Cattle Country

Salers cow in the upper pastures

Considering we are surrounded by them, I’m surprised I haven’t written more about these mainstays of local agriculture. Perhaps it’s because I have a love-hate relationship with them, especially when marauding herds have trampled down our garden. What am I talking about? Cows, naturally, which greatly outnumber human inhabitants around here.

From flocks to herds

At one time, sheep were favoured here. An elderly neighbour, now sadly dead, said she used to guard the flocks in the fields in the days before fences. “I’ve done more than enough walking in my life,” she said. The area is dotted with gariottes, stone huts in which the shepherds sheltered from the weather. Mostly, they are now featureless heaps of stone, but a few have been beautifully restored.

Gariotte

Those days have gone and beef cattle have largely replaced the sheep. Cattle and poultry (ducks and chickens) are now the predominant local products. Further north of us, in the Auvergne and the Aubrac, cattle have traditionally been of great importance to the local economy, supplying meat, milk and hides.

In recent years, the annual transhumance celebrations have been revived in May, when the cattle are taken up to the high pastures, having spent the winter inside. We visited the Aubrac transhumance about 10 years ago in freezing weather and stood well back as the gaily-decorated cows made a bid for freedom.

Aubrac cows during the transhumance celebrations

We often remark on the peaceful bucolic scene when we watch the cows grazing. Actually, they can be quite vicious to one another. There is always a chief cow. The bull is quite a long way down the pecking order. We have seen a cow in the next-door field drink her fill from the water trough and then fend off the others until she decides they can drink, too. A hapless calf tried to sneak in and received a forceful shove.

Beaf-eaters?

Beef consumption in France has reduced considerably in recent decades. According to statistics produce by France AgriMer, beef and veal consumption reached a peak in 1979 (33 kg per person). By 2013, this had dropped to 24.1 kg per person.

A number of factors are behind this decline: the cost of beef; health scares about the cancerogenic effect of red meat and about bovine diseases; scandals about beef products; and a tendency to favour other types of meat over beef.

Veal is much cheaper than beef. I hasten to add that calves here are brought up in the fields with their mothers and are not milk-fed in enclosed barns. The meat is rosy, not white.

Aubrac calf

Love me tender…

We eat far less meat than we used to, although I do like a nice piece of faux-filet occasionally. (Look away now if you are not a meat-eater). The problem is finding good beef in France, which was a big surprise when we moved here. Quite often, it’s tough and chewy and hasn’t been hung long enough.

Our local butcher is a wisecracking, energetic little man. His son, who works with him, is by contrast a beefy (no pun intended) rugby player. Jean-Louis’ shop is always busy. Yesterday, someone asked him if he had a heart. “Je n’ai pas de coeur, moi,” he replied, chuckling.

One wall of his shop displays a helpful picture of a cow, showing which part of the animal the cuts of meat come from. There are a bewildering range of them. His meat is good. Only once have we been disappointed with steak we bought there. Other sources are less satisfactory.

My husband invariably orders steak in restaurants. Normally, he is disappointed. We had only just found a restaurant in Montauban which served excellent steak, when it closed down. Steak is always served rare (saignant) or medium-rare (à point) in France. Ask for it bien-cuit (well done), and you’ll get a disapproving frown. It will still come rare, anyway.

Beefy phrases 

Qui vole un oeuf vol un bœuf (He who steals an egg steals an ox). This expression originated in a fable of Jean de la Fontaine. Its meaning is twofold: stealing an egg deprives the victim of food, regardless of its value. It’s also taken to mean that if you start by stealing small items, it’s just the thin end of the wedge and you’ll become a habitual offender.

Finally, a classic French soubriquet for the Brits – les rosbifs. When this originated in the 18th century, it referred only to the preferred method of cooking beef in Britain. By the mid-19th century, it had become an insult, comparable to “frogs”, although it’s not one we Brits have ever greatly objected to.

Disconsolate-looking cows near us one very wet winter

You might also like:

A Moo-ving Experience: la Fête de la Transhumance
Bouquet of Barbed Wire
French Flavours: A is for Aligot

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About nessafrance

My husband and I moved to an 18th-century farmhouse in SW France in 1997. I am fascinated by French history, rural traditions and customs and enjoy seeking out the reality behind the myths. I run my own copywriting business and write short stories and the occasional novel in my spare time. My husband appears here as the SF, which stands for Statistics Freak, owing to his penchant for recording numbers about everything.
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27 Responses to Cattle Country

  1. Monique says:

    it may be Evian buying New Mexico water. We live in a world of global commerce.
    ” The world is a tragedy to those who feel, but a comedy to those who think” Horace Walpole

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Osyth says:

    I’m very happy with this post …. I’m a fan of a cow (which is fortunate given that we have three to every person in Cantal). I’m always amused at the supposedly insulting monicker ‘rosbif’ … I don’t thing any English person has ever been offended by it, have they?

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      I remember you are a cow fan. So am I when they are not falling into our swimming pool or making craters in our lawn. Now we have gates and fences, so I am more kindly disposed towards them. I think Brits are bemused by the ‘rosbif’ thing. It’s probably the least offensive intended insult I’ve ever come across!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Osyth says:

        Good grief … in the pool – my tiny mind boggles at the stir that must have caused!!

        Liked by 1 person

      • nessafrance says:

        It was a calf, unfortunately, which fell through the winter cover. We only discovered the poor thing the next day. Fortunately for us, it hadn’t damaged the liner, but I just can’t think about how dreadful it must have been for the animal. And yet, the same farmer still allows his cows to get out and fences his fields with only the flimsiest of electric fences. The calves can easily duck under them.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Osyth says:

        Oh how awful. What a dreadful thing to find. Sadly farmers are often the most stubborn of creatures so I imagine he will never see the sense of fencing properly.

        Liked by 1 person

      • nessafrance says:

        It was very distressing – and must have been horribly so for the poor calf. We saw a long rent in the cover and realised that something had fallen in. His insurer paid for damage and said he must sort out his fences, but he never has. It will serve him right if a similar thing happens again and his insurance premium rockets, although I wouldn’t wish ill on an animal.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Osyth says:

        I can’t imagine how dreadful for the poor little thing. And finding it must have been ghastly. My Aunt found a deer in their pool once (in Sussex) – she is 85 this year and still recants the story with a catch in her voice.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Monique says:

    I never heard of that expression–“rosbifs” it is ridiculous. What is there to be gained by calling someone rosbifs!
    Monique

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      I’m surprised you haven’t heard of it, since it’s not uncommon in France to refer to Brits like that – and it actually dates back to the 18th century. I agree it’s ridiculous, just as the Brits calling French people “frogs” is. I have always strongly disapproved of xenophobic nicknames like that.

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      • Monique says:

        speaking of frogs:-) there is a French company who is trying to buy New Mexico water for resale. I heard about it 4 or 5 years ago but it dropped off the news, here locally, but it came up again few months ago as there is talk to divert the Gila river for more irrigation water. It is a bit hush hush. Move over Evian. I would be wary of drinking that water as it will come from an area surrounded by copper mines, silver, gold, etc–some still very active. Silver City was founded as a mining community. There is a lot of water in New Mexico but it is all very deep underground. The land is very cheap–drilling a well for water and the price of electricity for pumping the water to the surface is very costly.
        Monique

        Liked by 1 person

      • nessafrance says:

        I’d keep buying the Evian, in that case…;)

        Like

  4. Monique says:

    In New Mexico or anywhere else at West, cows do cause damages when they roam. Not on flower beds but in large agricultural fields. Fields are cultivated and irrigated year around. They much on new shoots, seedlings and even on some cactus. During a long drought, ranchers burn off the thorns off the cactus so that the cows can survive on food and water from the cactus pads.

    Rabbits also feed on cactus during a drought–they manage to chew on the pads and avoid the thorns.
    Monique

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Cows invading the garden! I would hate that too. Happily we just get the occasional deer. The farmer across the road uses fields on our side and ties a string across the bottom of our drive to prevent incursions. Sometimes he forgets to take it down again and i have to screech to a halt at the sight of blue twine across my windscreen! We don’t eat much beef and friends who do say it isn’t hung long enough in france. Our local leclerc recently installed a cold cabinet on its butchery counter with lumps of aging beef of various shades of dark red within it. Still doesn’t tempt me! The local quercy lamb reared on the causse does however. Delicious! Enjoy the spring blossom, it has arrived at a rate of knots here too. Ps i always thought rosbifs was an insult based on how red we go in the southern sun. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      We get the deer, too! They rub their antlers on my shrubs and eat the roses, but at least they don’t trample everything down. Our lane is festooned with blue string, which the farmers put up when they move the cows.

      It’s now the law that shops have to display products that are near or at their sell-by date. I bought some very nice steak at Leclerc, which was “old” and reduced in price. And so it was properly hung! I’ve never been that keen on lamb for some reason.

      I think rosbifs has probably come to indicate the lobster-red northerners go in the sun, but it didn’t start out with that meaning, apparently.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Monique says:

    Interesting–except for the photo of the transhumance, the other two photos could have been taken in northern New Mexico.
    Les vaches Landaises are not very friendly!!
    As a sheep person ( Pyrenees) I do not eat beef, frogs or snails–only lamb meat.
    Voila une semaine qu’il fait une chaleur horrible!!
    Monique

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      I tend to be wary of cows of whichever race! I have never been a great fan of lamb, but I am rather partial to snails and beef (in small quantities). I hope your heatwave subsides soon. We had two lovely days at the end of last week – it was like summer. Now it’s become cooler, but still pleasant. Spring has come early, and very fast, this year.

      Like

      • Monique says:

        have you heard of Courses de Vaches Landaises? It is almost like a bull fight but the animal is not killed or wounded. The purpose of the course, as I was told when I was a child, is to fold: to test the aggressiveness and bravery of the cow so that she can be selected to be bred with a bull –a bull that they be potentially chosen to fight in the bull ring and to test the agility and courage of young teen agers who want to show off their courage or agility or aspire to be bull fighter.
        Selective breeding can create a docile or aggressive animal. But it is wise to be wary of any domesticated animal!!

        Two more days to suffer from unseasonal hot weather.
        Monique

        Liked by 1 person

      • nessafrance says:

        No, I hadn’t come across that. They do bull-running in the Camargue, I think, where young men bait the bull by running across the ring. I had heard that milk cows tend to be more aggressive than beef cattle, but I don’t know if that’s the case.

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  7. MELewis says:

    I love the cows in the fields (assuming they stay there) and everything around the transhumance. Such a wonderful tradition. But I agree that it’s hard to find tender steak in France, which is probably just as well as I eat less that way. The beef I enjoy most these days is steack haché, always freshly ground at the butcher’s and beautifully tender!

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      We eat little red meat these days, but a nice piece of steak is a rare (no pun intended) treat. Our local butcher also does a very good steack haché – freshly ground sous tes yeux.

      Like

  8. I love the cows here; the golden red Limousins, or as the local farmer says “les Limousiné” which sounds like Italian. The best steak ever, was a year ago when we went to Laguiole and bought an Aubrac steak to cook on the barbeque at a Buron, which I’d booked for lunch for R’s birthday … I have never eaten such tender deliciousness! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      We still have Laguiole on our bucket list to visit properly, having passed through on our way to the Aubrac for the transhumance nearly 10 years ago. We must try your experience at a buron.

      Like

  9. MarinaSofia says:

    I can understand your frustration with cows if they trampled your garden. We’ve had no negative experiences and, living as we did on the border between France and Switzerland (the latter being cow-obsessed country par excellence), we are very fond of them. We know quite a few types – our favourite being the Montbeliard chestnut-and-white cows which produce my favourite Comte cheese. And that puzzled look on a calf’s face is just one of the funniest things ever…

    Liked by 2 people

    • nessafrance says:

      I am actually quite fond of cows, but not necessarily of their owners. We had countless problems with one particular farmer, who never bothered to secure his fences. I won’t go into tedious detail, but we now have gates and fences to stop his cattle marauding into our land. Everyone around here is thoroughly fed up with him. The other farmers are far more considerate. Having said that, I do like to see the cows in the fields here. They favour the Limousine race, but I also love the Aubrac and Salers cows in the Auvergne. And I just love the sound of cowbells in the summer.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Monique says:

        So what is the law in France regarding cows roaming about in someone’s else property? Here in New Mexico, as well as most of the West, it is open range country–meaning that cows can roam where ever they please. It is the responsibility of the property owner to build an enclosure to keep cows out.
        Ranchers build fences to protect their investment. But once in a while, wires are cut, fence posts brake down or someone leave the gate open and there goes most of the herd.
        Not too long ago, one of my neighbor lost few cows. The cows were outside my fence. My dogs were occupied for few weeks!!!

        Monique

        Liked by 1 person

      • nessafrance says:

        I don’t know what the law says in France, actually, but I would guess that it’s for the owners of the cattle to keep them fenced in. Unfortunately, one of this farmer’s calves fell through the winter cover into our swimming pool and drowned. His insurer instructed him to improve his fencing (he hasn’t, which is why we put up gates and fences ourselves). You have a lot of space in New Mexico, so I guess it’s easier for the cows to roam without causing damage.

        Like

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