September 23, 2014

In the Brotherhood

A friend asked me if I would be willing to help out at a food festival in Saulieu last weekend. It was the second annual event of its type, gathering all the different food brotherhoods of the region to serve their specialties to a hungry public. They expected about 250 guests and, due to an avalanche of prior obligations, only two members of the Confrérie de la Poule au Pot would be available to help serve. Might I be a third set of hands?

The public was au rendez-vous
As I was already planning on attending the event for "research" purposes, I was happy to help. I would be wearing the official garb of the brotherhood, inlcuding velvet robe, medal, and feathered hat, and serving from noon to four-ish.

The event was in an exposition hall steps away from the center of town. Each brotherhood had a modest stand. For 20 euros, attendees bought a booklet of tickets good for one specialty from each brotherhood. The products offered were as follows, in order: 

--one free commemorative (and practical) wine glass;
--3cl of crème de cassis de Dijon;
--12cl of crémant de Bourgougne, the local sparkling wine;
--one plate of local charcuterie, including rosette sausage and jambon persillé;
--12 escargots de Bourgogne, the snails piping hot and dressed in their traditional garlic-parsley-butter bath;
--12cl of Chardonnay;
--a piece of local Charolais beef, cooked to your liking;
--one portion of poule au pot, a chicken cooked in a pot with aromatic vegetables including cabbage, leeks, and turnips;
--a scoop of Dijon mustard;
--one large slice of Brie de Melun (not to be confused with Brie de Meaux);
--pain d'épices, the regional gingerbread;
--and a macaron cookie from Nancy

When I arrived, I was quickly shuffled into my uniform. It was like wearing a set of drapes over my shoulders. I pledged that I would not allow myself to feel like a dork. Lord knows how I was able to keep the pledge, but I did. Once people started greeting me as a member of the brotherhood (we cheated a little bit; I won't be inducted officially until November), it was easy to go with the flow.

Soon, guests were drinking their kir royal and munching through the charcuterie. Our stand was quiet as everyone had many stops to make before arriving in our neighborhood. The calm before the storm gave me a chance to a) get myself a drink and b) mingle and reconnect with a lot of the people I have encountered over my months of outreach to the brotherhoods. 

I learned that a member of the cassis club wasn't able to attend for medical reasons; that the former president of the mustard brotherhood had not yet moved to Lyon, so we really should get together for a wine tasting at the her house with her husband; that I could call the Snail Pope by his first name and drop the "Monsieur" routine; and that everyone agreed this was a helluva good deal. The rapport qualité-prix was clearly correct. Attendees were happy and, as they made the turn around the beef, quite full. As I made my way through the feast, I shared their pain, especially considering that I had perhaps an extra glass of wine, 18 instead of 12 snails, and a "staff only" double-portion of poule au pot. (French people love to feed and water Americans with outsized generosity; it's hard to say "stop!" until your head is spinning and your pants zipper bursts.)


The general fullness led to the first curveball of the afternoon: many people were no logner hungry after the steak, and began asking for poule au pot to go. We were ill-equipped for this turn of events, but my friend quickly showed off her industrious French spirit, and began collecting scraps of Saran wrap, miscellaneous plastic bags, and even started to cut the bank-sponsored tablecloth into impromptu covers for the delicious soup/stew we were serving. 

Keep that man away from my chicken
People gave us a ticket, we called out "une poule!" to the chefs, who ladled hot broth into foil tubs that held the meat and veggies, and we put it on a paper plate with a plastic fork and knife. It was never really a "rush" like a restaurant gets, and the three of us, in tandem with the two chefs who were working with us, managed to get each guest their portion in under 30 seconds. The reviews were spectacular, with many folks coming behind the table to personally express their satsifaction to the chefs and team. The head chef demurred, saying, "Il n'y pas plus simple." While he may be right (put chicken in a pot, add herbs, veggies, and water, cook at a small bubble for a couple of hours), the guests were correct, too. It was delicious, and I managed to snag two additional portions to bring home (along with three portions of Brie and several desserts), where my family quickly devoured it.

Poule au pot
At 4:00, the hall was emptying out, and the various teams packed up their goods, sated, happy, and eager for next year. In costume or not, I will certainly be a repeat visitor to this uniquely French celebration of the gastronomic bounty and tradition of a region.

The P Team

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