photo credit: Patricia Fieldsteel

Cyril Usclat, the 46-year-old proprietor of the Boucherie Charcuterie Usclat humorously opines, “Every bit of the pig is good, just like the boss!” Usclat’s small corner shop, in Nyons’ 14th-century arcaded Place du Docteur Bourdongle, is decoratively painted with gentle-faced animals, regal chickens, verdant fields and a mural of the iconic, 600-year-old Pont Roman. Every customer receives a warm welcome, whether they’re simply buying a slice of jambon de Paris or purchasing €200-worth of roasts and chops.

Outside, on the wood-timbered ceiling, artist Luc Mazan has painted a magical scene of flying pigs against fluffy clouds and a pale blue sky. English-speakers tend to assume that the mural is an allusion to the popular phrase ‘When pigs fly…’ or ‘Pigs might fly…’ But when I asked Béatrice Usclat, Cyril’s wife and co-worker, she laughed. They’d never heard the expression, the French equivalent of which is “quand les poules auront des dents” (“when chickens will have teeth”). It was just one of Cyril’s fanciful ideas, she explained.

The Decline of Artisan Butchers

Today, Nyons, a picturesque town of 7,000 in the Drôme Provençale, has only two boucherie/charcuteries, whereas in the 1950s, when the population was just 3,600, there were seven. This decrease reflects a national trend. According to the CFBCT (Confédération Française de la Boucherie, Boucherie-Charcuterie, Traiteurs), there were 40,000 butchers in France after World War 2 but that number has dwindled to under 20,000, despite a population spike of several million.

Despite unemployment in France hovering at around 10 per cent, the industry still has 4,000 unfilled vacancies. The strained economy, the rise of the hypermarché and a decline in traditional home cooking haven’t helped, but in a country where the 35-hour working week reigns supreme, the long days put in by butchers simply aren’t attractive.

Cyril Usclat still works up to 80 hours a week, and this is long after beginning his apprenticeship at the age of 15 and then studying for three additional years, to receive five different certificates in the art and practice of butchery and charcuterie. Usclat and his staff of two butchers are part of a dying breed. They still speak loucherbem, the traditional argot used by butchers among themselves when they’re ‘talking shop’ and fillling orders.

In 2006, Usclat bought his shop from Guy Dinelle, another Nyonsais, for whom he’d worked for 22 years. Rachida, a local Tunisian widow, has cleaned the shop twice a day for 20 years. Béatrice serves behind the counter and handles the voluminous paperwork. There’s been a butcher on the premises since around 1800. When Dinelle purchased the business it was owned by the appropriately named André Boucher, who was permitted by law to do his slaughtering in the basement, which today houses an enormous kitchen.

The Origins of Charcuterie

The technique of charcuterie, which dates back 6,000 years, became popular during the Roman Empire. In France, by the Middle Ages, it had evolved into a highly refined art for the preparation and vending of cooked food, mainly pork. The word’s origin comes from chair (meat or flesh) and cuite (cooked). Initially, charcutiers didn’t have the right to slaughter and had to buy whatever they could from butchers, who didn’t sell them the choicest cuts.

Therefore, kitchen creativity was essential in order to offer attractively presented, succulent dishes which would appeal to customers who were in search of new foods. Competition was fierce, and even though the charcutiers formed a guild in the 15th century, they didn’t obtain the exclusive right to prepare and cure pigs and their innards until 1741. Today, boucheries and charcuteries are combined, with the slaughtering performed only in tightly regulated abattoirs.

Humane Practices

Usclat’s poultry and meat come from individuals and firms which practice humane raising and slaughtering. The Usclats are animal lovers who  support the FBB (Fondation Brigitte Bardot) animal rights organisation and dote on their two cats. When they entertain, Cyril cooks. Béatrice learned from her mother and laments the rise in fast, processed and junk food, saying that cooking is an intrinsic part of French patrimoine and culture.

A Faithful Clientele

Usclat’s clientele has changed over the years. Nowadays, his customers are older, hard-working folk who like to eat well. The tiny space inside the shop boasts two comfortable chairs for les vieux, the old people who, rich or poor, still buy from an artisanal butcher.

On public holidays and weekends, the line outside the Boucherie Charcuterie Usclat stretches and curls around the outdoor rotisserie, while the Marie Hot chickens from the Landes turn, roasting to a moist crinkly gold and filling the arcade with their mouthwatering aroma.

French people are faithful to their butcher; to stray to another is almost unthinkable. A personal butcher is not a mere commerçant, he’s one’s confidant, advisor, culinary guru and friend. Tell him one’s in-laws are coming for dinner and he knows the whole story: they’re Parisian and fussy, they don’t approve of a working daughter-in-law who’s Provençale and a quarter Corsican to boot. Consequently, the roast must be the best there is, exquisitely tied, larded and prepared. He’ll even share his secret recipe…

A Changing Palate

Today, Usclat sells less abats (offal) than he used to – the young simply don’t know how to prepare it. His best-sellers are lamb and beef. Provence is renowned for its sweet and tender agneau (lamb). He has the right to sell roasted chickens for three days, then they’re tossed in a carton that’s reserved for three chasseurs (hunters), who come daily for the leftovers and the bones, which they give to their dogs. Everything is strictly regulated by the government. Chickens must be slaughtered at the age of 130-140 days; beef must be less than 36 months old; lamb between 100 days and 3.5 months; and veal less than eight months. Even so, Usclat’s level of wastage is low, at around seven per cent, most of which is unsold offal.

Part of his trade consists of plats cuisinés (ready-to-eat dishes), most of which are prepared in the shop’s basement kitchen. These includebouchées à la Reine, a type of vol-au-vent made with sweetbreads; daube Provençale, a classic regional stew; stuffed vegetables and gratins;celéri Rémoulade; salade museau de boeuf, an ox-head salad; caillettes; rillettes; pâtés and terrines; saucissons secs (dried) and cuites (cooked); and every Friday, an enormous choucroute. At Christmas and Easter, he sells foie gras cru (raw) and cuite from vendors who do gavage humanely, by hand.

An Evolving Role

Butchers are key figures in the French mind and imagination. They appeared in folklore as bogeymen, to frighten children into good behaviour. They’ve also been portrayed as figures of wealth, power, good cheer and sexual prowess.

In a rapidly changing society, their role and status is in flux. Will the small, independent, quality boucheries/charcuteries continue to decline or could there be a backlash against the industrial and semi-industrial food production which now prevails and is powerfully regulated by the European Community?

Memories of Les Halles

The shift has been gradual but steady – some causes have been obvious and dramatic, others perhaps barely noticed. One notable tipping point occurred on the morning of March 1, 1969, when the first of the pavilions at Paris’s famed Les Halles market began to be emptied, for the move to the Rungis industrial park south of the capital. Les Halles had been, as Zola aptly called it “le ventre de Paris” (“the belly of Paris”) and most of the capital’s food supply flowed through the market. Hundreds of bistros surrounded Les Halles, catering to those who worked and traded therein.

The area boasted an intimacy – a camaraderie of cooking, drinking and eating – that is the stuff of legend. I remember visiting Les Halles at 3am in 1963, and being overwhelmed by colours, fragrances and sounds swirling around me. At dawn, we fought our way into a bistro for steamingsoupe à l’oignon, the panoply of packed humanity laughing and shouting around us.

Butchers entered with the choicest cuts, taking them into the kitchen and supervising their preparation while they swigged wine and downed shots of cognac. In contrast, the workers at Rungis now arrive with packed lunches, eat quickly and leave – it’s all business. With the death of Les Halles, a whole way of life came to an end and the reverberations were felt across France.

Bans & Industrialisation

On July 2, 1971, a nationwide arrêté municipale put an end to a centuries-old tradition known as le jour du cochon, la tuade or le tue-cochon – the festive slaughter of a fatted pig and the preparation of its carcass, from nose to tail, to sustain the participants throughout the year.

Industrialisation supposedly has benefitted humanity by ushering in fewer working hours, lower prices and higher profits. But something incalculably precious has been lost. As I age, I eat less meat, but when I do, I consider myself blessed to be able to stroll into Usclat and buy food that I know isn’t only ethically raised and slaughtered but is also guaranteed to be absolutely delicious.

Usclat & Nyons Essentials: Experience Nyonsais cuisine and its terroir…

Boucherie Charcuterie Usclat: Place du Docteur Bourdongle, Nyons, 26110 Drôme. Open daily 7am-12.30pm & 3pm-7.30pm. Closed Monday and Sunday afternoons. Tel: +33 4 75 26 06 97. No website

Office de Tourisme du Pays de Nyons: Place de la Libération, 26111 Nyons. Open September–June, Mondays to Saturdays 9.30am- 12pm & 2.30pm-6pm, Sundays (June & September only) 10am-1pm; July–August, Mondays to Saturdays 9am-12.30pm & 2.30pm-7pm (Thursdays 9am-7pm), Sundays & public holidays 10am-1pm & 3pm-5pm. Tel: +33 4 75 26 10 35. www.paysdenyons.com

From France Today magazine

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