Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Bloody Boudin Blanc

butcher, originally uploaded by azurenath.

Had a flash of feeling really American in Bohan-sur-Semois the other day. I was on my way to a butcher’s whose address was “Rue de l’Eglise 44,” or 44 Church Street, and all the streets in the village were unmarked, or seemed to be. In front of a church I rolled to a stop beside a woman carrying a shopping bag and a little boy. “Excuse me,” I asked, “but do you know where I could find the Rue de l’Eglise?” “I’m not from here,” she said, “but there’s a church right there, so we must be near it.”
I’d seen the church, of course. But it hadn’t occurred to me that Church Street would naturally be close at hand. How often in the States is any Miller Lane near a mill? When are Cypress Streets ever lined with cypresses? Maybe in other parts of the US—but certainly not in Miami.

Anyway, the butcher was right in front of the church. And when I walked in, the girl behind the counter, who was waiting on someone, took one look at me and called to an open door behind her, “Dad, she’s here.”

These meetings are always awkward at first. The artisans, I think, are somewhat cowed by the fact that an American has showed up to follow them around. Isa, the daughter, confided later, “We wondered what you’d be like. Would you speak French? Would you be nice? What were your motivations for coming?” I’ve learned to look at people’s hands before I stick mine out for a shake, because if theirs is covered with flour or blood or butter we both feel like idiots. Praising the landscape, which is no-lie beautiful, always breaks the ice. Telling them straightaway who I am and what I’ve come to do puts them at ease too, as does thanking them for having me. Hearing that my mother’s Belgian greases the wheels. And when I pull the chocolates out of my bag, then we’re really best friends and I can sit down and have some coffee. The only thing that I still haven’t totally figured out is the vous/tu (formal/informal tense). I always speak to the artisans formally, to be on the safe side, but often they’ll start ‘vous’ with me and then switch to ‘tu,’ and I’m never sure how to reciprocate or at which point to switch. Everyone notices nuances like these, but no one ever talks about them.

My inquiry began at the ham bath. I stood aside, trying to avoid the washes of dirty water that splashed out as Mr. Antoine out hauled monstrous pork shoulders. He chose butchery at fourteen, he tells me, because the other option was baking, and he was loath to start his days at two a.m. I notice pleasantly how languages lose their corners in the country, how people speak more rounded-out, drawing out their words. I remember the little rubber mute I’d put on the bridge of my violin when I had to practice in a hotel room. What it did to the violin’s tenor—mellowed, blurred, smoothed it—sounds like what the countryside here does to the voices of its people.

In the bath are juniper berries and salt. After the hams and shoulders are delivered raw from the slaughterhouse, Antoine hangs them his walk-in until all the blood has drained. Then he buries them in big bins of salt, massaging the salt so it penetrates the flesh well. After the salt cocoon he bathes the hams, and then smokes them, in an upright smokehouse that looks like a closet. In place of shoe shelves is the fire, into which he throws sawdust for extra smokage, and instead of jackets and blouses hang hams and pork shoulders. Once they’ve been smoked they’re effectively ready for consumption but are often aged a little longer.

The Antoines are an inquisitive family, and lobbied at me almost as many questions as I threw at them. We hear there’s a real obesity problem in America, they said, in fact, we wondered what you were going to look like. Tell us, is everyone fat? Not everyone, I said, but it’s true, we have some issues. What about the quality of meat? Mr. Antoine wanted to know. Isa was curious about whether we ate French fries with mayonnaise or ketchup, and almost fell off her chair when I told her our sandwiches often came with potato chips. In six hours of ongoing dialogue I think that was the thing about America that shocked her the most. Chips with sandwiches? She was stunned.

While the hams were smoking Mr. Antoine made boudin blanc. He ground pork in an ancient machine, took out an old binder crowded with plastic sleeves that were stuffed with shredded recipes, and added cubed bread soaked in milk, parsley, shallots, salt, mace, spices, powdered milk, and phosphates. He’d scraped a knuckle while taking the hams out of the bath and although he’d bandaged the cut, it bled over a little. This did not seem to matter. Later I thought about it. Technically, it’s gross I guess; some modicum of blood definitely seeped into the meat. On the other hand, I concluded, it’s cooked, it’s not much, and there’s blood in some types of boudins anyway (animal, not butcher blood). I’ll take the risks of Antoine’s sausage over Oscar Meyer’s any day.

The meat mixed for a while in a forty-year-old machine that made as much noise as a jet engine. A lovely smell rose into the air; mace, shallots, milk. Antoine took a handful of salted intestines out of a bucket in the walk-in (he buys these) and soaked them in water to clear them of salt. When he judged the meat well mixed enough he plunged his hand in and slopped as much as would fit into a metal cylinder. Since the mixture had emulsified it was difficult to transfer, and Antoine handled each handful like a too-full, thin-skinned water balloon about to pop, wobbling and worrying it into the fat tube. He screwed the metal cylinder onto a contraption with a turning handle and a hollow plastic cone jutting out one end.
With a practiced gesture, he fitted an intestine onto the end of the plastic cone and began to turn the handle until meat filled the translucent membrane-hose. Visually, this is probably the most obscene, lascivious food-making to which I have ever been privy.

Antoine’s boudin blanc has won awards. Charcuterie is much celebrated in the Ardennes, so these are particular honors. In a few expert twists he divides the meaty rope into long strands of sausages, which he boils for half an hour or so. Once they’d cooked he cut pieces of one for us to taste. Even though I can’t describe the taste as anything but “milky meat” I couldn’t keep my hands out of the plate. Awesome.

Next we make cervelat, which Antoine calls saucisson d’Arlon after the town from which he originates. Even though the family has been here eighteen years, Isa told me, people still think of them as strangers. “Real strangers like you?” she says. “Already three people have come into the store hoping to catch a glance. News travels fast here.” I take this as jest, but later I find out she wasn’t kidding.

Cervelat consists of ground beef, pork, and ice. This too we eat hot from its bath, and it too tastes divine, meat moist and smooth, almost foamy. To make the other sausages that fill his display case Antoine chooses between additions of nuts, cabbage, Grand Marnier and grapes, truffles, peppers, tomatoes and basil, juniper/vanilla, or port. I also try their version of boudin creole, fat and black, overpoweringly thyme-y; pork rillettes, kind of like tuna salad but with meat; rosette, a kind of broad salami; and receive a slab of tête de veau (pressed calf head) wrapped in paper to take home. It sweats a little in the car, and upon opening the package I can’t bring myself to try it. In hindsight I regret tossing it out, but at the time it was a great relief.

As Mr. Antoine sharpens his knives Isabelle invites me to come along as she picks her son up from preschool. Isa’s husband is away, because he’s in the army. He used to drive a tank but is now the barman at the army’s on-site bar, which he likes much better. They live on the other side of town, five minutes away. Isa’s older brother Manu, who is also a butcher, lives across the shop (Manu’s passion is his cow figurine collection; he has over 3000 specimens, from thumb-sized to imitation real). Mr. and Mrs. Antoine live above the shop, along with Cindy, who is fourteen and plans on leaving school in a year, like Isa and Manu did. Little Benjamin’s preschool, I notice as we approach, is two buildings away. “Convenient!” I say. “You bet,” Isa answers. “Sometimes I wish it was a little bit farther!” The preschool has the typical swarm of moms around it, kneeling down to button a coat or ooh at a new crayoned scribble. When we walk in everybody stops talking and stares, hard. I look down but my clothes are still all on; I’m not dreaming. Is this really Belgium?

On the way home Isabelle points out the old bridge, which begins on one side of the river and ends abruptly in the middle, with a few lonely spikes indicating a link to the other side. World War II bomb, she says matter-of-factly. We have another bridge now, but they never tore the old one down. She points at a red-headed mountain behind us and tells me about a stone table in the woods upon which, according to legend, fairies dance and witches cast spells. “Do you believe the stories?” I ask her. She shrugs her shoulders. “Who knows?”

When we get back Mr. Antoine and Manu are making pâté. Manu’s specialty is a concoction of roe deer, Chimay beer and nuts, or, alternately, boar, red wine and shallots, but today, Mr. Antoine has decided on a simple pâté de campagne with venison and pork livers and meat he can’t otherwise sell, like the necks and cheeks of things. When he cuts all I see is a the flash of a knife and a twinkling wedding ring; large and small silver dervishes twirling atop the wooden board.

A friend who owns a restaurant in town comes in and orders thirty sausages for evening service. “Ah, Victor,” rumbles Mr. Antoine, in his French equivalent of a southern drawl, stopping to light a cigarillo (Bohan Natural, rolled in town). “Come and meet our American!” Victor looks at me appraisingly. I know him to be one of the people who came in earlier to find out more about the ‘stranger,’ but he pretends complete ignorance. “You came to Belgium to learn about food?” he sneers after a cordial greeting. “Victor’s French,” Antoine informs me to explain away the snobbery; French ill regard for Belgium is legendary. He guffaws. “Victor’s actually the only Frenchman left in France!” And the conversation switches from shitting on Belgians to shitting on Arabs.

Isa shows up with two cakes she’s brought back from the baker’s, in my honor, and even though I’m stuffed from all the meat I’ve eaten, I choke down a few slices of almond tart and some chicory coffee. The room smells like liver—venison liver, strong—and I’m so not into this tart, but no one else is eating it and they bought it especially for me, so I keep eating. Antoine hauls a plastic bag out of the walk-in and slashes at it with his knife. A flood of blood and offal pours onto the block. Each bag contains the organs of three pigs: kidneys, breast, heart, liver, esophagus, and tongue. The kidneys he puts into a tray for display (Suggestions: sauté, or add red wine, or grill), the heart and tongue he puts back in the refrigerator, the livers he chops up and grinds, and he tosses away the esophagus, which fairly bounces off the bottom of the trash can. Manu grinds the pâté meat into a huge metal vat, and mixes it with hands plunged in up to his elbows, adding powder from a bag that says “Princess Herbs,” one of whose ingredients is MSG. The mixture looks exactly like a tub of vomit. “Have another piece of pie!” trills Isa. “It’s all for you!”

I go to the bathroom for a moment; the meat and sugar assailing my senses have become momentarily overwhelming. In the bathroom is an ashtray with about thirty-five cigar butts in it. I don’t stay inside long. When I return, Isa’s throwing together a couple of quiches; pouring chopped lard, beaten eggs, milk, and Gruyère into prepared pie crusts. Soon I feel better; I even manage a slice or two of quiche when they come out, looking like puffy gold cotton and smelling divine, half an hour later. Mmm.

The shop is open from 9 to 8 six days a year, and all of them work whenever it’s open (they close for three weeks in February). I leave at five, though, because I’ve promised Amé I’d meet her in Brussels. The Antoines load me down with a bottle of wine, the aforementioned slice of tête pressée, three boudin blancs, and a Boucherie Antoine t-shirt, one of Cindy’s old ones. I invite them to Miami roundly, hug, pose for pictures, leave my email, drive off honking.

The trees seem a brilliant mosaic; light spots sprinkle the air like confetti. On the road I’m a flea in the hair of this enormous redhead of a land, weaving through maples and chestnuts and wild apple trees, moving so fast through the drifting leaves that they float, frozen, jellified in space, until I see in the rearview mirror that they eventually settle down.

Isa’s Quiche au Lardons
Prepared pie crust
Chopped bacon (lardons)
Pepper, nutmeg
Criss-cross bacon on the bottom of the crusts. Whip together the eggs, cream, milk, cheese, and spices, and then pour into the crust. Sprinkle cheese and more lardons on top. Bake for 25 minutes.


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