Méchoui or Whole Lamb on a Spit

Cooking on a spit was the theme of Pierre’s 65th birthday. After the cake on the spit (see previous blog here),  voilà the lamb on the spit a.k.a méchoui! According to the Robert historique de la langue Française the origin of the word méchoui is: “Borrowed (1912) from the Arabic maghrebien mešwi “roasted, grilled; lamb roasted on a spit”, past participle of šawa (شوى ), to roast, to grill”.   This dish is very popular in North Africa where  Pierre lived several years.

As we still are in the village of Bourg d’Oueil, in the heart of the French Pyrenees, the lamb will be  provided by no one else than our neighbors & friends, the Jamme family.  The 17 kgs (37,5 lbs) lamb, fetched from the nearby mountains a few days before, is “un broutard” or a “grazer”; that is a lamb that had passed the nursing stage and is already grazing. And now the photo log of an another amazing communal food experience:


The day before our friend André brought very dry wood he had split for the occasion & the spit that Marc had fetched from Yves the butcher. In the late afternoon I went to the Jamme’s house to rub the lamb with a thick marinade of olive oil, garlic, wild thyme, salt & piment d’Espelette (chili pepper from the basque country); then we returned the lamb to rest overnight in the walk-in cooler.

Now we went to the village hall multipurpose room to set up the tables. The meal will be inside, since we knew the weather was not going to be warm enough. As no rain was forecast, so the aperitif will be served outside. With Sylvia Gorelick —who made all the bouquets with wild flowers she had gathered in the fields near by— Marie Jeanne Jamm, — who brought additional sheets to cover the tables— Maïté & Michou — Pierre’s sister — set up a beautiful banquet table for 50 people. The event was becoming more elaborate as I had planned.  As we got closer to the date the eating of the birthday lamb as a casual outdoor buffet turning into an elaborate banquet.

On d-day: I am up at 7:30 am to set up for the méchoui. My neighbors Robi & farmer Roland Jamme (remember him from the cake) arrived shortly thereafter. Together we start the fire, strategize and go get the lamb prepped as best as we can to avoid any complication during cooking.

That’s it! it is 9:45am the beast is on the spit, as we have a manual spit, it is going to be crucial to have someone monitoring, turning & basting —w/the same marinade as above— the lamb & adding coals to the fire. Robi & Roland have set up a second fire next to the méchoui were they burn logs to turn them into charcoal, which they add under our lamb in order to keep an even fire.


I had nothing to worry about as Robi, Roland & now Pierre were fully in charge of the lamb. Accompanied by the same crew as last night we are setting up for cocktail hour & hors d’oeuvres. Joseph Garcès, who was Maitre d’H at the family hôtel for 14 years, came right on time to slice the magnificent bellota ham —acorn fed pig—  shipped to us by my nephew Vincent from a small Spanish farm. I had also prepared salads of heirloom tomatoes and organic haricots-vert that we set up on the table along with the ham. The fragrant cantaloupe from the Gers will be passed around once people are seated.

 It is around 12pm and guests are filling in. They are “appetizing” on cherry tomatoes, patés, salamis, radishes —here my 89 year old father is particularly enjoying them— while sipping the pleasant Marquisette, a cocktail make by Maïté & Robi — wine, vanilla bean, lime & seltzer, served by Marie-Jeanne Peyroulan an old time friend who came from a near valley with her son Teo who played a lot of “Quiller” —an ancient version of bowling— with my adorable niece Lou.


It is now 1 pm and the lamb is cooked! My brother Jean-Louis will assist Roland, Robi & Marc for the carving while my nieces Mag & Isa will pass the cut meat to the guests. To serve with the lamb, my friend Paulette made the most tasty Pistache Luchonnaise ever—a white bean & lamb stew with pork rind — a specialty of the Comminges region— Paulette’s Pistache almost stole the show from the Méchoui and the cóca! Unfortunately no pictures were taken as every body was too busy eating. We had seconds & some had thirds. We took a little break and had a cheese course. Not any kind of cheese, no, a Poubeau cheese if you please! Read about it here. It was a perfectly aged one; Joseph Garcès is on a “cheese plan”; that is that he reserves a full wheel six months in advance and lets it age in the cheese maker’s cave. Joseph offered his reserved wheel to Pierre for his birthday party!


It is now about 4pm and about time to present the birthday boy with his very special cake. After singing Happy Birthday, we serve the cake with crème anglaise, all the details about the incredible ancient cake are here. More singing was done by Miles Joris-Peyrafitte, Sylvia Gorelick, and a special tribute to Pierre by Joan-Francès Tisner & family who had come all the way from the Béarn. After coffee, Armagnac & Mirabelle —Thank you Michou & Julien for bringing the real stuff from Luxembourg! — it was about 6pm when the last guest left!

All of this could not have happend without the  amazing help of the family & a tight community of friends. Special thanks to the Jamme Family, Joseph Garcès & Paulette, Robi Castebrunet & Maïté, Conso, Michou, Marie-Jeanne, Domenja, Marie-Jo,  my parents Jean & Renée Peyrafitte, the Toucouère family, André, Marc & my brothers: Jean-Louis for his carving assistance and Pierre for the pix, Miles, Sylvia, all the wonderful guests & last but not least to Pierre whose birthday gave me a great opportunity to throw a party. MERCI!

Photo credit: Miles Joris-Peyrafitte & Nicole Peyrafitte

I Say Poubeau Cheeese!

Poubeau Cheese

While in the Pyrenees, Miles Joris-Peyrafitte (my younger son) and I have two gigs at the mountain resort of Peyragudes. Our first one was last Thursday and the next one is this coming  Thursday (08/13/09). Peyragudes is located at the top of the Peyresourde pass (If you follow the Tour de France bike race you might have seen this breathtaking valley on TV, the pass has been part of the race since 1910).
When we drove up for tech rehearsal Miles noticed a road sign pointing to “Poubeau”. He asked me if this village was related to the Poubeau cheese. “Yes Miles! and if we have time we should stop on our way down” I replied. Thanks to my brother Jean-Louis’ efficiency our session was smooth and short and we could stop in Poubeau on the way down.

entree poubeauEtiquette


It was rush hour at the farm, the cows had been milked and many customers where lined up for fresh milk and cheese. Jean-Pierre Lavigne, the cheese maker with whom I was good friends when we were young, recognized me immediately and greeted me very warmly. We waited patiently for our turn while being entertained by the banter between Jean-Pierre and the customers. When our turn came we were brought to the cave to taste and pick our cheese. Jean-Pierre apologized for the lack of older cheese: “I got burglarized this winter and lost a lot of cheeses, so there is no way I can give you anything too aged, but this one should be good”. We got one wheel of cheese and 1½ liter of fresh milk. I promised Jean-Pierre that I would return before my departure to take more pictures and chat a little. On the way down Miles started drinking the milk out of the bottle and then asked:
“Is there another place where they make Poubeau cheese?”
“No, why do you ask?”
“You guys talk so much about this cheese that it is hard to believe it all comes from here!”
Miles grew up with the Poubeau cheese mythology. One year my mother managed to fool the US customs and sent an entire wheel through the mail for Christmas – that was before September 11th 2001. Another year our friend Eric Paul, then in charge of the dairy section at the Albany Food Coop, was determined to import Poubeau cheese.  A cheese distributor assured him he could get him some. Twice Eric called to urge me to come to the coop; the shipment had arrived and I should be the first tasting the Poubeau cheese. Sadly I had twice to tell him that it was not Poubeau cheese but a generic pasteurized Pyrenean cheese that was not remotely close to the Poubeau.

Jean Pierre Lavigne


I told the story to Jean-Pierre and he confirmed that there is no way his cheese could travel overseas via a distributor. As a matter of fact, he is not allowed to sell his cheese beyond a 80 kms radius. He went on to explain that his operation functions with a special dispensation. His mode of fabrication doesn’t comply with all the super cumbersome European Union norms. He sells about 1700 cheeses a year, mostly at the farm. He has 2 retailers in the town of Luchon and a couple of restaurants in the area.
Jean-Pierre minds a herd of 14 Brown cows and makes cheese every other day, he has one helper coming a few hours a day and hopes to be able to take one day a week off, once Gabriel –the new helper- is trained.

In winter, when the cows are stabled for most of the day, he supplements his income working at the Peyragudes ski resort. He works has a ski patrol/rescuer and loves the change of pace and action on the slopes. When Pierre and I went back to take pictures and talk to him I should have asked more practical question on how to make the cheese but we started reminiscing about the past and Jean-Pierre’s loved sharing his salsa dancing passion. One of thing we discussed though was that due to the lack of land available in the area, he had to buy land 70 kms away to be able to make enough hay to feed the cows in winter. The land that could be available for farming is slowly being taken over by the more lucrative business of tourism and second homes.  In order to buy the land mentioned above he went to see his banker to get a loan. The banker was being very demanding in terms of guarantees. Jean-Pierre appropriately pointed out to him that if he would walk right into a car dealer’s lot he would get instant credit to buy a 30 000 euro car (same amount of the loan he needed to purchase the land). How come he could get a car in one afternoon and not get land to feed his cows? It is not an easy life to be a farmer anywhere, but it sounds like the European system is applying a lot of the agri-biz policies the U.S is trying to recover from. One hope though is that José Bové was recently elected at the European parliament and is working on agricultural issues.
We returned to the valley with another cheese and left Jean-Pierre with his beautiful children who had been serving us the most beautiful pretend-food throughout our stay. If you want to taste Poubeau cheese you will have to visit the area, however Pierre and I  tried to describe it:
A fresh and clean cow milk taste, with a complex nutty undertone. The texture is supple and subtle. The rind is not too thick and I always eat it —I like tasting the mold of the aging layers.