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