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I almost overlooked another important news item in last Saturday’s Le Figaro. This was the award for the best egg mayonnaise in Paris, judged by l’Association de sauvegarde de l’oeuf mayonnaise (Egg Mayonnaise Protection Society). This year’s winner was Olivier Flottes (2 rue Cambon, 75001 Paris, tel: 01 42 60 80 89 if you’re interested in checking it out for yourself).
Recipe for eggstasy
What makes a good egg mayonnaise? Apparently, three large half-eggs per portion, having been hard-boiled for eight to nine minutes, completely enveloped in a mustardy mayonnaise and garnished with a few crisp lettuce leaves is the recipe for the standard format. It is even better if garnished with a macédoine of vegetables, which have been individually cooked and certainly not turned out of a tin. I don’t think I have ever experienced it served like that, though.
Now, you might not think that this bistrot staple needs much protection. After all, it’s a classic dish, it seems easy to prepare and uses simple ingredients. How can you go wrong? However, it is frequently mediocre, or worse, prepared with overcooked eggs, insipid mayonnaise and wilting salad leaves. To promote the proper execution of this dish, the food critic Claude Lebey had the idea of setting up the society and instituting the award, which has now been going for 15 years.
All this got me thinking about how seriously the French take their food. The humble egg is not the only comestible to receive such adulation. Awards also exist for the best boudin (black pudding), andouille (sausage made of pig’s innards and apparently an acquired taste; I’ve never tried it) and countless other dishes or foods throughout France. These awards are distinguished by fierce competition and ferocious lobbying of the judges.
Any excuse for a fête
Every conceivable food or dish also has its own fête, often several, which normally includes a concours (competition) to determine the best producer. Contestants eye their rivals’ produce suspiciously like gardeners at an English flower show.
In our region alone, there are festivals for repountsous (wild alternative for asparagus) at Cordes, garlic at Beaumont de Lomagne, fouace (a kind of cake) at Najac, chestnuts at Laguepie, truffles at Lalbenque, saffron at Cajarc and beef and veal at Aubrac – to name just a few. Outside this region, in the Cantal, they even celebrate tripe at a small village called Thiézac in a festival called “One, two, tripou” (note the use of English – it’s penetrated even to the deepest Massif Central).
It’s not sufficient simply to win contests; there is also the challenge of achieving Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) status. It’s not only wines that are designated like this. Any aspiring French foodstuff worth its salt must be from a defined geographical area and be made in a traditional way using ingredients from designated producers. The rules apply to cheeses such as Roquefort, Bresse chickens, Puy lentils and Dijon mustard, for example. The system is complex and mystifying to outsiders, and could in some ways be described as a closed shop, but the AOC label is highly prized and sought after.
Then there are the producers’ associations, or confréries, which fiercely defend the rights and privileges of their members. Almost Masonic-like institutions, they have similar initiation ceremonies, silly robes and arcane regulations. I found a website that promotes those confréries that are devoted to regional specialities. More than half (246) are concerned with wine, but a further 211 cover products of all types. Among the more arcane ones I found are:
- Confrérie Mondiale de l’Omelette Géante de Bessières
- Les Mangeux de Queues de Boeuf
- Confrérie de Tastecuisses de Grenouille
- Confrérie des Gousters de Produits du Pissenlit (dandelion)
But best of all is La Confrérie des Cacasse-à-Cul-Nu. Cul nu means bare bottom, but what on earth is a cacasse? After some research, I found that this is a potato dish from the Ardennes. The origins of the name, though, still elude me. Answers below, please, if you know.
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