I popped into the butcher’s the other day on the pretext of buying some ham, but I really wanted to check that the new baby had arrived safely. The young mother was looking calm and rested. Everything had gone well. Her daughter had arrived exactly on the due date, which was perfect, since they had shut the shop for their annual break and two weeks later she was back behind the counter. I said that she was looking well and remarked that it must be a lot of work, especially as she and her husband already have a small son. “Yes”, she replied with a big smile, “we did need to get ourselves organised and sometimes we open a little late, but our customers understand. In any case, we love what we do so we manage just fine”.
It’s like that around here, shopping is a social occasion and about much more than just purchasing stuff. We actually eat very little meat but there are two excellent butchers and a further two equally excellent stalls at the market so we try to spread our limited custom fairly between them. The experience of a good boucherie charcuterie is not to be missed.
To my mind the mark of a good butcher’s shop is whether it provides chairs! Buying meat is a serious business and customers tend to discuss their requirements and choices with the level of concentration that you might expect to encounter in a dress shop. The queue of waiting customers (you do indeed queue in such places, with as much discipline as at an English bus stop) remains perfectly patient and good humoured and older clients appreciate being able to take the weight off their feet. So it naturally follows that there tends to be an element of showmanship attaching to a good butcher.
M Candy, now retired, whose shop we patronised for many years, was a past master at amusing the gallery. Small, dark and dapper he kept up an uninterrupted flow of perfectly timed and slightly risqué comments as he deftly sliced, pared, minced and chopped, which were highly appreciated by his audience both male and female. His wife, taller than him, slim and elegant, was relegated to less spectacular tasks such as slicing ham, totting up the bills and operating the cash register, and kept her eyes demurely lowered with an air of not understanding her husband’s double entendres. We do miss M Candy and his shop. On the wall was a large framed photo of him in his youth, white-coated in the cattle market sizing up a magnificent animal and their little black dog kept guard at the door, the handle of which was a cow horn, which he took with him when he left.
But the good thing is that both the butchers and the bakers in Lamastre are all now run by young couples who have taken over from owners who have retired and in so doing given a new lease of life to the traditional style of food shopping in France.
Such places have their own style and personality. You hear delightful and sometimes intriguing snippets of conversation and can pick up tips on cuts and cooking techniques while you wait your turn. This summer I heard a Parisian customer, who was buying an expensive rib of beef for his barbecue being warned “oooh, la cuisson de la côte de boeuf c’est délicat!”
For the locals there is the personal touch. In one shop the young woman always brightly exclaims “très bien”, in response to whatever you ask for, as though your selection is exactly what she would have chosen for you herself. The other day I noticed her returning an empty jar to a couple of customers. She congratulated them on the pâté they had made, which she said her family had enjoyed and the customers in turn complimented her on the quality of the ingredients she had supplied. Not the sort of conversation you expect to hear in Tesco! Nor, indeed, a slightly surreptitious exchange about fresh water crayfish and the fact that Madame could expect a few to be available next Saturday . . . . .
The other butcher’s has an energetic staff who wear team T shirts on market days. They can be a little brusque when things get busy but they certainly listen to their customers. One Tuesday someone wanted a roasted chicken and was told “Oh we don’t do them on market days: il y a trop de poulets rôtis partout!” Nevertheless, the following week the rotisserie was back outside the shop, with plump chickens rotating slowly and smelling delicious.
All butchers know which customers have dogs, and will step into the back room whilst they are counting out change and reappear with a bag of bones. I once heard a lady in the market, on receiving her plastic bag ask if she could also have “du mou pour le chat”. As pieces of lung were scooped up for her cat’s delectation I noticed the foreign couple who had been waiting behind me were beating a retreat, looking a trifle green about the gills!
I must admit to being somewhat wimpy and ambivalent about buying and eating meat. Traceability here means that all the animals have been raised and slaughtered locally and the name and address of all the supplying farmers is displayed on a blackboard for each type of meat, together with the date of birth and slaughter of each animal. (All that’s missing is a graduation photo!) And whilst it does give a sensitive person pause for thought, at least I know that they have had a short but happy life, mostly out in the meadows and able to enjoy the natural surroundings as they should. So no distressing pictures, and in fact these cows, in the field below the Doghouse, are milkers and in no danger of ending up as stew!
photo credit : Jean-Michel BRUCHON for the picture of the Lamastre market. Click here for more vintage postcards of Lamastre