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A Pie to “Defend and Promote”

Devotees of tourte aux pommes de terre are passionate about this celebrating this local specialty—and their pursuits go well beyond the kitchen.
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Published Feb. 2, 2021.

In the Bourbonnais region of central France, there is a dish so beloved that community members created an association to honor it. The dish is pâté aux pommes de terre (potato pie), revered by Le Confrérie (brotherhood) du Pâté aux Pommes de Terre Bourbonnais. Taste it, and you’ll understand: A double-crusted pastry shell, crisp and golden with butter, holds silky sliced potatoes and onions generously bound with heavy cream or crème fraîche. 

Didier Lindron, a plumber who has always loved to bake, has served as president of the brotherhood (“fraternity”, he said, would be a better name, as female participants are welcome) since its inception in 2004. The group’s primary mission is to “defend and promote” the pie, which he claims was invented in 1789. But he was careful to emphasize that membership is also about enjoying an “esprit sympathique et convivial,” a feeling that combines a warm, friendly vibe with something more. 

That something more? Civics. Christy Shields, a Franco-American food anthropologist and Associate Professor at The American University of Paris, explained that while in the U.S. the term “convivial” “is very much about feasting, good company, relating to, and being fond of [one another]. . . in France, the word also has a civic, moral, and ethical value. . . it’s about keeping a society cohesive, not just about pleasure and enjoyment.”  

The nonprofit’s diverse undertakings fall right in line with Shields’ layered definition. The 100 or so members—including 26 dignitaries who, for formal events, dress in light blue robes, navy capes, ribboned medallions, and outsized medieval hats—hold regular assemblies and participate in 30 to 35 events each year. They tie on aprons emblazoned with their coat of arms-style logo (a pile of potatoes, a pot of cream, and shafts of wheat), gather in the kitchen of their headquarters in Montarault, and bake hundreds of pies in a wood-fired oven. Some of the pies go to hospital staff and firefighters as an expression of gratitude. Others land at blood drives, where thick wedges are fed to donors. At food festivals and flea markets, ambassadors serve samples of their specialty and judge best-pie competitions. They also visit culinary schools to demonstrate how to faithfully reproduce the original recipe.  

Lindron and his potato-pie comrades are in good company. Jennifer Holm, assistant professor of French at The University of Virginia’s College at Wise, said that the tradition of culinary brotherhoods dates to the Middle Ages, though most of the groups have developed in the past 30 years or so, with new ones forming each year. Today, there are more than 800 such organizations, all with similar goals of upholding the heritage, artisanship, and identities of regional gastronomical products.

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