One year ago today, after crossing the Pyrenees in a beaten up Dacia with bald tires, my family and I reached the pinnacle of our vacation: La Fête de L’Ail Rose, or, in English, the Pink Garlic Festival. We had basically planned our trip around this event because it only lasts two days, and it takes place in Lautrec, a medieval village that nestles itself somewhere between where we left and where we were going.
Lautrec is tiny. Like many old villages in France, it is on a hill with a wall to defend itself, with a pandemonium of uphill streets that eventually lead to a central gargoyle-fortified church and square with a marketplace. Further up the hill, at the summit, you can visit the old windmill. Lautrec is normally very quiet- except on the first Friday of August, when all hell breaks loose.
Every town in France has something that it produces, the one odd thing that, for some reason or other, creates economic viability…St. Claude makes pipes; Roquefort makes the cheese; Cavaillon produces the melons; Die (pronounced “Dee”) produces a fine Clairette wine; Castelnaudary produces cassoulet, a bean-sausage stew replete with confit de canard, not for the faint of heart. Regional delicacies abound, and in the case of Lautrec, it is the garlic.
Legend has it that about a thousand years ago, a traveling merchant passed through Lautrec. He was penniless and down on his luck. He had no money to pay for his supper, so instead he traded a couple of heads of garlic that he had picked up on his travels. The townsfolk soon realized the incredible properties of the cloves- the aroma, the density, the flavor, the medicinal qualities, as well as the unique pink color. Understanding the importance of this gift, Lautrec farmers replanted the precious Ail Rose.
So there we were, a thousand years later, with no place to park. Walking up the hill, we wended our way to the fête from our Gîte (a bed and breakfast), La Fontaine de Lautrec, situated at the base of the hill on a farmer’s field, an ancient stone house with enormous beams. A small street navigated us through the wall. Once inside, we were greeted with a great deal of crazy farm machinery for sale. Machinery to plow, harvest, clean and peel garlic. Machinery to cut, chop, dry or grind the garlic. There seems to be no limit to the engineering expertise of farmers.
The machinery gradually gave way to the trucks, with tons of garlic, in braids and bags, all for sale. In between them, a lone knife salesman displayed his wares. I bought my daughter an Opinel, a traditional French folding knife. It is simplicity in its finest form, a carbon steel blade that folds into a slotted piece of wood. The salesman insisted that Zoe give me a coin in return, as that is the French custom for good luck after acquiring a knife.
When we reached the village square, the heart of the garlic beast, the decadent aroma tempted us on through the gauntlets of street vendors, who, out of every small, ancient doorway, sold anything from garlic-printed potholders and T-shirts to garlic pottery. Open-air kitchens served throngs of hungry people, who lined up for free garlic soup accompanied with the appropriate wine- a nice local rosé. Everywhere you went, a large cauldron steamed with a regional delicacy. Small groups of musicians played in the streets. One guy smoked a cigarette while he played the tuba. In the square there was a large bronze sculpture of a head of garlic; and around it, old board games were set up to challenge young and old alike.
By dusk, as the masses and free-walking musicians became a bit more rowdy, we noticed a strange presence among the crowd: dignified old men dressed in colorful silk robes and fine jewelry walked slowly in small groups down the streets, as though keeping watch over the festivities. I found out they were the members of the ancient order of L’Ail Rose, the high priests of the garlic, the latest generation who have served the harvest and the festival in perpetuity, since the middle ages.
By the next day we had made a lot of friends. One of which was a local farmer who sold me a small amount of seed garlic…
…And here is the next generation of the precious Ail Rose, en amérique!