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LA BOUCHERIE DE SAINT-FRANÇOIS

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My first memory of France is about meat. A childhood friend of mine used to spend every summer in the Dordogne with her family, and one year they invited me to go. On our first day, after a visit to the local charcuterie and boulangerie, we drove to a quiet riverside picnic spot and spread out a blanket in the shade.

My mouth watering and a crusty baguette waiting, I opened one of the folded paper meat parcels. To my surprise, the slabs of freshly cut cold beef inside were so red and juicy that it didn’t take much of an imagination to hear the blood still pumping through them. In England, meat generally arrives on the table one way: well done. I gingerly asked my friend’s parents if they were sure we could eat the beef raw like that. They just laughed, so I bit off a healthy morsel, and in that moment my love affair with France began.

Words/images: Rebecca Marshall

A family business, La Boucherie de Saint-François opened in 1959. At the time, there were 40 butcher’s shops on the same street that runs through the heart of Nice’s old town. Today, only four remain. A decline in the number of neighbourhood butcher shops is not unique to France, as supermarkets across the world increase their market share. But in France, many remain faithful to local independent butchers—the French are, after all, a nation of meat eaters. Less than 2% of the population is vegetarian in France and, for most, a main meal without meat is viewed as only half a meal.

La Boucherie de Saint-François is now one of the most popular butcher shops in Nice, selling over 40 tonnes of meat a week. Jean-Paul Gasiglia, son of the founder and the man in charge, welcomes me into his upstairs office, resplendent with large red leather chairs and an overflowing ashtray. I ask him about his secret for success. “Good value for money and creating trust,” he says It’s as simple as that. There is no “messing about” with organic products, GMO-free or locally reared meat here. Just stacks of fresh tender cuts with hand-scrawled signs that display the per-kilo price. Jean-Paul’s approach seems to be working: sales are increasing year on year, despite the increasingly challenging economic climate.

From 7 a.m. to 7.30 p.m. (with the exception of le sieste, of course), customers queue patiently in a long snaking line, quietly waiting their turn for packets of meat to be prepared for them. Visible through a window, the 32-strong team of butchers is hard at work in the adjoining lab. Each butcher has his own speciality, which might be boning, trimming prime cuts or tying up joints for roasting, and each works alone at his station. Red meat is the name of the game here, with customers buying three times more red than white meat. The noise of huge cuts of meat being slapped onto counters, the smell of blood and the sight of muscles, knives and raw meat everywhere all make for a distinctly masculine vibe. No female butcher has ever been employed here.

There is no squeamishness when it comes to eating meat in France. Every part of the animal is put to good use, except the bones. Tête de veau (veal’s head) is prepared as a roll; the cheek cuts are wrapped around the calf’s tongue. Pig’s brains are also a delicacy for some, along with trotters, veal liver and offal. La Boucherie de Saint-François adapts to the rise and fall of the seasons, too. In the winter, greater quantities of stewing beef (or to be more specific, a mix of gelatinous shin, short ribs and chuck steak) are sold to make daube, a traditional Provençal slow-cooked stew. In summer, the locals stock up on merguez (a spicy mutton or beef sausage from nearby North Africa) for their barbecues.

I ask Jean-Paul if he knows any vegetarians. After a moment of silence, his face lights up as he remembers an old friend from the village close to Nice where he grew up. “He was Spanish. His family didn’t eat meat at all.” A pause. “And yet the kids grew up healthy and strong all the same.” He shakes his head and smiles, perplexed.

From issue 22. Buy it here.