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FOOD & DRINK

Knights of tripe: The French food cults defending local delicacies

Welcome to France's gastronomic brotherhoods who come together to defend local delicacies including the lining of a cow's stomach, calf's brains and stew from the unrelenting rise of junk food.

Knights of tripe: The French food cults defending local delicacies
Photo: AFP

On a Saturday morning in September in the Normandy countryside a group of men and women gather for an ancient French initiation ceremony.

The merry band bustling about in colourful robes and hats, with oversized medallions hanging around their necks, could be performers in a Shakespeare troupe, members of a medieval guild, maybe even druids.

But the glazed pot perched on the top table in the hall in Bagnoles de l'Orne — laden with symbolism like the potion-filled cauldron in the Asterix comics — gives the game away.

Those gathered are elders in the area's gastronomic “confreries” or brotherhoods, there for the annual general meeting of an order set up, in this instance, to promote the culinary delights of the lining of a cow's stomach.

Placing their right hands on the pot, its two newest members, Arlette Allix, 70, who used to work in communications, and her 71-year-old husband 
Christian swear to become ambassadors for tripe — specifically the famous skewered tripe of nearby Ferte-Mace — and to uphold Normandy's tradition “of eating and drinking well”.

With a tap of a bone on the right shoulder, the “grand master” inducts them into the association and presents them with their red-and-green regalia as well as medallions stamped with a pot and a small skewered bundle.

Seven emissaries from other fraternities are also made honorary members of Ferte-Mace's venerable tripe brotherhood.

And then it's off for a parade through town, followed by a five-course meal at a Michelin-starred restaurant where, naturally enough, the plat de resistance is a steaming plate of tripe.

Taking on 'malbouffe'

Similar scenes play out nearly every week across France, home to around 1,500 “confreries” with over 10,000 members — mostly pensioners who are not 
involved in the production of the delicacy in question.

They receive subsidies to crisscross the country promoting their region's produce and partaking in ritualistic food feasts.

“We're an association of good-timers,” Jean Traon, the jocular co-grand master of Ferte-Mace's tripe fraternity, admitted to AFP.

“But we enjoy in moderation,” the 73-year-old former police captain emphasised.

“We're one big family!” said Marie-Chantal Eudine, the 74-year-old grand dame of the Bayeux pig society who was one of the guests, cutting a dash in a musketeer-style hat with a yellow plume.

The “confrerie” tradition dates back to the Middle Ages, with one of the oldest originating in 12th-century Saint-Emilion, a wine-making town near Bordeaux that was at the time under English rule.

In 1199, King John entrusted its aldermen with running the town in return for a promise to give England priority access to the fruits of its vines.

Saint-Emilion's wine brotherhood went on to spawn imitators for everything from oxtail and truffles to barley sugar sweets made by Benedictine nuns.

Banned during the French Revolution, together with religious orders, the cultish “confreries” underwent a revival in the second half of the 20th 
century, spurred by concerns over the rise of industrial “malbouffe” (bad food).

Some serve as little more than a pretext for merry-making but others wield significant economic and political clout.

“The rituals may be of another age but there is a positive effect” on producers of the delicacies, said Joaquim Pueyo, MP of the Orne region who was among a handful of politicians attending the weekend festivities.

The fact that local butchers continue to churn out tripe — a humble leftover from a leaner bygone era with a small but committed fan base in northern France — is in no small part due to the efforts of the brotherhood, Pueyo argued.

“We cannot keep up with demand,” Guillaume Delignou, a 29-year-old who recently took over one of Ferte-Mace's best-known butcheries, confirmed.


Lucky charm

It's not just greying gourmets that wear brotherhoods' colours with pride.

Several former presidents have agreed to fly the flag for local produce as a sign of their commitment to France's culinary heritage, which was honoured with a UNESCO world heritage listing in 2010.

Jacques Chirac, a man with a legendary appetite, was inducted into a brotherhood for calves' brains, while Francois Mitterrand was a champion for 
cassoulet, a sausage and bean stew.

Emmanuel Macron was the prize catch at this year's Paris farm fair for the society of the piebald Bayeux pig, with the order's grand mistresses making 
him an honorary member when he visited their stand.

Many politicians from rural constituencies agree to bat for several brotherhoods, like Nathalie Goulet, senator for the Orne region, a vegetarian who nonetheless plumps for black pudding, white pudding and tripe among other local favourites including camembert.

Addressing the crowd gathered for lunch at the Manoir du Lys, she credited her victory in last year's Senate elections to the fact that she was wearing her “lucky charm”, the skewered tripe medallion.

Praising the brotherhoods, whose members are known as knights, as representing “the best of France's culinary art”, she urged them to widen 
their nets and recruit catering school students to the cause.

“We have to pass it on,” she said.

Franck Quinton, chef at the one-star Manoir du Lys, is committed to keeping the fires lit by his grandfather — founder of the skewered tripe brotherhood — burning.

But he also wants to elevate the meaty bundles, which are cooked for 14 hours in cider and calvados (some recipes use white wine) and are 
traditionally eaten at breakfast time.

“I grill them with lobster and scallops. Delicious!”

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Reader question: Exactly how many different types of cheese are there in France?

One thing everyone can agree on is that France has a lot of cheese - but exactly how many French fromages exist?

Reader question: Exactly how many different types of cheese are there in France?

Question: I often see a quote from Charles de Gaulle talking about ‘246 different types of cheese’, but other articles say there are 600 or even 1,000 different types of cheese and some people say there are just eight types – how many different cheeses are there in France?

A great question on a subject dear to French hearts – cheese.

But it’s one that doesn’t have a simple answer.

Charles de Gaulle did indeed famously say “How can anyone govern a country with 246 different types of cheese”, but even in 1962 when he uttered the exasperated phrase, it was probably an under-estimate.

READ ALSO 7 tips for buying cheese in France

The issue is how you define ‘different’ types of cheese, and unsurprisingly France has a complicated system for designating cheeses.

Let’s start with the eight – there are indeed eight cheese ‘families’ and all of France’s many cheeses can be categorised as one of;

  • Fresh cheese, such as cottage cheese or the soft white fromage blanc
  • Soft ripened cheese, such as Camembert or Brie
  • Soft ripened cheese with a washed rind, such as l’Epoisses or Pont l’Eveque
  • Unpasturised hard cheese such as Reblochon or saint Nectaire
  • Pasturised hard cheese such as Emmental or Comté
  • Blue cheese such as Roquefort 
  • Goat’s cheese
  • Melted or mixed cheese such as Cancaillot

But there are lots of different types of, for example, goat’s cheese.

And here’s where it gets complicated, for two reasons.

The first is that new varieties of cheese are constantly being invented by enterprising cheesemakers (including some which come about by accident, such as le confiné which was created in 2020).

The second is about labelling, geography and protected status.

France operates a system known as Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC or its European equivalent AOP) to designate food products that can only be made in a certain area.

As cheese is an artisan product, quite a lot of different cheese are covered by this – for example a blue sheep’s milk cheese is only Roquefort if it’s been aged in the caves in the village of Roquefort.

There are 63 listed AOC cheeses in France, but many more varieties that don’t have this protected status.

These include generic cheese types such as BabyBel and other cheeses that are foreign in origin but made in France (such as Emmental).

But sometimes there are both AOC and non-AOC versions of a single cheese – a good example of this is Camembert.

AOC Camembert must be made in Normandy by farmers who have to abide by strict rules covering location, milk type and even what their cows eat.

Factory-produced Camembert, however, doesn’t stick to these rules and therefore doesn’t have the AOC label. Is it therefore the same cheese? They’re both called Camembert but the artisan producers of Normandy will tell you – at some length if you let them – that their product is a totally different thing to the mass-produced offering.

There are also examples of local cheeses that are made to essentially the same recipe but have different names depending on where they are produced – sometimes even being on opposite sides of the same Alpine valley is enough to make it two nominally different cheeses.

All of which is to say that guessing is difficult!

Most estimates range from between 600 to 1,600, with cheese experts generally saying there are about 1,000 different varieties. 

So bonne dégustation!

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