Saturday, May 3, 2014

Auloron-Senta Maria: Hera deth 1er de Mai

The May Day Fair at Oloron-Sainte-Marie dates back to the 14th century, according to the tourist board. The shepherds would gather together with their flocks to make the trip up into the mountains for the spring and summer grazing, and since they had to buy provisions for the six months or so they would be up there, the gathering attracted merchants, which in turn caught the eye of the non-shepherd community, and the fair was born.

The fair is now big enough that it's split into two: the old part of town at the top of the hill hosts the animals and the cheesemakers and other local agricultural producers, and the public garden space down by the train station where the vendors at the braderie sell everything from watches to t-shirts to knives and shoes; I believe that there were some other farm stands down there as well, with vegetables and the like, but I didn't go.

I had a mission at the cheese stands, to interview producers about their staffing and whether they take vacations and if they'd ever considered using a service de remplacement. Yes, I actually did a tiny bit of work on my project which is due in less than two weeks and is still only an outline in my head and a sheaf of notes in a folder. Nothing like a last-minute paper-writing session! Ah, brings back memories of college ...

Florence and I wandered around the cobblestoned square, checking out all of the exhibits, taking pictures (me), and talking to friends (her). It was barely 10am but there were already people in the old chapel of the église Saint-Pierre, eating the traditional May Day dish of gras-double, or stewed cow's stomach (the rumen, specifically). Accompanied by sliced ham, cheese, bread, and a glass of wine, it was a bargain at 10 euro. Or so I assume. I certainly wasn't going to eat it. No, actually I probably would have tried a bite, but not a whole plate, and not at 10am. Maybe next year. That was the featured dish at the bar Florence likes in the center of town, where she planned to go for lunch, although she was going to stick with the alternate plat du jour of fried eggs with ham. She invited me to join her, but I decided to do some freelance work instead (and I almost managed to get my act together to work on my school project that afternoon, but only almost).

The cheese stands, and the other vendors selling their wine, donkey-milk soap, or fresh butter, were all in a double circle in the center of the square. A group from the community center was selling bunches of lily-of-the-valley, which I made a note of to buy on my way out; it's traditional to offer someone a sprig of the flower on May 1st here in France, a tradition supposedly started around 1560 by either Charles IX or his mother Catherine de Medici. But I kept mine for myself.
The wine stands were doing a fairly brisk business, and had attracted both customers and singers (or one and the same). Florence's uncle Jean was there enjoying some impromptu cantèra sessions with his fellow Béarnais, though they were often drowned out by the animateur who was also circling the stands and chatting with the vendors, his voice booming over the loudspeakers but the vendors' voices unheard because he seemed to keep forgetting to keep the "broadcast" switch on when he held the microphone up to their faces.

The cheese contest is a fairly big deal at this point, and although it has only been going on for ten years, it's the largest competition in the region. The judges were evaluating a variety of tomme-style pressed-curd cheeses made from cow's milk, sheep's milk, goat's milk, or a combination. All of the cheeses were from last year's estive, the spring/summer high-mountain grazing period, and they were being scrutinized by eye and nose and possibly even ear (you can thump a cheese to get a good sense of how ripe it is). The winner of the competition gets to represent the area next spring at the Salon d'Agriculture in Paris. There was also a public tasting-and-judging going on - I had a hard time not joining in on that - with a wider variety of cheeses, including fresh lactic soft cheeses rolled in herbs and the whey cheese called greuil (a bit like ricotta), as well as the aged semihard cheeses.

"How many people work with you?" I asked. "When do you take your vacations? What do you do if there's an emergency or you fall ill?" About half the time the answers were "none," "never," and "cope the best I can with the help of family and neighbors." I met one woman who was finishing her career as a cheesemaker and selling her herd of 15 goats; when I asked if she was going to miss it, she said yes, very much, but she had friends who made cheese and if her fingers got itchy she would go help them out for a bit. I met a man about my age, or probably a little younger, who was working solo with no family or helpful neighbors, who had started out working for a service de remplacement. This was a very useful conversation for me, especially when I asked him if he managed to make that a full-time job, or if it was a two-month gig here, a one-week job there, and so on. He said that at first, there was hardly any work at all because no one knew him and he didn't have a history in the business (although he did have agricultural experience), but after the first year he got more work offers, and by the third year he was often holding down two jobs at once. I imagine that would be how it would go for me - but I don't have that first year, or the second, to invest without money coming in. Or a car to get to the farms. My project paper can be summed up in a few words: "not going to happen."

However, the last couple I talked to had both good information on using the service - they were considering it, but reluctant to pay the fees which can be high, they said - and a willingness to exchange room and board for work. She's a teacher who helps her husband on the weekends and her days off, and he's a cheesemaker who doesn't like the taste of cheese, so he doesn't eat it. I laughed and said it was obviously meant to be that I work with them for a while. I have their card, and will be e-mailing them about possibly joining them for a month or two next year. On that positive note, I gathered up my scribbles, bought my bunch of flowers, and headed back down to the car with Florence, buoyed with optimism that my cheesy dreams will come true.

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