Three little piggies…..

What a difference a week makes!  As I am writing this (Sunday March 3) the weather couldn’t be more different to what I experienced last Sunday in St Pons!  An arctic wind, blasting the falling snow horizontally at the Fete du Cochon, chilling me to the bone.  I’d decided to go come what may, so that I could write about it, and I’m very glad “you” made me go :-)!

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The fete has been going for some 20 years, and this year the organisers had wisely commandeered the covered bouledrome for the market and the show.   It had been billed as a pig fest and truffle market, and it lived up to both.  I’ll spare you the truffles, you’ve already read about them no doubt.  Suffice it to say that there were a good number of producers, selling some wonderful truffles, and that I bought another one, this time to have with scrambled eggs, and very delicious they were too!

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As I got to the bouledrome a sheep dog show was underway.  It really was amazing to watch the dogs herd the ducks and geese, especially the ducks.

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I met up with some friends from St Chinian and we decided that we would see if there were any tickets for the big communal meal in the Salle des Fetes next door.  Usually it is completely sold out in advance, but that day was our lucky day and we got four seats.  The food here is always cooked the old-fashioned way, in big cauldrons set over a blazing fire. That alone is worth the visit!

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Just across from where the cook-house was set up, a whole row of shops had been created with printed canvas – great job.  And there were volunteers showing how to make sausages and bougnettes!  They really deserved a medal for braving the cold!

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We traded the cold for the relative warmth of the Salle des Fetes and found our alloted seats – there were probably about 300 other patrons in the hall with us – and sat down to be entertained for the aperitif by a local band.

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The tables had all been set beautifully, and judging by the plate we figured there would be some kind of soup for starters.

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And we were right!!  After a brief introduction and welcome by one of the organisers, an army of young helpers arrived with cauldrons and ladles to serve the first course – a beautiful vegetable soup.

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Then came a brief interlude, while the bougnettes were prepared.  The bougnettes are a speciality of the bougnette triangle, which is formed by the towns of Mazamet, Lacaune and at the southern tip by St Pons of course.  It is a kind of large dumpling, made from stale bread, pork, eggs and seasonings.  The pork is meat from the neck and head, which is simmered in stock and when tender the meat is picked off any bones.  The bread is cut into cubes, moistened with some of the seasoned broth, the egg and meat added, and well seasoned.  Balls are formed and wrapped in caul fat, and they are then slowly simmered in fat.  A bougnette is cut into slices and either eaten cold or the slices fried or grilled and eaten hot.  Either way it’s delicious – you can buy them at Boucherie Peyras in St Chinian. In honour of the bougnette the brotherhood formed to promote this delicacy, had prepared a song-and dance routine.  I took a video of it for your enjoyment:

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The bougnettes were delicious and again served by a small army of helpers.  By this time some of the other helpers had come by to replenish the bottles of wine and water on the table, and so we waited for our main course.  I’d seen the hams being grilled outside, so knew what was coming.  When our compere told us there would be a little wait he offered to sing a few songs for us!  And he did sing them very well.  Before we knew it the next course was being served.  The cauldrons came out once more, this time filled with a wonderful bean stew.  Almost like cassoulet but without the meat, and I’m sure that the flavour owed some to a liberal use of garlic.

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The roast pork came along a little later, and because I was so busy with the beans I didn’t get a picture of it – sorry!  But then you’ll probably know what roast pork looks like, and you wouldn’t be able to smell the flavour – unfortunately!  There was just a hint of smokiness and the meat was juicy and tender.  There were seconds of both beans and pork for those who felt the need 🙂

And so on to dessert, which was rather simple and just as well really!  Oreillettes were really rather apt, being that it means ear and that the colour is not unlike a pig’s ear.  But they are made of pastry, deep-fried and sprinkled with sugar.  When they are well made, as they were in this case, they are light, crunchy and not at all greasy.  Ours were flavoured with orange flower water – yummy!!

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Once we’d had our coffee we headed back to the bouledrome, where the afternoon’s entertainment was about to begin.  But first there was the piglet race:  four cute looking piglets, each with a different colored ribbon round its belly were put into a ring made of straw bales.  Somehow, the piglets were then motivated to go around the course – I couldn’t quite figure out how – and then the order of the colours was announced.  I’d missed the bit where I could have bought a ticket or a betting slip, but a lot of people were there checking theirs to see if they had won!

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The piglet race over, the next spectacle was set up right away.  It was a re-enactment of the day the pig was killed in the olden days, by the Compagnie de la Source, a local amateur dramatics society.  The backdrop had been installed already and the scene was set very quickly, and so the play took its course.  From the farmer having breakfast with his helpers, to the arrival of the postman, then the farmer finding that the pig has gone missing, to the neighbour telling him that it’s eating his crops.  Then the priest comes along, having heard that someone has died, and so it went.  They did a pretty convincing job of wrestling with the pig, which was of course already dead. I heard from our friends that they carried on for some time, cutting it all up, but by then I had left – the cold was getting to me.

If you’re of a squeamish disposition don’t scroll all the way down!

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Please don’t scroll past this picture if you are squeamish.

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Black diamonds – truffle markets in southern France

On a blustery and cold Saturday I braved the elements for a trip to Talairan in the Corbieres hills for a truffle market.  The weather got worse the closer I got,  and my heart sunk when it started to pour – would anyone be there, would there be a marche du terroir or would it be a total wash-out?  After another 10 minutes drive the sky looked a bit brighter, and the rain slowed to a fine drizzle.

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I’d not been to Talairan before, but it was easy to find where the truffle market was taking place.  The old schoolyard proved to be a perfect place, as there was a big shelter by the side of the school building, where the long table for the trufficulteurs had been set up.  A few stalls selling local products (honey, wine, saffron, lavender essences, charcuterie, etc) were dotted about the yard, and those hardy souls were doing brave battle with the elements.

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If you have the space and inclination you can buy truffle trees, which might produce some tubers after about eight years!  But I’d come for the truffles and so I bypassed the rest and went to where a few people were huddled around a small table.  And that’s where I got my first whiff and knew we were cooking with gas!   A bare wooden trestle table, an electronic scale, a plastic box, and a man with a knife.  It turns out that the man with the knife is the commissaire, the official in charge of quality control.  The producers bring along their stash, and he carefully examines every truffle.  Cuts off a slice here and there to see if it’s ripe and ready, and gives it a sniff, before placing those truffles which pass the quality test onto the scales.  The white marbling is a sign of ripeness and the smell is a good indication too.  He’ll cut off bits which are overripe or not ripe enough, they’ll end up in the box, and perhaps in the trash?  His adjudication is fair and final, he’s a kind of god of the truffles, sitting in judgement and assuring that the public which come to buy do not get any counterfeit or sub-standard tubers.  For at a mere 1000 EUR a kilo a little bit of unscrupulous dealing could earn a fair bit of extra money!

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Once the truffles are graded and weighed, they go into hessian bags, and the bags are then closed with a lead seal and handed to the producer, who takes up position behind the long table.  The grading goes on until about 10.40am.  The sale is due to start at 11am and a rope is now strung about 1m from the table to keep the eager buyers at bay.

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Meantime at the other end of the shelter an older gent is standing behind another table, preparing what promises to be a treat.  On a gas burner, the kind usually used for paella, he has a bain marie simmering away.  To the side he’s just about breaking eggs into a bowl.  A little salt and pepper, and then the treat – a generous grating of fresh black truffle!!  All beaten up, and poured into the saucepan which stands in the bain marie, along with a nice lump of beurre demi sel, which has been left to infuse in a hermetically sealed box with a truffle for two days.  The whole is now stirred until the eggs are a creamy scrambled consistency.  And then a little spoonful of scrambled egg is put onto slices of fresh bread and everyone is allowed to have a taste – heavenly!!  I can tell you that the pieces of bread disappeared as soon as they were put down!

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Meantime, we’re getting close to the start of the sale. The commissaire and his helper now go along the table, opening the bags and putting the truffles out in front of the growers in full view of the waiting crowd.

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The mayor of Talairan arrives and declares the market officially open with four blows of the bugle, the rope is dropped and there’s a big surge to the table followed by a great deal of excitement, money changing hands and happy smiling faces on both sides of the table.

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I came away with the small truffle in the bag, which weighed 21 g and cost 20 Euros – it’s been put into jar of rice in readiness for a truffle risotto.  On the way home the whole car smelled of truffle, and every so often I open the jar and give it sniff.  I’m sorry that this is not a scratch-and-sniff post, I wish you could experience that amazing smell!  So hard to describe, but once you’ve smelled/tasted real black truffle you know what I mean.

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