Every year in March, activity in the small Normandy town of Mortagne-au-Perche comes to a halt, a funfair is set up in the town square, then locals and visitors alike go up the hill to the town’s impressive exhibition hall. Mortagne is famous for the quality and variety of its black puddings and every spring black pudding makers from all over the world gather at a competition that has become the world cup of boudin.
To anyone who is not a pork butcher it comes as a bit of a surprise to find more than 500 entries laid out on the trestle tables awaiting the judges. This year at Mortagne black puddings were entered from Austria, Belgium, Germany, Ireland, seven different regions of France, Britain, the Antilles in the Caribbean and, perhaps most surprising of all… Japan.
Black pudding is a treat that lingers on from the days when many households kept a pig that was killed at the beginning of winter to provide hams and bacon for the colder months. The process of pig killing means that as well as the ingredients for sausages and the meaty cuts, you end up with a couple of gallons of blood that needs preserving in some way – it would be sacrilege to waste something so nutritious. Which is why the blood pudding is pretty universal – in Spain they call it morcilla, in Italy sanguinaccio, in Germany Blutwurst, in France boudin noir and in the north of England… black pudding!
In Britain, our relationship with the black pudding is somewhat different to that of the French – for Britons a slice of fried black pudding is an integral part of the classic “full English” breakfast, whereas in France the boudin is an altogether smarter delicacy that has pride of place among the starters at many a Michelin-starred restaurant.
When it comes to promoting all things gastronomic the French are often well ahead, and that is due in some part to the concept of Confréries. Since the 1950s these “brother- hoods” have sprung up all over France. Founded in 1961, the Confrériedes Chevaliers du Goûte-Boudin (The Brotherhood of the Knights of Black Pudding Tasting, who run the competition at Mortagne) is one of the older Confréries, but there are many, many more, including the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin (wine), the Confrérie des Fins Goûteurs de Charolais (beef eaters!) and the Grande Confrérie du Cassoulet de Castelnaudary (there are several Confréries dedicated to cassoulet, all with different recipes). Why can’t we have something similar?
Why is there no “Brotherhood of the Lardy Cake” or “Brotherhood of the Shropshire Ham”? Membership of Mortagne’s Chevaliers du Goûte-Boudin is by invitation and that will only come when you have put in years appreciating black puddings. When you are finally dubbed a knight you can turn up in full ceremonial robes for the annual judging session – a flowing red velvet dressing gown that is trimmed with white fur and a shiny black hat with a buckle.
At the Black Pudding world cup, judging is rigorous. The puddings are divided into the traditionnel and the créatif, and the judges get to fill in endless forms as they taste the puddings cold (which is brave when they have been air freighted in from Japan). It highlights the divisions between British black pudding lovers and our continental cousins – for us, black puddings are breakfast food, fried until they have a crisp outside; to help with that process the recipe for British black puddings often includes cereals such as oats or pearl barley. French puds, on the other hand, are made solely from blood, spices and onions.
Needless to say, the French judges have very clear ideas about what makes a winner. Apart from the Austrians, who bagged all kinds of medals, one of the surprise triumphs this year was an Irish entry. In the créatif class they entered some small macarons, along the lines of two discs of black pudding sandwiched together with beetroot and horseradish cream, which found great favour with the Chevaliers. In doing so, the Irish may have invented the cocktail black pudding.
And what, you may ask, of the British black puddings? Where did they come in the world cup rankings? Sadly, on the weekend when the Foie des Boudins took place, southern England and Normandy were in the grip of heavy snow, and while the Irish contestants drove to Mortagne to drop off their puddings, the British entries had been entrusted to air freight. This meant that the puds spent four days lost in a snowed-in airport somewhere and only arrived long after the competition had ended. Japan 1, England 0.
Food critic Charles Campion presents this week’s Food Programme, and is a MasterChef regular.
The Food Programme is on Sunday at 12:30pm on Radio 4