I live in rural Maine. It is beautiful here, and as we drove around the countryside of Gascony, I was often reminded of the rolling hills and forests around my own home. Granted, my home is covered in layers of snow and ice and the winter Gascon landscape had the greens and browns of spring-emerging with the first blush of buds & flowers poking through the ground. Back home I am contemplating all I saw and tasted. The closest thing any of my neighbors might get to Charcuterie is the loads of pepperoni on the ubiquitous pizzas sold at every corner store and gas station. Sausages come in two varieties around here—hot dogs & sweet or hot Italian sausages. The last time I asked someone if they liked Kielbasa, they looked at me funny like I had tried to stifle a sneeze. I have to travel an hour in any direction before I can get anywhere that might remotely have a cured meat selection not involving Slim Jims, some form of Jerkey or loaded with preservatives. I find this sad.
Having spent nine days surrounded by food in every direction, in a place as remote or perhaps more so, than where I live, I have been reminded how narrow American culture really is. Whether by choice or design we have allowed our selections and tastes for food to be squeezed into the smallest of boxes. Sure not everywhere, but in more places than I care to think. Where have we gone wrong? Not only were the simplest and smallest of Markets in France larger and better attended than some of the biggest Farmers’ Markets here, but the number and amount of small purveyors in the tiniest of villages outnumbers those in some of the US’s biggest cities. As I helped prepare 100 kilos (220+ lbs) of Boudin Noir (Blood Sausage) on the Chapolard’s farm for one week’s worth of markets, it dawned on me that that much Boudin probably isn’t sold in a month in the busiest boutiques in New York city, let alone three small towns with populations totaling around 5500 people. And…the Chapolards wouldn’t be the only butchers at the market selling Boudin, nor would the Market be the only place to buy Boudin. The villages own butcher shops would also sell it. Many of the small villages we rolled through had at least two boucheries. The beautiful village of Nerac, with a population of 6800 people, supports at least 8 butcher shops, with three meat stalls on Saturday Market day. This is in addition to the supermarkets near by, and the fact that most villages are 10-20 minutes away by car. You can buy at an open air market every day of the week in the region. Diversity and local support. What an amazing goal to strive for as we, in the States, seek food security and expanded Farmer’s Market opportunities.
Which brings me to my Charcuterie Review. Diversity, Abundance & Pride are all displayed in the stalls and shops we visited. Regional specialties, Proprietary secret concoctions, traditional standards are all for sale side by side, from one stall to another. The Charcutrier’s pride, banter, reputation, and offerings draw their regulars in to them. The time honored ways of sharing a recipe, offering advice, giving an extra morsel on the side, handing out a generous tasting all help secure sales. And so it was, that we met with market stall owners, purveyors, charcutiers and tasted our way through some amazing offerings. From standards like Saucisson, Saucisse Seche, Noix de Jambon, Jambon de Bayonne to specialties like some slivers of cured ham from a massive, mature sow. It was so sweet and tender, the fat dripping with flavor. We tasted several cured hams, in fact. From Gascony, into the Pays du Basque & into Spain we sampled the cured hams of the region, noting the differences in flavor, texture, price and the breeds of pig which stood behind them. The regional preferences also spoke to us—Lots of Black Pepper for the Gascons, Piment d’Espelette for the Basques. Some of the most amazing Saucisse we had contained fruits as an added element—blueberry, juniper, and fig. Cured meat & figs is an amazing combination, especially when the figs have become part of the meat.
And not just to dwell on the hams and saucisse side of Charcuterie. We tasted some amazing patés, terrines and grattons. I made the comment while there, that you can’t be a vegan and live or visit Gascony. I think even an open-minded vegetarian might have trouble finding something not containing meat. It was everywhere, and nothing is wasted. Lungs, pig’s ears, pig skin, hearts, liver and more standard offal are all sold side by side to consumers who buy it. After preparing the brains from 5 pigs for sale, I was told that a little old woman comes each market day and buys them all. Every week. I hope we can become a culture of markets and local shoppers such as these, here in the States. Little waste, lots of selection. An amazing abundance and variety of flavors.