She wears a leprechaun green hat, her velvet cape wrapped around her body in the cold. Around her neck hangs an olive green ribbon, holding up a bronze medallion.
The operative word is olive.
Meet Madame Laget, one of the few women in the Brotherhood of the Knights of the Olive Tree, a not-so-secret organization replete with rites, oaths and initiations. It exists only for one thing: to promote the olives of the southern Drôme region of France.
Madame Laget is a rarity, a woman in this world of French brotherhoods, or confréries.
France has an astonishing 2000 of them, each dedicated to publicizing a local product, from cheese to chestnuts to yes, olives.
The confréries originally evolved from the guilds and corporations of the Early Middle Ages, cohorts of men who had banded together against the greed of the overly rich upper classes.
Initially started as professional associations, they soon turned to charity, feeding the poor in the days before the invention of social security.
Religion was also involved to some extent, a fact that would cause their downfall. When the French Revolution exploded, the confréries were swept away by the same 1792 decree that abolished all religious congregations (they were eventually reinstated).
With the end of World War II, France’s popularity as a tourist destination grew rapidly and the country saw a resurgence of the confréries. They suited the French psyche well: pageantry, ritual and a love of anything food-related.
These days, the religion that binds them together is the religion of food and the purity of produce.
The Brotherhoods of France: A Knight of Oysters or a Knight of Garlic?
Take the Knights of the Cancale Oyster, a confrérie whose job it is to promote the deep-water oysters of the village of Cancale both in France and abroad.
These oysters have been renowned for centuries, owing their reputation to a salty, iodized taste originating from the food and plankton brought in by the high tides of the bay. One of the best places to slurp them are along the wharf of the Baie du Mont-Saint-Michel in Brittany, with the Atlantic air slapping your face.
This is the brotherhood’s oath: “I pledge to regularly partake in and to promote the oysters of the bay, along with the products of the sea, to preserve the marine environment and its integrity.”
While the confréries protect specific products, they also understand that the surrounding environment is equally important.
If oysters aren’t your thing, what about garlic?
Piolenc in southern France is known as the Capital of Garlic and so, predictably, it has a confrérie, whose bright red robes stand out against their village’s beige stones.
These men and women take their job seriously: to protect the precious bulb that came from Asia some 5000 years ago.
“The taste of garlic, that is sublime,” said brotherhood member Mireille Lesbros in a television interview. “When you’re initiated, it’s almost like joining a religion with garlic.”
Perhaps, but when they swear their oath, it’s not on a religious book – they do it over a head of garlic.
Confréries may be about traditional foods, but as with many things French, they are also about heritage, and about friendship.
Members of the confréries are usually farmers, vintners or producers and meetings give them a chance to get together and ‘talk shop’.
Sometimes, the party gets bigger.
Each year on the first weekend in May, the town of Charleville-Mézières near the Belgian border hosts a festival of confréries – part food fair, part culinary pilgrimage and part cultural exchange during which food gets tasted, recipes get swapped and history for a moment becomes part of the present.
You’ll watch the brotherhoods of the Black Fig of Caromb, of the Carpentras Strawberry or of the Ariège Snail amble by with their flags (or umbrellas, depending on the weather). Behind them might march the brotherhoods of the Brie of Melun or of the Cavaillon Melon, each synonymous with the best France has to offer.
From chestnuts to wine, from olives to onion tarts, France’s gastronomic heritage is well protected by these stalwarts, much as it was centuries ago: jealously, proudly, and with pomp and circumstance.
One major thing has changed: now women wear the robes too.