Friday, January 31, 2014

Year of the Horsemeat

This is probably not the way you're supposed to celebrate this particular zodiac animal's ascendance at the Chinese New Year, but I'm going to stir-fry this former horse with the broccoli and red pepper and tangerines I need to use up, and eat it with sesame-seed rice noodles. There's a horsemeat-only butcher at Les Halles (the big covered food market) in the middle of Pau, one of the few in the region. You can buy horsemeat in most large supermarkets, however, and it's fairly popular, though not as widely eaten as in some other countries. In fact, according to the statistics I was googling through, twice as much horsemeat is eaten in Canada as in France, and both countries lag well behind Mexico. Culturally speaking USians have never been big on eating horses, which is ironic since most of the wild horses slaughtered for population control (or whatever the reason du jour is now) end up being processed for sale in other countries.

French people don't have any prejudice against eating horsemeat, in a general sense, but I haven't found many people who say they eat it often (though the butcher was doing a brisk business). There have been two big horsemeat-related scandals here lately, the first one about horsemeat ending up as an unlabeled ingredient in "beef" lasagne and other frozen foods, something that was traced back to, I believe, an Eastern European processing plant. I think that was the same IKEA-meatball incident you may have heard of in the States. The most recent scandal came not from mislabeled meat, but from the health of the horses used to produce the meat. Apparently someone was buying up horses that had been used for medical testing, and thus full of weird things, and reselling them as "clean" to the processors, who may or may not have known what they were getting. I also heard something about UK horses being put into the mix illegally; those were the horses that people can't afford any more due to the economic downturn over there, with the result that instead of processing horses that had been raised for meat, former kids' ponies and teenagers' after-school rides were being ground up into patties.

Even with all the horror stories, I'll trust a local butcher. I was describing how I wanted to cook the meat (thin ribbons quickly stir-fried) and asking what cut would be best, and after debating the quality of the slightly fatty entrecôte I opted for the leaner filet, and asked for three slices. He reached into the display window, then looked over and said, "You've got a bit of an accent; where are you from?" "I come from the United States," I replied. He hesitated as he was pulling the meat up onto the counter. "You ... you do know this is horse meat, don't you?"

According to an online site about the Chinese Zodiac and feng shui and things like that, this should be a fairly good year for me, as the Dragon and the Horse are moderately affiliated, and my wood Dragon fuels the 2014 fire Horse. Also, and this is good news, "dragons who are freelancing or running their own business will make good money." Yay! But there will also be unpleasant surprises and uncertainty, and I need to find helpful people to get me through the difficulties. Apparently I need to do something called the Gain Helpful Friends Ritual today, and to start wearing a "Mystic Knot" or "Infinity" bracelet. Both of which, of course, were available for purchase on the website ...

On the Wikipedia site for the Chinese zodiac, they say that the year you're born only links you with the zodiac animal you appear to be to others, and that there are also zodiac signs assigned that show your inner animal nature (your birth month), your true nature (the day), and your secret animal (the hour). I'm a Dragon, but a Snake inside, apparently; my true nature is a Sheep, and my secret animal is a Dragon again, so I suppose that's not much of a secret, is it?

I didn't eat any snake last year, though if I'd had an opportunity I would have. Horse is on the menu tonight, and next year's goat and/or sheep will be easy to find. Monkey I will avoid, which shouldn't be hard to do, as I don't anticipate traveling to Africa. Rooster; check. Dog - probably not unless I end up in China or SE Asia, but if I'm going to eat horses raised for meat, I shouldn't quibble with dogs raised for meat. Pig, dear god, I have eaten enough pork this year to 2020 and well beyond. Rat would be another Asian meal, I think, unless I'm transported back to wartime Paris, but a nice fat copyu (also called nutria) might fit the bill, and I could get that in South America. Ox could be any bit of beef, but there is no way I'm going to eat a tiger, or a cat, but even in China that's not a popular meat any more, so I should be okay there. Rabbit I will eat willingly, especially as the delicious rillettes I used to buy from the meat truck in Tours. And that brings us back to Dragons, which I doubt I'll find on any menu anywhere. I'm not opposed to trying some lizard meat though, if the opportunity arises.

Have you cannibalized your zodiac sign yet?

Saturday, January 25, 2014

I Swear

The week before last, right before my computer charger fizzled and popped and died, was not a good one. I was lost in three days of depression and darkness that the full moon did nothing to brighten; in fact it made it harder to sleep, which made my mind even more foggy. However, the immediate crisis of not having a computer woke me up, and being stressed and annoyed was better than being apathetic and despairing. I'm back to normal now, whatever that means.

But I've been thinking about swear words, when not actually using them in the process of getting my computer up and running again. You know how "darn" and "fudge" and suchlike are used in English to replace the much more satisfying "damn" and "fuck" (minced oaths, they're called)? The same practice occurs in French: merde ("shit") becomes mercredi ("Wednesday"), and putain ("whore," but used as an exclamation of anger/pain/surprise like "son of a bitch!" rather than name-calling) becomes purée ("mashed potatoes") or punaise ("thumbtack"). Many people say flûte (which means exactly what it looks like) or mince ("slender") though I'm not sure what those are euphemistically replacing. And I actually heard someone say zut, alors! a few days ago as he was searching for the photo-quality paper he'd misplaced so that he could take my US-regulation-conforming passport pictures.

I think that the next time I'm feeling apathetic, I'm going to channel that emotion into anger instead - anger at myself, at the universe, at things I can't control, at things I can control, at everything and nothing at all - and go outside and scream at the sky: "MASHED POTATOES! WEDNESDAY! THUMBTACKS!" And that will make me laugh and my anger will drain away, and I'll be able to take a deep breath and shake out my shoulders and set myself back to work. Bon sang de bonsoir!

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Ferme Hondet: Les canards de Lasseubetat

A few months ago one of the instructors took us on a field trip to Ferme Hondet, where we learned about the business of fattening ducks for foie gras and other products so popular here in France, especially at the end of the year for the Christmas and New Year's feasts. We did two other farm visits, and our assignment is to write up a paper describing the history and current situation at the farm, how their business is run, where the basic products, ingredients, and supplies come from, and how they fit into the French agricultural scheme. I won't bore you with the five pages I just finished writing, but I thought you might like to see some of the pictures.

The ducks are born to the north of here in two large industrial breeding factories, and then the ducklings are shipped down to the south and west to the Pays Basque, where another farmer raises them for 7 weeks, first inside and then outside. For the final week they're only fed corn once a day, and are given piles of it so they can stuff themselves for an hour before the feed is taken away; this is the "pre-gavage" stage. It approximates the more natural process that wild ducks do in the fall, like other birds and mammals, when they eat as much as possible to get them through the lean months ahead.

However, it's then taken to the extreme in the next step, which begins when the ducks arrive at the farm. Unlike another facility we visited, this family doesn't force the ducks to stay in tiny individual cages while they're fattened, and in fact there are fewer ducks per enclosure here than on average (17 ducks in three square metres, rather than 26). The building where the pens are is open on one end, well ventilated, and with a good amount of space under the pens so that the ducks (and the farmers) don't have to smell the fumes from the droppings all day long. What's more, cocoa husks and waste from the Lindt chocolate factory in Oloron-Sainte-Marie are regularly spread over the floor, which reduces the smell, changes the pH, and makes it all better fertilizer for the fields where the corn is grown. The ducks are fed whole corn kernels that have been cooked until they're about three times larger than dried, and then mixed with a bit of sunflower oil to make them go down nice and smoothly. The oil also helps keep the corn running well through the tube from the boiler to the pipe that gets stuck down each duck's throat once a day. It takes about an hour and a half to feed the 300-350 ducks in each batch, and they process a batch of ducks every three weeks.

And by "processing" I of course mean KILLING THEM BWAH HAH HAH. Electrocuting them, in fact, by sticking their heads down into the thing that looks like a defibrillator on the rear wall, slitting their throats in the nearby red funnels, and then dipping them into almost-boiling water to loosen the feathers. They're plucked using a two-step process; the steel rollers in the front of the machine remove the large feathers, and then the yellow french-fry-shaped "fingers" pull off the smaller feathers. Or maybe it's the other way around. Each duck is hung on one of the chains that slide assembly-line style back around the other side of the room, the pinfeathers are burned off with a blowtorch, and the carcasses go into the next room where they're gutted.

They sell the ducks whole for roasting, or cut into breasts for pan-searing or thighs for making confit at home, and you can also buy the raw livers if you want to make your own terrine de foie gras, which some people do. Mostly, though, all of the foie gras and confit is made on site and sold in jars and cans or in vacuum-packed portions. Cou de canard is a specialty: the skin of the neck is peeled backwards off in one piece to make a sort of sausage casing, which is then stuffed with minced spiced duck meat and foie gras.

It's entirely possible that the people who were living here when the stone farmhouse and grange were built in 1764 also raised ducks and celebrated the end of the year with rich flavors and fatty indulgence, but Ferme Hondet has only been in commercial production of fattened ducks since the early 1980s. At first, they raised the ducks themselves and sent them out for slaughter and processing, but then they decided it made more economic sense to farm out (ha!) the first part and keep the value-added transformation aspect in house. Now the only ducks raised on the farm are the "show animals" that they keep around for visitors and use for their own consumption.

happy ducks dancing
far from the cages below
they'll be roasted too

Maïté and Jean-Marc Hondet
La Ferme Hondet

Monday, January 6, 2014

Back To School

Back to school, and my daily postprandial stroll. Some things have changed: the corn is long gone from the fields, and I noticed that all of the kiwi trees/bushes/vines/whatever they are were trimmed back recently, leaving just two or four high arching branches over the supporting wires, and a tangle of twisted stubs covering the ground between the rows. The flocks of starlings were gone, but the blackberry bushes under the huge tree where they paused in their migration are covered in white splotches. Some things are the same: a meat and potatoes lunch, a rambling economics lecture, a group of students standing just outside the property line to smoke. Fortunately, while the "same" category includes the large handful of disruptively chattering and giggling (male and female) students who I let drive me to tears last month, what's different is that the teachers - at least the two we had yesterday - are not as willing to let the disruption stand. Whether word went around that the odd American student had une crise de nerfs at the end of the last term, or whether the teachers themselves decided that enough was enough, discipline is being enforced. My prayers at Lourdes have been answered.

Five weeks of classes ahead, including offsite visits to a place where they make jambon de Bayonne, and the start of work on our personal projects. The end is in sight, the goal attainable.