Bullfighting in the South of France
Matadors in Vic-Fezensac show that bullfighting is not solely a Spanish phenomenon.
I would be most pleased to have you as my guest,” Jean Le Gall, my bullfighting friend, had told me back in New York. But, Jean, being a lawyer, there was a proviso. “If you have a girlfriend, I recommend you do not bring her to Vic.”
Months later, as we muscled our way through the crowd, I could see where Jean’s warning had come from. The Feria de Pentecôte is a mind-blowing festival held every spring, a bullfighting Woodstock where 120,000 or so aficionados and partygoers crash the sleepy town of Vic-Fezensac in the Gers, a gastronomic wonderland in the Gascony region of southwestern France. Some may find it surprising that bullfights are held in France, but those who flock here are considered the most devout (and debauched) aficionados around.
In the bullfighting world, there are divisions. Toreristas are fans of matadors and can be found mostly in Spain. Toristas are fans of the bulls themselves, and they come to festivals like Vic, where the draw is not the man but the animals.
As a boy, Jean had come here with his father to see the big bulls. When he was old enough to drive, he came with his friends. As a sort of rite of passage, they drank heavily and, late in the night, pretended to be as drunk as possible to secure the only free beds in town: inside the medical tent. There are few hotels in Vic, and it is impossible to book a room during the feria unless you plan a decade in advance.
I could see traces of Vic madness on the way into town. Lost shoes. Cars crashed in ditches. Tents pitched in parking lots, on the shoulders of roads, on the grassy knolls of rotundas.
Inside the city the streets were jammed. On curbside grills, pudgy links of merguez sizzled as vendors stuffed the sausages into baguettes along with heaps of French fries. The crowd was a blur of head dressings: blue wigs, pink wigs, silver wigs, white wedding veils. The old stone streets themselves were carpeted with broken glass, plastic pastis cups, cigar stubs. In the mess I saw a strange-looking snake. I looked closer. It was a bra. I wanted to stay in town longer. I wanted to witness Vic after nightfall. Alas, there was no time. “We must hurry,” Jean said. “If not, we might not get a table.”
We drove north, deep into the Gers. The ride was like gliding through a landscape painting. At sundown, the glow on the endless rows of sunflowers, still green in early summer, was the color of cotton candy. Over the hills the fields of wheat were so golden they looked like sand. The most precious crop here is, arguably, corn, which is used to feed and fatten up ducks, the most populous inhabitants of the Gers—the French capital of foie gras.
Foie gras and bullfighting don’t pair often. The Gers offered a welcome departure from the typical fiesta cuisine in Spain, which is generally bar food, as delectable as some dishes can be. And since my arrival, I had yet to find a menu that did not have duck on it.
Before arriving in Vic, I’d attended a few bullfights in Nîmes, then driven three hours or so west to Toulouse, where I feasted on purée du pauvre, or poor-man’s food, at Monsieur Georges. The mood under the umbrellas on the Place St.-Georges, a trendy public square downtown, was electric. The purée itself came in a baked-clay dish. Inside was a scrap pile of riches. On the bottom lay a bed of mashed potatoes; on top, a thick patty of foie gras had been pan-seared, covered with slices of bacon and doused in a sauce of chanterelles. The genius of this purée was not only the hypnotic qualities of the mushrooms, or the textural bliss of smooth foie gras layered with crunchy bacon, but also the buttery gush of an unexpected bite of foie buried in the mash of potatoes.
On the way to Vic, my gluttony continued. I pulled over for lunch in nearby Saint-Puy, a town so small it was not on my map, and went to Chez Vous—the only restaurant there—and feasted on magret de canard. The duck breast was so juicy and thick I could only compare it to a porterhouse.
Jean and I now stopped in Castéra-Verduzan, a small town in the Gers known for the healing powers of its mineral baths. We parked outside Le Florida, a family-owned restaurant that opened in 1936. Under the exposed wooden beams in the dining room, we raised fizzy glasses of Pousse-rapière; named after the swords of Alexandre Dumas’s three musketeers, this stinging aperitif is a mix of sparkling white wine and a shot of Armagnac, a brandy that, like the foie and Dumas’s D’Artagnan, is native to the Gers.
I ordered ris de veau, a recipe as old as the musketeers. Normally squeamish about sweetbreads, I didn’t find the ris (technically the thymus of a baby cow) to have the chalky consistency of calf liver, nor was it chewy like tripe. It was firm and clean, truly a delicacy, along with the sauce it was resting in: a frothy broth of crème and Armagnac.
Next to our table, one guy was standing, a red kerchief around his neck, reading aloud taurine poetry he had written. His verses were not about matadors, their passes, their courage; they were about bulls. I wondered if this loving tribute to livestock was an homage to the history here.
Throughout the ancient world, bulls were not considered farm animals. They were gods. The strongest animals known to early man, bulls were worshipped as the authors of life itself. Ancient people wanted to absorb the bull’s godly powers, and to do so, they mimicked them. Wearing pelts and horned helmets, the ancient Greek followers of Dionysian cults trekked into the mountains under the light of the moon to engage in behavior Plato once defined as “divine mania,” including wild dances, chants, orgies and feasting on raw bull flesh.
In a way, Vic is a retreat for modern bull worshippers. Every season the bulls sent here are the biggest and most difficult for matadors to face, picked for their wildness and ferocity, qualities that bring a raw, primal energy to the fight.
It’s rare to see. The fighting bull is not as wild as it used to be. Modern breeders have created an animal that is good at fixating on things, giving the matador a better chance for a fluid, artistic performance. The downside is that these pliant bulls can be weak and boring. They fall down. They tire.
In Vic, that’s all different. The bullfight revolves around the bull. The most important moment here is the suerte de varas, or picing, when a horseman thrusts a long spear into the bull’s neck muscles. The pic can be an ugly, cruel and bloody scene, often accompanied by hoots and howls from fans who don’t want the bull to suffer too much pain, who want it to preserve its strength throughout the performance. Across Spain, in recent decades, the suerte de varas has become a fleeting moment—a necessary evil that creates a neck wound, forcing the bull to lower its head and allowing the matador to do his thing.
In Vic, the picing is the thing. The bull is baited to attack the horse two, three, five times or more. While now virtually extinct, this picing is the purest moment of the bullfight. Here one can witness the true bravery of the bull as it continues to attack the horse despite the pain of the lance. Upon impact, the crowds in Vic erupt in ecstasy at this awesome transfer of power, as the bull lifts up the horse and sends the picador flying. This doesn’t mean the crowd is rooting for the bull to win: Bullfighting is not a sport—there are no winners and losers. One goal is for the matador to draw the bull’s powers into his body, kind of like an ancient priest, and he can only do this with a bull that possesses a godly kind of strength.
It was feria time in Nîmes, too, when I was there. The bullfights were held in an old Roman coliseum dating from a time when the animals were revered perhaps more than ever. In underground temples, Roman worshippers would stand in pits and bathe themselves in the hot blood of sacrificed bulls.
In Nîmes, bulls were everywhere. There were bull photos and bull paintings in most restaurants and bars, many of which projected videos of bulls onto the walls. For a final pastis after one bullfight there, some friends and I went down a dark alley into a cavern turned bar serving the Spanish bullfighting drink of choice: manzanilla, a light, often chilled, sherry. An extinct wild ox called an auroch stalked through the cave-painting replicas on the old stone walls. Over these images, the bar was looping video footage of bull games: local villagers trying to place rings on the bull’s horns or attach torches to them to set them alight as the animal tore through town.
I was curious about this French obsession with bulls. If the bullfight was a Spanish creation, and the big bulls were bred in Spain, why did the French celebrate these bulls with such fervor?
The reason was cultural, Jean said. The fascination with bulls came from trying to understand what drives the ancient spectacle itself: the godly bull.
“The French, we are more intellectual,” he said. “We are trying to appreciate things from the outside.”
The next afternoon, after the last bullfight had finished, we made our way up the hill from the plaza. It was the final day of the festival, and vendors were packing up tents. The crowd had emptied out, and Vic was, once again, a sleepy Gers town. We sat around an oak barrel at an Armagnac bodega with an assortment of foie and relishes of quince and sweet onion. The wine was Gros Manseng, a local white that is dry like Sauvignon Blanc with traces of apricot.
The corrida had been a good one, I thought. Both the aging matador “El Fundi” and the younger Sergio Aguilar from Madrid had cut ears—trophies for strong performances.
Pierre, Jean’s friend from Toulouse, was unimpressed. The bulls were not Vic bulls. They were not as big and fearsome as they were when he and Jean were boys. To him it was another sign that even the bullfight in Vic had become victim to commercialism and modernity.
“We need to go to Céret,” Pierre said, making room on our barrel for the arrival of the next course: duck confit, the legs braised just so, and another magret porterhouse, juicy as before.
“Céret?” I asked.
“In France,” Pierre said. “On the border. Céret is where the real bulls are.”
“Their horns are so big, they can’t fit through the chute,” Jean said.
I was getting drunk. On wine. On duck. On bulls. I had seen bulls in Nîmes, in the plaza, on faux-cave walls, on real walls, tattooed on skin. I had seen bigger, dinosaur-like bulls in Vic. Now there were more bulls and even bigger bulls to see?
I put down the foie platter and raised my glass.
“To next year,” I said. “In Céret.”
Bullfighing Details: Vic-Fezensac is located about 70 miles west of Toulouse and 110 miles southeast of Bordeaux. This year’s Feria de Pentecôte will be held May 26–28. vic-fezensac.com.
Just Ducky: Foie Gras, Confit and More
Three restaurants that highlight the generous canard-centered cuisine of southwestern France.
Chez Vous: Owned by two brothers, Jean-Marc and Frédéric Diefenthal (the latter a well-known French actor), Chez Vous offers a relaxed menu of regional dishes, including the steak-like magret de canard. Frequent live music and a location on the town’s market square give it a convivial atmosphere. At Place de la Halle, St.-Puy; 33-5/62-68-98-52.
Le Florida: After learning to cook from his grandmother, Angèle, chef Bernard Ramouneda took over the family restaurant in 1984. One of his creations is a sort of duck and foie gras meat pie, which is served with a salty-sweet sauce. At 2 Rue du Lac, Castéra-Verduzan; 33-5/62-68-13-22; restaurant-florida.fr.
Monsieur Georges: Opened in 2009, Monsieur Georges is a four-story restaurant on a central square in Toulouse, specializing in modern takes on local fare: foie gras terrine with Szechuan and Espelette pepper; the exceedingly rich purée du pauvre. At 20 Place St.-Georges, Toulouse; 33-5/61-29-81-96; monsieurgeorges.fr.