiving took place each Nov. 11 to honor Saint Martin of Tours. Perhaps even more surprisingly, this too featured an enormous roast turkey as its central dish.
Alexandre-Laurent-Balthazar Grimod de la Reynière, the author of the world’s first serially published food magazine, the Almanach des Gourmands, in 1803 explained that no other day on the calendar held such joy for gourmands, be they Protestant, Greek Orthodox or even atheists. He described Saint Martin as the “patron of parties and the Saint the most generally invoked by men of good appetite.”
As Grimod himself put it, there’s no special evidence that this fourth-century bishop of Tours, long associated with the French royal family and nation, had epicurean leanings (although he has been credited as developing viticulture in the Touraine and for introducing the Chenin Blanc grape there). He was, in fact, a Roman soldier, before his conversion, and has long been venerated by the military. However, from an early date a great feast was held to venerate Saint Martin, which preceded the 40-day fast of advent.
Although this had been dropped by Grimod’s day, the copious harvest-festival banquet remained and stood as a highlight in any French gourmand’s calendar.
The French take to turkey
In no uncertain terms, this consummate epicure explained that the turkey was “the bird of Saint Martin.” He correctly elaborated that although the bird was not native to France, the French had taken to it immediately. Although he credited the turkey’s debut in France to the 1570 wedding banquet of Charles IX, 66 of them had already featured at the coronation feast given by the city of Paris to the king’s mother, Catherine de’ Medici, in 1549. Regal French households had, in fact, been breeding them from as early as the 1530s.
Unlike other New World foods such as potatoes and tomatoes that took centuries to assimilate in Europe, turkeys met with instant popularity. Because the prevailing dietary theory accorded a high status to game birds, which, after all, were the exclusive perquisite of an aristocracy that enjoyed the right to hunt, these exotic birds felt appropriate for princely tables. In such a way the turkeyquickly replaced the goose, which had previously featured at the feast of Saint Martin, purportedly because he had hidden amongst a flock of geese when resisting his election as bishop.
In spite of the turkey’s renown in France, its origin proved a point of confusion. Grimod conjectured that the bird was either Namibian or Indian in origin. The latter theory gave rise to the early French term ‘coq d’inde’ (Indian cock), which eventually contracted into ‘dinde,’ for turkey (of course, the English got it equally wrong, attributing the bird to Turkey, hence the name).
He wasn’t that fussed about where the turkey originated so long as that on his table was young, plump, and juicy. His fellow Frenchmen apparently felt the same. By the time of the French Revolution of 1789, fashionable Parisians bankrupted themselves to serve turkeys à la Périgord, i.e. stuffed entirely full of the region’s magnificent black truffles.
Grimod confessed that this extravagance could rarely be prepared on Saint Martin’s feast day, even by the wealthiest of hosts, because the holiday falls before truffle season typically gets underway (although he noted that there were exceptions). As an alternative, he suggested stuffing the bird with chestnuts from Lyon or little sausages from Nancy. One way or another, however, roast turkey had to appear at the Saint-Martin’s-Day feast.
Bringing Saint Martin’s feast back
The holiday has fallen out of favor in today’s secular society. Moreover, since World War I ended on November 11, 1918, the day has been remembered in France as Armistice Day, further obscuring its more ancient association with Saint Martin. Nevertheless, traces of it remain intact to this day.
The town of Varaignes in the Haut Périgord, for example, this Nov. 11, celebrated its 47th annual ‘foire aux dindons’ (turkey fair), which reprised an earlier, forgotten tradition. The festival begins each Saint Martin’s Day with a parade of turkeys through the town square and culminates in a grand banquet, featuring, bien sûr, a stew made from the turkeys bred in the region. Turkeys may be North American in origin, but for the locals who’ve been rearing them for centuries they now symbolize a proud part of the local terroir.
Plump Roast Turkey Stuffed with Foie Gras and Truffles
From the “Dictionnaire portatif de Cuisine, d’Office, et de distillation. » (Paris : Vincent, 1767 ; translated by the author).
Choose a young, small and plump turkey. Pluck it, gut it & flame it. Take three blanched foies gras; cut the truffles, which have been partially cooked in a bouillon, into them and cut them in the same way. Put the truffles with the foies and some juice, and finish cooking them until the sauce dries out. Let it cool; stuff your turkey & stitch it up. Put it on the spit, wrapped in lard and paper; serve it with a good essence.
Top image: Turkey illustration from Pierre Bollons, “L’Histoire de la nature des oyseaux, Paris: 1555.” Credit: Bibliothèque nationale de France