An adapted version of this post was published in Tiens! Magazine, a webzine about southwest France, in March 2011 along with some of my photos and sound clips.
The small town of Aubrac in the eastern Aveyron is subject to an invasion every year during the penultimate weekend in May. Hundreds of cows and thousands of people descend (or, perhaps more accurately, ascend) on this granite-built bourg set in the sweeping landscape of the Aubrac plateau.
This is the fête de la transhumance, an ancient tradition that almost died out but was resurrected 30 or so years ago.
The Aubrac is more than 1,000 metres above sea level (highest point 1,469 m) and is noted for its freezing weather and heavy snow in winter. In summer, it’s a different planet and the lush grass is ideal pasture for the local Aubrac race of cows. At the crossroads of three départements (the Aveyron, the Cantal and the Lozère), this is about as rural as it gets in France.
Between 13th October (La Saint-Guiral) and 25th May (La Saint-Urbain), the cows over-winter in stables further down the Lot valley. By the end of May, they are longing for their freedom and for the verdant pastures, studded with wild flowers and crossed by clear streams. Then the herds are decked with headdresses of holly and wild flowers and hung with cowbells and are driven up towards their summer pastures.
Formerly, the cows were kept during the summer in burons, or stone byres, which can still be seen today, although most of them are now ruined. Teams of buronniers, or cheese-makers, lived in the high pastures throughout the summer. They milked the cows twice a day and made Laguiole cheese (not unlike a strong cheddar), which gained appellation contrôlée status in 1961. The days of the buronniers are long gone, but the cows still roam the high plateau.
We went to the fête at Aubrac in May 2007 with our Troisième Age club. Setting out at an unearthly hour on a Sunday morning, our coach climbed for 2 hours towards our destination. As we approached Aubrac, the thermometer showed the temperature dropping sharply. By the time we got there, it was 1°C and the wind chill factor made it seem even colder – this was the end of May.
You could barely move for the crowds, who piled into the square at Aubrac, everyone jostling for position to get the best shots of the herds as they came through. And when they came, it was everyone for him- or herself. They weren’t taking prisoners and there were no health and safety regulations here, either, stipulating barriers between the public and the herds. I was almost eviscerated by a stray horn as one herd careered around a corner, excited by the noise and by the prospect of a tasty meal of fresh grass.
You can hear what it sounded like – but be warned, someone uses a French gros mot (swear word) in this sound clip.
The Aubrac race is particularly pretty, with pale beige coats and Walt Disney eyes fringed with improbably long lashes. The fête included a competition for the best quality animals and a ‘guess the weight of the bull’ contest. He was a pretty imposing beast, but fortunately seemed placid and unimpressed by the onlookers.
There were also plenty of stalls selling local produce, including the inevitable cheese, aligot (a purée of potato, garlic and fresh Laguiole cheese – see recipe below), tripe, Laguiole knives and Gentiane liqueur. At a stall selling an odd range of headgear, my husband bought a beret Basque, which he has never worn since. The stallholder had to rummage in the boxes in his van to find one large enough…
The highlight of the day was, naturally, lunch. This took place in an immense marquee, which reputedly held up to 3,000 folk at a time. We sat at long trestle tables, served by remarkably good-humoured waiters and waitresses, and ate charcuterie, roast Aubrac veal with aligot, Laguiole cheese and fouace (local cake), washed down with large quantities of wine and finished with coffee – the latter was certainly welcome since the temperature inside the marquee was barely above that outside it.
We were glad to regain the coach at the end of the day, since it really was bitterly cold. I had a piping hot bath when we got home. It snowed on Aubrac that night…
For 4 (hungry) people
1 kg potatoes
400 g tome fraîche (young Laguiole)
250 g crème fraîche
100 g butter
Several cloves garlic, finely chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
Boil the potatoes and mash them to a purée. Add the butter and crème fraîche and season with salt, pepper and garlic. Reheat the purée. Add the cheese, cut in thin slices. Stir vigorously with a wooden spoon (very important, must be wooden). When the mixture starts to form long strings (filer), it’s ready. Serve immediately.
Very good with steak, veal or sausages.
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