Modern and Medieval Meet at This French Festival of “Little Stomachs”

Food Features
Share Tweet Submit Pin
Modern and Medieval Meet at This French Festival of “Little Stomachs”

On the third Friday of October, the city of Limoges celebrates offal.

It’s a historic celebration that nonetheless surprises even the French—while tripe and kidneys were once mainstays of French cuisine, rare is the modern Frenchman who buys them at the local grocery store. But this tradition is an exception, one that dates back to the Middle Ages, when the butchers of Limoges were some of the most powerful citizens and the holders of the keys to the city. Today, butchers in Limoges hold no more power than any other Limougeaud, and while meat has a special place in the local cuisine, dishes of offal are few and far between. The Frairie des Petits Ventres, however, is one exception; the festival brings tens of thousands of people to the historic Quartier de la Boucherie every year, and this in large part thanks to Jean-Pierre Loustaud.

I met with Jean-Pierre early in the morning of the day of the festival, when many vendors were still setting up—setting sausages out to be grilled, heating vats of spiced vin chaud and laying out their wares of local delicacies for purchase. Most of the other visitors were older locals, seeking out prized ingredients of the past.

“Do you have any sheep’s testicles?” One man called out to a vendor. Another had sought out the only place where girot could be purchased; the local specialty looks like a thick red sausage, but Jean-Pierre tells me that, when cooked, it takes on a grayish tint and gelatinous texture. A chef walking by knows Jean-Pierre—everyone seems to—and offers an impromptu recipe for what I learn is congealed blood serum packed into intestine to form a large sausage. It’s meant to be cut into slices and pan-fried, then deglazed with parsley and vinegar, he explains.

“And be careful,” he cautions. “Don’t flip it with a fork. If you flip it with a fork, it’ll break into a thousand pieces.”
loustaud-3.JPG

It’s just one of several organ meats sold here, like the namesake petits ventres or “little stomachs,” which, in the spirit of haggis, are made by stuffing sheep stomachs with a precise combination of offal including feet and various parts of the digestive tract, then boiling. “It’s not all that appealing visually,” admits Jean-Pierre. “It looks a bit like parchment.”

The chef, meanwhile, departs on a search for fraise de veau, or calf’s ruffle, a meaty organ that holds the calf’s intestines together and a local delicacy. He says that ever since the mad cow epidemic in the UK, it’s been nearly impossible to find.

“Once a year, you can find girot, petits ventres, and even fraise de veau,” he says excitedly, and he’s off in search of his favorites.

But while these rare cuts of meat are definitely the center of the festival today, they are far from the only thing that Jean-Pierre had in mind when he first re-established the event in the 1970s.

Impassioned by archaeology, a young Jean-Pierre became alarmed when he learned that this historic neighborhood was slated to be demolished. The medieval rue de la Boucherie had once been home to the powerful butchery families of Limoges, each storefront belonging to a different butcher. By the 70s, all but one of the butchers had abandoned the neighborhood, and the street and surrounding area had fallen into disrepair. Municipal authorities had decided that the best way to solve the problem would be to demolish the remaining buildings, erasing the historic street from the modern city.

“A few friends and I said to ourselves, we can’t allow this to happen,” Jean-Pierre recalls. “And really, the decision to create the Renaissance de Vieux Limoges association was made just like that, in an apartment that I was living in on rue de la Liberté, 200 meters from here.”

At the time, Jean-Pierre was only 25 years old, something that he says made him a less-than-ideal candidate for the presidency of the newly created association. That job was given to an older member who was an historian, and Jean-Pierre, as vice-president, took on his first official project: tackling the renovation of one of the old medieval houses.

Given the prominence of the porcelain industry in Limoges for centuries, the medieval houses, which had long since been plastered, were entirely covered in black soot. Genevieve Mausset, a member of one of the old butchery families, lent the façade of her own home to the association, and Jean-Pierre, his wife, and a few friends began removing the outer layer of plaster to reveal the medieval timbered structures beneath.

“We thought: if we could revitalize them, it might make it a nice street, and something that could bring more tourism to Limoges,” Jean-Pierre explains.

“For three months, every Saturday and Sunday, we came to scrape the façade,” he says. “At 10am every day, in this very café, we stopped working and the owner, who was a former butcher, brought in charcuterie and boudins, things like that, and the president of the Renaissance de Limoges came and we drank rosé de Verneuil, which is a positively abominable wine that’s made not far from here.”

“It was really an exhilarating time, because we felt like we were saving a street, and at the same time, saving a bit of the old spirit of Limoges.”

Of course, Jean-Pierre explains, revitalizing the façade wasn’t nearly enough to convince the municipal authorities to keep the street standing: for that, they needed the frairie.

“Only popular pressure can make authorities back down,” Jean-Pierre says. In order to ignite local imaginations with possibility, the association decided to host the very first incarnation of the Frairie des Petits Ventres, a modern approach to a medieval festival, in 1973.

But there was one problem: as opposed to medieval Limoges, when every one of these storefronts was owned and operated by a different butcher, now most of the shops were closed. “It was an enormous risk,” Jean-Pierre recalls. “Would we be able to reopen all of those shops? Even artificially, even just for one night. And secondly, would people come?”

The second question was of particular importance; the generation of French who were buying and eating food now were no longer the World War II era citizens who remembered times of hardship and savored every scrap. The offal that had been eaten without abandon in the 40s and 50s had nearly disappeared from French plates by the 70s.

Even so, the first incarnation of the frairie surpassed even Jean-Pierre’s wildest dreams. “This street had never welcomed as many people, and so compactly. You couldn’t even move,” he remembers. 10,000 people passed through the tiny rue de la Boucherie that year, enough to convince the mayor of the time, Louis Longequeue, that the street was worth saving.

“The enthusiasm of that period was—I’m telling you, that was one of the most beautiful parts of my whole life,” says Jean-Pierre.

The frairie that was started in the 70s, while inspired by the medieval festival, was somewhat different from the original. While the new frairie was meant to bring these traditional cuts back into the sphere of common knowledge, for the medieval butchers, it was a celebration of the return of colder weather, something that allowed them to sell all of the popular local specialties that didn’t keep quite as well in the summer. But an even larger difference hails from the religious sphere.

When Limoges’ butchers were in power as some of the richest and most renowned citizens of the city, they were also some of the most pious. Limoges boasts two patron saints—the 3rd century evangelist Martial and his successor, Aurélien—something that the butchers were able to use to their advantage.

“I’ve always suspected that the butchers must have been a bit jealous not to have the bones of the initial saint,” Jean-Pierre says. “So one day—miraculously—they discovered the bones of the successor.”

Aurélien thus became the official saint of the butchers, something that the street itself reflected in their time, with white and green striped awnings—the colors of the saint—over every storefront. This also incited a few religious traditions, one of which Jean-Pierre attempted to revive in the 70s.

“In the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries in Limoges, there were fellowships of penitents,” he explains, groups of people who would come together to show their piety by marching through the streets wearing large hoods and bearing candles. The revival of this particular tradition didn’t hold so well in secular France, and the religious history of the frairie was diminished as well – what was once known as Frairie de Notre Dame des Petits Ventres (the Frairie of Our Lady of the Petits Ventres)- has taken on a fully non-religious allure. The only remaining elements of religious lore are the awnings that remain over some of the storefronts.

At around 11, the street begins to fill with people. We pass by the stand that Jean-Pierre’s sons and daughter are running, selling a few modern additions to the local specialties. “I just tried making andouillette sandwiches, but with sweeter bread, like brioche,” his son says, running up to us, so excited he barely says hello. “Come taste it at noon.”

His daughter, meanwhile, makes cakes to sell, and some of his other son’s friends are making local hamburgers with Limousin beef, boudin noir and applesauce.

burger-4.JPG

Jean-Pierre doesn’t have a stand himself, preferring to wander and watch the new generation. He’s recently retired, but his new pet project is convincing the municipality to paint the medieval houses in bright colors.

“I think that one is pretty nice.” He points out a house painted robin’s egg blue. “I’m not saying that all of the houses need to be painted, but you can see how in certain cities when they lean towards color, it completely changes the atmosphere. We all want to live in a city that’s more colorful than in a city where all you see is gray.”

We prepare to go our separate ways, but he reminds me to come back tonight, to see the festival from above, from the window of the house that he bought about ten years ago overlooking the street. Like with the first house, he is renovating it entirely on his own, this time with the help of his three children.

When I return at 7, the street is teeming with people. Jean-Pierre wasn’t wrong when he compared it to a tsunami. I make my way to his sons’ stand, reminded of a story he told me earlier in the day of a year when, after his sons had run out of mustard, it took him 45 minutes to approach through the throng. He finally resorted to having the mustard jar passed from hand to hand until it finally reached his son. Still, I finally make it to the front, and I climb the narrow staircase to the top of the house. From there, I can see the “sea of heads” Jean-Pierre promised. It’s easier to breathe from here, and part of me is tempted to remain a bit longer, watching from above as people make their purchases and some join in the traditional dances taking place before the Saint Aurélien Chapel. But then I remember what Jean-Pierre told me earlier in the day—his principal worry about the future of the frairie.

Crowd-night-9.JPG

Too much change, too much modernization—and above all—too many rules, he fears, could change the ambiance of the festival. The city is starting to limit the number of stands allowed, to ask people to pay for a plastic cup to use all night long when they arrive. While neither has posed problem for the festival yet, Jean-Pierre worries about the day the number of people will be limited, or worse, a band will be added.

A strange fear, but not an unfounded one. Jean-Pierre recalled the local celebration of Halloween a few years ago, an unpopular and unfamiliar holiday in France that nevertheless spurred an interesting evening of fun. “People took to the street in their costumes,” he recalls. “And then in the third or fourth year, someone said, ‘Let’s put a band on a stage.’ And then there were two or three more, one in every neighborhood. And starting at that moment, the people on the stages were in costume, and the people who came didn’t dress up anymore.”

The fourth year was the last year of the Halloween festival, Jean-Pierre tells me. “And that’s my fear for the future. That people try to transform this. There are always people with tons of ideas, ‘Let’s put a band here, let’s put a band there.’ Well the second you put a band somewhere, people become spectators. They watch,” he says.

“Here, people are actors, even if they’re not doing much, they’re actors, because they drink, because they eat, because they laugh, because they come with their families, because they’re like this—and it’s rare to have a time of year when you can move up the street without even putting your feet on the ground.”

Dancing-6.JPG

And so I come back down, meld back into the crowd. I let myself be swept away by the others doing what I’m doing: pondering a sausage sandwich or a vin chaud, considering joining the traditional Limougeaud dancers in their authentic garb, or simply being, taking part in a tradition just for the sake of experiencing it.

Emily Monaco is a born-and-raised New Yorker based in Paris. After many years of trying, she has come to the conclusion that she will likely never be French. She writes about her experiences with Franglais and food on her blog, tomatokumato.com. Follow her on Twitter @emiglia.