Modern and Medieval Meet at This French Festival of “Little Stomachs”

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Modern and Medieval Meet at This French Festival of “Little Stomachs”

On the third Friday of October, the city of Limoges celebrates offal.

It’s a historic celebration that nonetheless surprises even the French—while tripe and kidneys were once mainstays of French cuisine, rare is the modern Frenchman who buys them at the local grocery store. But this tradition is an exception, one that dates back to the Middle Ages, when the butchers of Limoges were some of the most powerful citizens and the holders of the keys to the city. Today, butchers in Limoges hold no more power than any other Limougeaud, and while meat has a special place in the local cuisine, dishes of offal are few and far between. The Frairie des Petits Ventres, however, is one exception; the festival brings tens of thousands of people to the historic Quartier de la Boucherie every year, and this in large part thanks to Jean-Pierre Loustaud.

I met with Jean-Pierre early in the morning of the day of the festival, when many vendors were still setting up—setting sausages out to be grilled, heating vats of spiced vin chaud and laying out their wares of local delicacies for purchase. Most of the other visitors were older locals, seeking out prized ingredients of the past.

“Do you have any sheep’s testicles?” One man called out to a vendor. Another had sought out the only place where girot could be purchased; the local specialty looks like a thick red sausage, but Jean-Pierre tells me that, when cooked, it takes on a grayish tint and gelatinous texture. A chef walking by knows Jean-Pierre—everyone seems to—and offers an impromptu recipe for what I learn is congealed blood serum packed into intestine to form a large sausage. It’s meant to be cut into slices and pan-fried, then deglazed with parsley and vinegar, he explains.

“And be careful,” he cautions. “Don’t flip it with a fork. If you flip it with a fork, it’ll break into a thousand pieces.”

It’s just one of several organ meats sold here, like the namesake petits ventres or “little stomachs,” which, in the spirit of haggis, are made by stuffing sheep stomachs with a precise combination of offal including feet and various parts of the digestive tract, then boiling. “It’s not all that appealing visually,” admits Jean-Pierre. “It looks a bit like parchment.”

The chef, meanwhile, departs on a search for fraise de veau, or calf’s ruffle, a meaty organ that holds the calf’s intestines together and a local delicacy. He says that ever since the mad cow epidemic in the UK, it’s been nearly impossible to find.

“Once a year, you can find girot, petits ventres, and even fraise de veau,” he says excitedly, and he’s off in search of his favorites.

But while these rare cuts of meat are definitely the center of the festival today, they are far from the only thing that Jean-Pierre had in mind when he first re-established the event in the 1970s.

Impassioned by archaeology, a young Jean-Pierre became alarmed when he learned that this historic neighborhood was slated to be demolished. The medieval rue de la Boucherie had once been home to the powerful butchery families of Limoges, each storefront belonging to a different butcher. By the 70s, all but one of the butchers had abandoned the neighborhood, and the street and surrounding area had fallen into disrepair. Municipal authorities had decided that the best way to solve the problem would be to demolish the remaining buildings, erasing the historic street from the modern city.

“A few friends and I said to ourselves, we can’t allow this to happen,” Jean-Pierre recalls. “And really, the decision to create the Renaissance de Vieux Limoges association was made just like that, in an apartment that I was living in on rue de la Liberté, 200 meters from here.”

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