We have been to our first food festival of 2019. Perhaps I should clarify that. In France, any public event bigger than the opening of a new speed bump is hailed with an eruption of stalls selling fragrant foodstuffs and drink, and long tables at which to enjoy them al fresco in the company of friends, to the accompaniment of a ragged brass band and an unheeded speech from the mayor.
What I mean is something more specific: a festival staged to celebrate a particular local product. This one was a Fête de la Truffe, held in the seriously hyphenated village of St-Géniès-des-Mourges about 10 miles north-east of Montpellier. As the name suggests, it was a formal glorification of the truffle, that rare and expensive subterranean fungus that reminds foodies of heaven and the rest of us of goat turds. This, it turned out, was a very big deal in a very small village.
You could tell because most of the cars in south-west France seemed to be trying to park in a handful of vertiginous streets and two temporary car parks. In the village's venerable centre, many hundreds of people elbowed their way around close to 100 stalls. Most of the stalls had little obvious connection with truffles. The village's signature product afforded a showcase for all manner of local artisanship, loosely enough defined to encompass everything from hunting knives and olivewood carvings to patisserie, wines, and great sacks of seasonal walnuts and white onions.
Bar tents dispensed wines and beers, while others sold every kind of foodstuff from roast pig and boar burgers to meringues and the obligatory beignets (fritters). An oompah band inflicted grievous injury on old marching tunes, while diners ate, drank and conversed intently at communal tables.
Not that St-Géniès' prized distinction was entirely neglected. An auction of truffles had begun at an early hour, and appeared to have long exhausted available supplies by the time we arrived in mid-morning. But several stalls offered truffle-enhanced comestibles, some of them, like tapenades, already so potent on the palate that you would be hard-pressed to isolate the presence of truffle with chromatography. Sample fungi were buried in a demonstration sandpit, for trained hounds and sows to detect, to lively applause. Dog-owners were then invited to give their own mutts a try (the French always bring their dogs to crowded events, so that no-one need feel deprived of a frothy muzzle in the crotch and something vile to tread in).
It was a joyful occasion, as these events always are. No-one drinks too much, or gets too loud, or whinges without self-mockery. Everyone is welcome. We exchanged banter in our lamentable French with genial stall-holders. In due course, we lunched on delicious cartons of truffle-laced aligot and sliced Toulouse sausage, bought a truffle-flavoured saucisson sec, and took our reluctant leave.
Festivals like this take place throughout the year and, it sometimes seems, in every hamlet in France. We once spent a delightful afternoon at a Grand Festival of the Chickpea in a tiny village near Uzès, where lunch consisted of more chickpea-based dishes than you would have thought possible, and stalls competed for ever more innovative associations with the commune's staple crop. We bought a pair of earrings, made from dyed dry chickpeas set in silver, to give to our daughter, who was conspicuously underwhelmed. Never mind: the village believed it produced the best chickpeas you could buy, and was proud to be identified with, and by, them.
Which reminds you of the serious purpose behind these festivals. Every settlement in France longs to be associated with a cherished comestible. For many, it is a distinctive wine or cheese, but it can be almost anything. Bouzigues, near Montpellier, announces itself with a road sign in the shape of a giant oyster, because the bivalves it grows on massive frames in the Bassin de Thau are said to be the best in France (and therefore the world). Along the shore in one direction is Sète, known for tielles à la Sètoise (octopus pies); in the other Marseillan, known for its Noilly Prat vermouth. Inland is Pézenas, home of the petit pâté, a tiny spiced lamb pasty, and further inland still is Castelnaudary, which tells anyone who will listen that it is the capital mondiale de cassoulet.
These associations are priceless marketing in a country that cares more about victuals than anything else. No wonder so much effort goes into the food festivals. But it is also about pride of place, and belonging: of 'terroir'. There is no adequate translation for terroir, but it has to do with the conditions of soil, climate, geography and heritage that give the place one comes from its unique character. The importance of terroir grows rather than diminishes as ever more of the rural population abandons ancient family holdings for urban salaries and apartments. Terroir, of which fine local produce is the badge, is politics as well as marketing.
In the case of Saint-Géniès and its truffles, the politics have sharp edges. Truffle-hunting is closely identified with Provence, and upstart prospectors in the Languedoc woods are not viewed entirely kindly from the east. More immediately, a British (naturellement) company wants to open a 370-hectare commercial truffle farm in scrubland near Ganges, a proposal that has provoked nearly 5,000 signatures on a hostile petition. The very idea of industrialised truffling is anathema here. Truffles are about an individual and his loyal, painstakingly-trained animal exerting generations of experience to wrest elusive treasures from secret places in the loam. That is what makes it an expression of the terroir...also what safeguards its value.
The conflict is a reminder that the French passion for ultra-niche foodstuffs is not readily transferrable to other cultures, and neither side would probably wish it transferred. Yet, it is hard not to envy the extraordinary pride that people in even the tiniest French communities take in celebrated local product. If the notion of terroir seems a tad romantic to our tastes, redolent of kailyard sentiment about grannie and her Hielan' hame, the marketing benefits are altogether more hard-headed. And here, it seems to me, Scotland does
miss a trick.
Some years ago, I was hired by the Shetland tourism people to write a report on visitor facilities, which I presented at a conference in Lerwick. One of the things that had struck me was how often I ate superb fish on the islands and, on asking, was told it had been locally caught, often that same day. The point was that I had to ask. Here was a world-class local product, which the menu didn't even mention as being local. Had it been France, every village on every island would have laid claim to a different species, and thrown itself into telling the world of its supremacy as a producer.
Though Scottish food production has gone a lot further down the road to corporate blandness than France's, we do still have fine products to boast about, many associated with specific locations. Yes, we've got a bit better at promoting brands like Loch Fyne seafood, but where are the festivals for the Forfar bridie, the Selkirk bannock, the Arbroath smokie? Why don't Scottish villages do more to tell us what's special about their local lamb or prawns or honey? After all, it needn't be anything as wildly exotic as a chickpea.