Fin gras…April 16, 2010
Our sejour into the high Ardeche last week was not just an afternoon playing in the cold. Our destination was the village of St. Eulalie where the first annual Fin Gras du Mézenc beef tasting was being held and to which Raphael was invited as an honored taster. I was along for the sight seeing and the lunch, of course.
The Fin Gras du Mézenc is one of three appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) for beef in France. The cows are raised by a unique group of ‘eleveurs’ who’ve been living on this land and raising cows for generations. Their heart is in the land so much so that the president of the AOC joked that his wife claims he spends more time and gives more love to his cows than to her.
The legend of Fin Gras says that on the first day came the mountain fires: the volcano’s lava fertilized the land. The second day brought rain which fertilized the green pastures. Next the wind blew drying the hay. And finally came the monks who built farms where they lived out the frozen winter months with their cows. And so began the Fin Gras.
The unique taste of the beef of Fin Gras comes from the hay. The cows, coming from a variety of races, are nourished on the plateau on top of Mout Mézenc where a specific weed called cistre grows wild in the prairies. It’s the cistre that gives the beef of Fin Gras du Mézenc its particularity which is threaded through the meat from the ‘persillade’ or the natural marbling of fat. Most cows graze in the spring and summer and are fed a light diet of dry hay through the winter months. Cistre, called the fennel of the alps, is thought by most cattle farmers to be a bad weed for the cows since they never touched it while grazing in the pastures. It is usually removed from the hay before dried. In addition, many endeavored to creat a new flora in their grazing pastures by planting grain that produced acceptable hay. However, the cattle farmers of Mézenc decided to leave the cistre in the hay and by doing so discovered that the cattle love the weed when dry and devour it with gusto throughout the winter months making this the most fattening up time of the year. This cistre gives the meat a unique indescribable flavor and makes it one of the most expensive and tender meats in France.
The beef tasting consisted only of Fin Gras de Mézenc meat. The tasters were a select group of butchers, chefs, restaurateurs and wine makers. Raphael was actually representing Goûtez l’Ardèche which holds its own select tastings of products before admitting them to the organization. The tasters job was to evaluate and describe in distinct language the scent, visual, and taste of the meat which was tasted on three levels. The first was a bouillon, or in fact 17 different bouillons. For each, the criteria were exactly the same; the meat used to cook the bouillon was cut from the same part of the cow, it weighed the same, was cooked for the same amount of time (6am to 10am), and in the same amount of water. The single difference was that each cut of meat used for the bouillon cam from a different cow (age, breed and location, mainly altitude and type of prairie).
I sat, fascinated by the intentness of the tasters. It wasn’t unlike a wine tasting. They examined the color of each bouillon, moving the bowl to see how the fat swam in the liquid. A spoon was filled and the bouillon dripped back into the bowl to check its texture and consistency. Noses approached, circling over or dipping deeply into the bowl, sniffing lightly and intently at the fragrance. Cups were filled, once again the bouillon was sniffed, sipped and frequently spit into a plastic bowl placed on the table for that purpose. Notes were taken on each bouillon. Some were retasted. It took a while for each taster to make his way through all 17 bouillons and as the hour approached lunchtime, the scent of coking beef teased my gurgling stomach. Raphael let me taste the one he marked as his least favorite and the one marked as his preference. It was easy to note the distinct difference between the two. The first was very fatty and tasted that way, had little smell and, contrary to the large amount of fat which I thought would bring taste, was watery. The second was thick and just the smell made you want to cut into the steak it came from. Upon tasting, it was full of flavor and I could say, full bodied like a wine.
The second tasting was a selection of carpaccio marinated in olive oil, vinegar and sel de cistre, which I was unable to try due to being pregnant. There were also 17 carpaccio meats using the same standards as above. This tasting went much quicker and was less involved although once again, the amateur tasters biggest comment was that they blended together after a while. But for the professional : differences were made between texture. According to Raphael, some were so tender, they cut with just a fork and were melting in the palate like excellent smoked salmon. I’ve never been a fan of carpaccio but I have to admit, it looked quite good thinly sliced in various shades of pink – about the only difference I could see between them.
The final event was performed with all the pomp and circumstance of a wine tasting but there was no actual tasting involved. It was more of a viewing – of côte de boeuf or rib eye steak. Each butcher supplied his or her own piece of meat, presenting it in full description and then cutting it on a butcher block. The threading was pointed out and the type of preparation for sale each butcher used was explained. The majority of the taste testers were unable to make a significant difference between the cuts of meat, except maybe the amount of marbling in each piece. It was the butchers who really supplied the knowledge to define differences. One butcher asked me to touch his meat. (No, not a come on. For goodness sake, I’m over 7 months pregnant.) And then touch another cut of meat. If it is oily to the touch, he explained, it is a good meat, gras or fatty, but in a good way. A meat that is slightly dryer to the touch has more nerves and tendons and will be less flavorful and more tough and chewy. A good tip except that I don’t imagine my local bouchère would appreciate me asking to touch her steaks before making my choice even if France is keen on allowing consumers to sample their wares before purchase.
The event ended with a marathon meal beginning with a blend of all the best bouillons, followed by an entrée of thinly sliced beef, not much more cooked than the carpaccio, a tartar of lentils and a rillette of beef. The main course consisted of three different cuts of beef prepared the best way for each cut. Surprisingly, the most well cooked was the most tender perhaps because it was covered with a sauce made of bouillon and dark chocolate. (After seeing the movie chocolat, I’ve always been curious about the marriage of meat and chocolate. This was my first chance to taste it and it works.) Local cheese was next and finally a chestnut mousse for desert. Each course was accompanied by wine supplied by the wine makers present. We brough a fruity Côtes du Rhône, and much appreciated Vin de Pays de l’Ardèche, and a Côtes du Vivarais white. The restaurant where the tasting was held is a client of ours and happily supplied one of the best wines of the event, our 2001 Ardèsc, which was so smooth and nicely aged in the high altitude. Speaking of altitude, these cattle farmers love a good meal with a good wine followed by a good after dinner drink, in this case, a liqueur made by the President of the AOC from the cistre. This was some of the best meat I’ve ever tasted but by the end, I had eaten enough beef to last me for a while.
The Fin Gras du Mézenc have recently opened a museum and visiting center in the village of Chaudeyrolles where you can learn about the Fin Gras through different presentations, visits to farms, and cooking demonstrations. There is also a promenade among the cows with 8 stops depicting the rhythm of the farmers. If you go there, don’t forget to buy a jar of sel de cistre, or salt of cistre. Spread on top of any beef steack, it will give a uncomparable taste. And most restaurants in the region offer a meal with the meat of Fin Gras du Mézenc.
Restaurant of the president of Toques d’Auvergne
VIDAL 43 260 SAINT-JULIEN CHAPTEUIL
Hotel du Nord Marie Andrée & Serge Mouyon – 07510 Sainte Eulalie