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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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