By Simona PALENGA
Tomorrow, on February 24, 2022, the town of Bazas will celebrate once again the Fête des Bœufs Gras. Last time the festivities happened was 2020, right before the start of the pandemic. It was a sunny day, with very warm weather and the streets of Bazas were packed with thousands of visitors from all over the south west of France. This Thursday, we should expect dry weather and still a good crowd.
In France it is extremely unusual to hold a festival, in the countryside, on a week day during winter…so, why is that?
Well, the story goes back over 7 centuries to the year 1283. It’s the high Middle Ages in Europe, a dynamic period of creativity and developments leading to historically long-lasting changes.
Back then, England’s King Edward the 1st was ruling part of France including Aquitaine. He ruled that the butchers of Bazas were to offer a bull to the bishop in occasion of the celebrations of St. John (another day still honored in Bazas today). They were granted the right to parade their best cattle in the streets of the village on the Thursday before Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras in French/Shrove Tuesday).
The word Carnival can be traced back to the late Latin expression carnem levare (remove meat), it was the last occasion to stock up on rich food and feast in joyful abundance before the following 40 days of abstinence, penance, prayer and repentance (lent).
Since the 13th century, la Fête des Bœufs Gras is a day during which the finest specimens of the Bazadaise breed, and only this local breed, are paraded around town, preceded by a procession of folk dancers, and fifes (small, high-pitched flutes) and drum music.
The animals, adorned with ribbons and flowered crowns, are blessed before participating in this alternative beauty pageant, in which weight doesn’t count, and only the quality of the animal and its conformity to the Bazadaise breed standards is judged.
The French are known for having a lot of meat-based traditional dishes – Boeuf bourguignon, cassoulet, Entrecôte à la bordelaise, choucroute, coq au vin, Blanquette de veau, Pot-au-feu, magret and confit de canard, Steak tartare… just to mention those that are even famous across the border.
Since WWII, the general meat consumption per capita in France has increased significantly, peaking in the 1990s. The decline in the beef consumption has even accelerated since the pandemic. Many people are looking for better quality beef rather than quantity, which has given heritage breeds, like the Bazadaise, more appreciation.
The Bazadaise breed, used originally for its strength as working animals, is important nowadays for its rich meat. The cattle are usually raised with respect to animal welfare, in open pastures while they feed on grass and grains (flax and hazelnuts are added), over a period that goes up to 48 months, allowing their fat to marble and develop a rich, tender, tasty meat.
If you can’t make it to Bazas to see the cattle being paraded this Thursday or for our tour at 11am with Simona, not all is lost!
Aquitaine Travel Guide can organize a farm visit, to meet local breeders who played an important role in the rediscovery of the Bazadaise and the shifting of its use, as well as visiting local butchers and chefs, with tastings of the local products.
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