Flat Lands and Legends (Part Two)

When it comes to food, the French are the most obsessive on the planet. Yet they have rather lagged behind the curve when it comes to cooking outdoors; Texas muscle and Antipodean flair have rather led the field. But, the French are catching on and, as always, bring more than a little Gallic flair to the barbecue business.

On the beach in 2014, moved to town square this year

There was quite a crowd. Professional teams with slick uniforms and their own washers-up (in our case, me), amateur teams consisting of men in silly hats out for a good time happy to let their meat char to a cinder in favour of drinking a lot of pastis and having fun by the sea. Reality TV stars, coached by the sponsoring barbecue company, gaggles of photographers, pretty girls with fake tattoos and considerable razzmatazz. And, a serious jury, consisting of starred chefs and other head honchos. All converging on the little town of Saintes Maries de la Mer, the capital of the Camargue, to find the best barbecue chefs in France.

Also, two middle-aged women in home made tie-dyed T shirts turned up to take on the ‘best of the best’ from all over France, Europe and as far away as French Polynesia. One of whom is quite well known to me, a legend in her own lunchtime.

The advertising budget was eye-watering. In addition to a lavish beach party for all those involved, each of eighty teams received the use of a brand new 300€ Weber charcoal barbecue, plus tools, competition aprons, charcoal and a large parasol, and, of course, meat, fish or vegetables from a top-flight local provider. Competitors could enter a maximum of three categories. Once the meat was received, they had two and a half hours to present.

Dear God, but it was hot. Most of the time, I hung around, dripping, like a spare usher at a wedding; when Gipsy slips into top gear, the best thing to do is just take cover. Hand movements are as fast as a concert pianist’s and one can almost hear the vegetables begging for mercy.

Day one, the chicken and taureau day, went well and the food as always was outstanding, but the jurors reached us virtually at the end of the judging period. When the taureau was being tasted, a frisson went around the site as the chief juror, an elderly gentleman, suddenly lit up. He stayed for rather longer than his allotted time and questioned the team closely.

Taureau – after the jury had finished with it

We left for a night in a farmhouse in Vaccarès. Day Two was, if anything, hotter. The team were only doing the pork section so it looked like an easy day. However,  outrageous fortune’s capricious nature being what it is, delay followed delay until mid-afternoon when Gipsy was hauled off to the ambulance with a hour to go, suffering from heatstroke. The partner was left to finish and the result was good but not outstanding, which was unfortunate.

These things are always a lottery. I told myself that it was the taking part that mattered and a prize was a bonus. Gipsy muttered grimly that ‘she hadn’t turned up just to come second’. Just as well, really.

The Blue Riband event is the bull, the ‘taureau’ of the Camargue. A special trophy is presented to the winner of this category, since it is considered to be the most difficult meat of all to prepare successfully, with originality and the perfection required at this level.  When she won, I shouted like a kid at the football match and might even have jumped up and down. When she got second prize for the hamburger section and third for the chicken, I clapped politely, having recovered my customary sang-froid.

The three-starred chef asked if he could use her bull recipe in his kitchen.  After all the packing up, we barely had room in the car for the winner’s barbecue and the trophy. The former we get to keep, the latter we have to give back or defend next year. Apparently.

Champions Trophy 2015

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