Before porcelain made Limoges famous, the city’s lifeline was meat. It’s horrendously cliché to say that butchery was “like a religion,” and yet it somehow seems appropriate in this case: the butchers of Limoges have their own chapel, run by a 12th century brotherhood known as the confrérie de Saint Aurélien. And the deeper one digs into their long history, the more modern butchery in this southern French city acquires a different face.
I begin my exploration of the butchery brotherhood at the eponymous rue de la Boucherie, where the butchers moved in the 13th century from their earlier location on rue de la Tannerie, or Tannery Road. At their first address, a generous water supply made their work simple, but the road ran between two fortified cities, making them vulnerable to attack. The butchers eventually asked to be protected within the city limits and found their way to rue de la Boucherie, which soon became the center of their trade… and monopoly.
Of course, the butchers’ success is not only owed to their ingenuity. The Limousin breed of cattle, so named for the region of which Limoges is the capital, are some of the oldest documented in France, if one counts the famed cave paintings of Lascaux. While some long believed that the reddish modern Limousin cattle were directly related to the subjects of these paintings, it took quite a bit of domesticating to create the breed now known as Limousin, a breed that was only referenced in its modern form in the 19th century.
Limoges’ medieval butchers, then, were not selling what we now know to be Limousin beef, as the ancestors of this breed would then have been used more as draft animals than anything else. But a local ancestor was prized by Limoges’ butchers – and Limoges’ consumers. From their modest beginnings, the butchers created a small empire in Limoges, composed of six families who controlled the butchery industry and, thanks to a special dispensation from the Catholic Church, intermarried incestuously to keep the butchery world even smaller. The historic Maison de la Boucherie is the only one remaining of the 52 original 15th century living spaces, a perfect example of their lifestyle: shop in front, abattoir in back, and living spaces stacked upon several narrow floors, one room on each level along rickety, wooden staircases. Today, some rooms display religious shrines to their patron saint, Aurélien; others display hooded costumes of yore that lend a certain pagan, soothsayer image. The museum is devoted not only to the work, but to the lives of Messieurs les bouchers de Limoges; this traditional title evokes a charming other-worldliness in reference to the men who possessed the keys to the city for centuries, bestowing them symbolically on such famed visitors as King Henri IV and Prince Jérôme Napoléon.
Messieurs still boast their antiquated title and position as official key holders of Limoges. They were even the figureheads chosen to welcome Presidents Charles de Gaulle and François Mittérand to Limoges. While butchery is explored through the eerie, grim abattoir, this home seems at once a testament to a status and evidence that being a butcher in 15th century Limoges was about far more than meat.
François Brun distinguishes himself from this long line of butchery royalty. While his laboratory is located on the historic rue de la Boucherie, his butcher counter is at les Halles, the bustling central market. But what’s more, François is not a member of one of the illustrious Limoges butchery families, or even from Limoges at all.
François grew up on a small veal farm in Cussac, 40 kilometers from Limoges, where he dreamt of becoming a carpenter. But everything changed one day, almost by chance, when Pierre Ribère, a butcher from Chalûs, came to pick up a calf he had ordered—the offspring of the cow that François had raised himself.
“He saw me next to the fireplace whittling a piece of wood,” he recalls. “Every time he came, he used to say to my father, ‘I can take him too, if you want!’”
On this day, the joke became reality; 14-year-old François became apprentice to the butcher, leaving his straight-A high school career behind. He never looked back.
At 20, fresh out of his Brevet de Maitrise degree, the butchery wunderkind already knew that quality would be of primary importance in his work. It was his focus on only the best products that saved him during what he considers the most devastating event in butchery’s recent history: the outbreak of mad cow disease in the U.K. in the late 90s and early oughts. While the E.U. instated a three-year ban on British beef, France continued it for three more years, worried about the dangers of imported beef. But even with these bans, consumers remained fearful and steered clear of beef, a measure not wholly unwarranted, as France was suffering a more silent epidemic of the disease at the same time, a problem likely due to their delay in controlling the use of meat in bone meal in cattle feed. While other butchers closed shop after fearful clients deserted them, François, who had just gone into business for himself, thrived. This isn’t surprising—someone with this much of a love for what he does isn’t hard to trust.
François is both butcher and charcutier, selling meat and prepared meat products like sausages and pâtés from a well-lit butcher counter that seems miles away but is truly only a few steps from the historic counters that barely hid abattoirs on rue de la Boucherie. What François doesn’t make in-house, he purchases from the best producers, sparing no expense or distance: cured hams and saucissons can hail from Italy, France or Spain, depending on the product that satisfies François’ palate. Fresh meats, however, come from closer to home. He sourced his veal from his parents until they retired, and he still sources local lamb from nearby Oradour. His beef is all of the local Limousine variety, his personal favorite. “It’s a marbled meat with a unique flavor,” he says. “It has the finest grain, and a light cover of fat.”
It’s easy to see that while François is passionate about all of his products, beef has a special place in his heart.
“I really like to work with everything,” he says, cutting up a “butcher’s surprise” with ease, removing the silver skin from the steak that gets its name from the odd shape it acquires as it’s expertly prepared. “I love cutting a bourguignon. I love cutting stew meat. I love preparing paleron.”
And it’s not just about preparing the individual cuts. François hand-selects the cattle for slaughter, picking beef that are at least eight years old for the best flavor and, ideally, ones that have benefitted from time with a tata—French for “auntie”—from the Normande breed. In industry parlance, a tata is a nursing cow; Normandy may not be quite as famous for its beef as other regions, but it’s renowned for the quality of its butter and cream, and the last 15 days of a four-month-old calf’s nursing can be spent with a Normande tata for the ideal proportion of marbling and fat.
“If there’s a Normande tata… well, that’s the bee’s knees,” François says with an omnipresent grin.
François’ two children do not intend to take over the family business. “It’s a trade that’s being lost,” he says, and he’s not the only one to think so. While the butchery empire had already dwindled by the 1960s, 80 local butchers still practiced the local trade; only 20 remain today. And it’s not a problem limited to Limoges -6,000 more butcher’s apprentices are needed yearly according to Bernard Mérhet, the president of the Federation of Artisan Butchers in Ile de France, for the industry to continue to thrive nationwide. While chefs are finally gaining the star power they deserve in France, butchers are still hiding in the shadows as far as national acclaim is concerned.
But François’ shop isn’t suffering a lack of manpower. “This week, two different guys who were looking for work came by,” he says. “I’m sure they were great guys, but I don’t have enough work at the moment.” Assisted by two butchers and a student butcher, François has more than enough hands on deck, especially considering his clientele. When the focus is on quality, meat isn’t cheap; François concedes that many locals are likely doing their weekly shopping at the supermarket—and that’s okay. He prefers helping people who are focused on quality, even if they’re only buying a small amount for a special dinner.
As for François himself, he’s partial to a daube, a rich beef stew with tomatoes. “I love that,” he says. “Followed by a little fruit salad, or even a nice tart with apples on top…” He’s already planning his next meal; his enthusiasm is palpable.
With his smiling face and quick hands, it’s hard to associate François from the dark, dank, nearly masonic rooms of the Maison de la boucherie, but François is, in fact, a member of the confrérie of old. Even centuries-old associations can follow the times; today, the confrérie wears a much more public face, organizing dinners, galas and special masses, elements of his membership that François admits are not a part of his daily life. With a few exceptions, most of the members today are retired butchers, and, as François reminds me, laughing jovially, “I work on Sundays.”
For members who still take the confrérie to heart, the soul of the brotherhood remains at their 15th century chapel, where Saints Martial and Aurélien hold place of pride on either side of the altar. In a region that’s fervently secular, the importance of this holy place is surprising, but the history of its paired saints offers some clarity. Martial, the evangelist of the third century city, is the patron saint of Limoges; Aurélien, meanwhile, was a pagan priest sent to the city by the Roman emperor. After Martial’s death, Aurélien surprisingly became bishop of the city and so remained until his own death five years later. It is Aurélien who takes center stage in both the nearly pagan Saints day celebrations and in this chapel, which houses his relics.
The small chapel offers some further local flavor to those willing to look closely. One statue featuring Mary and Saint Anne includes a gleeful baby Jesus snacking on a mouthful of kidney, which butchers of old would give to the children of their favorite customers as an iron-rich treat.
For Limogeauds, however, the star of the confrérie’s calendar is the traditional Petits Ventres festival, so named for the traditional offal made from slow-cooked mutton feet encased in sheep stomach. The festival, originally celebrated in mid-September to honor both the Nativity of Mary and the day when these delicacies could once again be made after the heat of the summer, became obsolete at the beginning of the 20th century, only to be restored in 1973 with a few small changes: it now takes place on the 3rd Friday in October and offers not just mutton stomach but tripe, cider, and local specialties like clafoutis and boudin noir with chestnuts. This celebration of offal is at once a tourism draw and a vestige of Limoges’ history.
Today, with the exception of this yearly festival, the rue de la Boucherie remains a mere museum to its past. But the importance of this history remains, not just in festivities, but in the way that people approach meat in this region. Younger generations tend to scoff at unfamiliar cuts and offal in most regions, but François Brun can attest to a return to organ meats of old, even amongst his younger patrons. Limoges even boasts local shops like Tripes et Co which, behind a trendy storefront, hide a selection of boudin and andouille perfectly packaged to serve as a dinner party hors d’oeuvre.
An element of the mystical will always surround Limoges’ butchery, from the nearly ghost town aspect of the former centerpiece of the trade to the ceremonial confrérie’s festivals and events. But it’s safe to say, thanks to the hard work and passion of a select few, that this historic trade is in no way locked in the city’s past.
Emily Monaco is a born-and-raised New Yorker based in Paris. After many years of trying, she has come to the conclusion that she will likely never be French. She writes about her experiences with Franglais and food on her blog, tomatokumato.com. Her writing has been featured in Serious Eats, Epicure & Culture, and That’s Paris, an anthology about life in Paris. Follow her on Twitter @emiglia.