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Fete du l’Andouille: the smell of tradition

Fete de l’Andouille: the smell of tradition

by Josh Barrie 13 July 2018

Josh Barrie recalls the time he visited Brittany to take part in the celebrations at the Fete de l’Andouille – a festival dedicated to an offal sausage with deep roots in the region.

In the westerly clutches of France, a cider-drinking priest is blessing a sausage. After his touching sermon, most of which I do not understand, the meat is paraded through the village to cheers and song. I look on in awe.

I am at, for want of a better description, a sausage party. It is in Brittany and the sausage is andouille, which is made from chitterlings, tripe, onions and wine. It’s nothing like its American counterpart that features only regular smoked pork.

It is a summer some years ago and I have returned to Europe from Cambodia with a renewed appreciation of offal. Chicken lung gets a sickening no from me, but other innards – past the British pub liver and kidneys I know of already – I now realise are nourishing indeed. And yet, here, in a charming Breton village, the fragrance of the andouille is repelling. I hope it tastes far better than it smells. To me, the seasoning does little to mask the lesser parts of the pig.

I am in a distinct minority. Andouille is a mainstay of Brittany, an independently minded region of north west France with far more in common with its Celtic cousins – Cornwall, Ireland, even Scotland – than with the country in which it is part. The sausage is one of Brittany’s economic forces; it is culturally significant, a culinary powerhouse. And each year it is celebrated with happiness, cider and wine.

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Every August, the tiny village of Guémené-sur-Scorff, with a usual population of just 1,200, welcomes 30,000 people for its Andouille Festival – a wonky translation of the more poetic French of ‘Fete de l'Andouille’. Hordes of Bretons, French visitors and tourists from farther afield descend to pay tribute. There is, as mentioned, a mass (messe du pardon de Notre-Dame-de-la-Fosse) and a convivial procession. There is Celtic dancing and Celtic pipers.

The andouille all the while is most commonly steamed and then served cold, sliced so to reveal its tree-like circles of intestines within. If eaten hot, onto mashed potato it goes – word is, at the festival, the mash is powdered. Plates fly from table stalls by the hundred. I get involved.

I stomach the andouille. It is a little pooey, as tripe usually is, but its pungency does not limit its pleasurable factors. Sausages (to me, anyway) are supposed to be of baseness and efficiency. In using the unwanted parts we are thanking animals, and with a glass of Breton cider, things go amicably enough. Would I rather be in my favourite bar in the world, Guémené’s Aux Sabots Rouge, eating roasted hake atop lentils and bavette juicily sliced? Of course I would. But there’s a reason andouille is so popular here – without it, there would be far fewer jobs, much less money about, and not so much of a community spirit.

Former restaurateur and now hospitality lecturer Peter McGunnigle, who often secures a miniature cottage in the village in summer, knows of andouille. He tells me: ‘It is eaten heartily across France. The manufacture of the sausage provides local jobs and a huge boost to the economy, which is much needed in a town that has seen more prosperous days. I love attending the fete, which is always a jolly event. You might not think you would find Scottish and Irish pipers in France, but that’s what you get. The atmosphere is amazing, and Breton cider has got to be one of the finest drinks in the world.As for andouille, I am not convinced. But many are.’

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One such fan is Marie Hélène Riou, who comes from nearby Rennes and grew up with andouille. ‘The way I love it reminds me of my childhood,’ says Riou. ‘My uncle would gather the family together and boil raw andouille for four to five hours, firmly tightened to a string. The lovely smell of smoke from the pot would fill the house for hours. And the taste was delicious. It matches mashed potatoes perfectly.

‘In the old times, andouille was one of the (many) dishes for a peasant wedding. Mostly in northern part of Finistère, but also in the rest of Brittany. And variations are eaten in other parts of France, such as Normandy and the Pyrenees. In Tressé, Brittany, you’ll find it as a puree. But it is most famous in Guéméné.’

As is often the case with these things, there seems a touch of generational disparity at play. It is probably vital younger eaters continue to respect andouille. But it's no easy task.‘Well, it's sort of horrible,’ Caroline Hervé de Beaulieu, whose family comes from Brittany, tells me. ‘The smell makes me run away. My grandfather used to have andouille with bread and butter - in Brittany, everything must come with butter. He used to dip it in coffee. I think he did it to scare us. I guess it worked.’

Caroline adds that in French, andouille not only refers to ‘that weird smoked sausage, but is also used as an adjective to refer to ‘muppets’, or a ‘silly sausage’.’ She thinks it is no coincidence.

Though she concedes that now, as an adult returning to her home – no doubt full of nostalgia and sentiment – she has marginally warmed to Andouille. ‘I could have been sick the first time I tried it. But I tried it again a couple of years ago (aged eighteen) and thought it was alright. It is important it’s not forgotten – it’s so traditional and must be kept. But I would still choose something else in a restaurant. It is only really loved in Brittany.’

At Fete du l’Andouille, I am more enamoured by festivities than I am by the sausage. It is most likely the drinking and the atmosphere which move me to be so confident in my tasting. But I’m pleased I immerse myself. Admittedly, for me, one taste per festival is enough – I soon revert to the more recognisable crusty bread, smoked hams and cheeses so akin with any trip to France. But I would urge anyone to visit Guémené and to attend the andouille mass to try a slice or two. It might not be delicious to everyone, but it is powerful. Just hold your nose and pray.

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