Margaret and Dick   


August '05: Festival of cows and wine

Say what?  

Look, there it is, the poster of a cow staring blankly at a glass of wine.  But cows will stare blankly at anything, non? 

Limoux never misses the chance to link local celebrations to its wines.  The full title, Fete de la Gasconne, avec Vigne et Terroir, is more explicit.  Terroir is a subtle term that encompasses land and tradition.  The wines of Texas are different from those of California, as are their cows.  So, wines and cows have something in common:  terroir.  Is the connection clear now?

This is serious – or as serious as a French fete can be.  The French have an atavistic attachment to the farm.  Those whose normal contact with a cow is through knife and fork will happily mill around a festival patting cows’ rumps.  The government glorifies rurality and spends big money maintaining rural roads and services.  France’s biggest agricultural exposition is held in downtown Paris.  Don’t try this in Manhattan!

Every five years, farmers who raise the Gasconne breed of cattle get together for a big celebration and contest.  The festival covers the full cycle of life, from breeding to slaughter to table.  Limoux was selected to host the 2005 Gasconne cattle fest.  Cow country begins above the vineyards as you move into the Pyrenees foothills – Missegre, the plateau de Sault, the Ariege.  The Festival de Vins et Terroir, scheduled in mid-August at the peak of the tourist season, celebrates wines and food specialties of our region, the terroir of Cathar country.  The Cathars, you may remember, were the 12th-century heretics from this area who rejected all pleasures of the flesh.  They were exterminated and are revered … not imitated.

The mayor’s office installed cow stalls and feeding areas over half the available parking lots of the city.  Hello, where do 20,000 visitors and 9,000 residents then park?  A minor detail – the important issue is for cows and onlookers to have plenty of space to commune.  And these are big cows, with heads the size of my chest, over two hundred from around France and several other European countries.  Milling around the stalls, I quickly came to understand why the farmers are wearing knee-high rubber boots.  Despite the protective hay spread around the stalls, you still have to pick your way around the ubiquitous cow pies. 

I went to the demonstration of cow and horse training.  A family showed off their trained cows, a very agile horse, and a herding dog.  The cows followed the man’s commands, with cues from a leading rope, occasional encouragement from the dog, and a welcome edible treat after each trick.  Cow on podium:  now there's a useful skill! 

A herd destined for slaughter was on display from cradle to grave.  In this farm culture, people tend to understand the source of meat on their plates.  Animal-rights demonstrators don’t bother to show up.  Beef was offered at the refreshment stand.  With the bacterial risk of beef in the states, we rarely eat ground beef, only when we trust the source and only well-done.  But the Gasconne race is so carefully managed that there have been no cases of mad-cow disease.  I indulged in a hamburger medium-rare, delicious, thick, and juicy.  I was chastened when I stepped on the scale the next day, but it was worth it, and I went back for another.    

Dozens of regional artisan food producers filled the downtown square.  “Care to taste my olives/snails/artisan cheeses?”  A dozen winemakers offered tastes of regional reds, whites, and bubblies.  It’s a useful and pleasant exercise to compare a dozen Chardonnay makers, and tasting is less overwhelming when you focus in on a specific target.  Focus fades after a dozen tasting samples, but walking home is a privilege of living in the center of town.

Mayor Dupré made an appearance to greet the crowd, of course.  “The national Gasconne contest reminds us of the important part that cow plays in the national and our regional economy.  And we wished to associate that contest with our Festival de Vins et Terroir, to present to the public the ensemble of our local economy.”  Cows+wine=terroir, funny I never realized this before! 

To make sure that no one took things too seriously, there were clowns teaching kids to juggle, a face-painter, and a clay sculpture booth.  Then, teetering around the corner, came Stromboli, four musicians playing clarinet, piano, and drums while pedaling their unique vehicle around the place.  With facepaint goggles, leather helmets, and long coats, they hooted their way around the place with gusto and musical charm.  They were fun but ridiculous, a fitting ending to this unlikely weekend of cows and wine. 

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