This article originally appeared on VICE France.
When I first heard of a pork-flavoured ice cream, I wondered what it would look like. A scoop of brown goop in a cone, I guessed, perhaps topped with a few dried bacon bits. But seeing it for the first time, it looked pretty normal. Served in a simple glass, it was an unassuming cream colour, with no chunks, mercifully. The taste was light, sweet and salty. It went down surprisingly well, with a hint of fatty flavour right at the end.
“Some people say it tastes like vanilla, but there’s none in there,” said Patrice Riauté, one of the two minds behind the unusual dessert. The other half of the duo is his wife Catherine. The two live in Parcé-sur-Sarthe, a quaint rural community of 2,000 in western France, where they raise hens and run a dairy farm, producing about 350,000 litres of milk per year.
After debuting their pork ice cream at the local market in 2018, the Riautés started getting calls from local and international news stations. “The phone rang for three days straight,” Patrice said. “It was a hell of a boost for us.” They went on a few TV shows, but eventually, the media attention started to overwhelm the couple. “It felt like we were circus freaks,” Catherine said. So, like a rock band refusing to play their biggest hit, the Riautés decided to hit the pause button on their best selling flavour, at least for a few months.
The famed pork ice cream.
The Riautés’ pork-flavoured ice cream was actually born in 2017, when they tested the recipe for the first time. They said they made it to intrigue people and to stand out from the crowd, but the original recipe is not theirs. They bought it from an undisclosed company, along with some other flavours.
The Riautés are a farming family, but decided to diversify their business during the 2009 milk crisis, when prices plummeted and their livelihood was threatened. One day, their son Mathieu overheard them contemplating selling their animals and begged them not to. That’s when they decided to move into other dairy-based products, instead of selling plain milk.
But the spur to really amp things up came in April of 2015, when the EU lifted its so-called “milk quotas”, a cap on the amount of milk each farmer could sell in a year without paying a fine. The quotas were put in place in 1984 to prevent farmers from producing too much milk and then dumping it. Before 2015, they were also guaranteed a set price for their milk, regardless of market demands. The deregulation was supposed to create opportunities for farmers able to produce more, but ended up exposing an entire sector to the fluctuations of the free market – and many businesses didn’t make it.
Catherine and Patrice Riauté.
That’s when the family started making ice cream, eventually landing on their pork-based hit product. Gimmicks aside, what makes it more than just a novelty item is its special ingredient – pork rillettes, also known as pork pâté, skilfully made by their local butcher, Sébastien Freteau.
When I visited him in January, Freteau had been toiling all day, carrying carcasses from his refrigerator to his workspace and turning them into sausages, black pudding and liver pâté. A 30-year veteran, Freteau’s pork rillettes are well-known by locals.
Although often described as pâté, pork rillettes are shredded meat bits immersed in fat.
While often described as pâté, rillettes are actually slow-cooked meat preserved in fat. “You cut the fat off the pork, you sauté the fat for two or three hours and it melts like gruyère cheese,” Sébastien said. “Then, you put the pieces of pork into the melted fat.” After that, he uses a huge wooden spatula to break apart the meat, which by that point has become very tender. This method is different from making pâté, which involves searing animal livers in a pan and then blending them with herbs and spices.
Sébastien slightly tweaked his pork rillettes recipe for the ice cream. “We used to make it 50 percent fat, 50 percent lean meat. Today, it’s 70-30. Plus, it’s less salty,” he said. Every week, a few kilos of his new and improved rillettes are incorporated into the Riautés’ product. “When the ice cream hits your tongue, the first taste you get right away is the milk,” said Karine Freteau, Sébastien’s wife. “Then you get the pork fat.”
The Freteaus live just above their shop and are the only butchers in town.
Sébastien Freteau, 48, has been a butcher for 30 years.
The Riautés took me to their ice cream factory, a nondescript building at the end of a road lined with cow pastures. This is where Catherine transforms 2,500 litres of milk a year into 50-odd flavours of ice cream and sorbet. “In terms of quantity, the pork-fat ice cream isn’t our best-seller,” said Catherine. Talking to her, it’s clear she’s sick of people’s fixation on the flavour.
If you were hoping to learn how the famed ice cream is made, you’re out of luck. Since the recipe belongs to a big corporation, Catherine risks a fine of €150,000 if she reveals any of the details. However, she can still describe the general process – first, she heats up nine litres of milk per 800 grams of fat, to eliminate bacteria in a process called pasteurisation. Then she mixes hot milk, the rillettes and eggs in an industrial ice cream machine, which cools down the mixture, turning it into the final product.
Catherine Riauté makes over 50 flavours of ice cream in this machine.
Currently, ice cream sales are at a standstill for the Riautés. Just like many other farmers, they’ve seen their business take one hit after another. France remains the largest agricultural producer in Europe, but the number of farms in the country has decreased by 50 percent over the last 30 years. The agricultural sector has been in crisis across all EU member states, and about a quarter of all farms shut down between 2005 and 2016. Agriculture is heavily subsidised by the EU, but experts believe most of the funds end up in large-scale operations rather than in the pockets of the small farmers who need them most.
As night fell, Patrice opened up about his worries about the future, and how weary he’s become of people’s judgmental attitudes towards farmers.
Mathieu Riauté with the family's calves.
Patrice is part of the National Federation of Farmers’ Unions (FNSEA), which is fighting for an economic model that is more considerate of small producers. He says it’s pretty much impossible for farmers like him to make a living in industrial milk production. Cheese company Bel (best known for the Babybel snack) has a factory in Parcé-sur-Sarthe, and has profited from the lifting of the milk quotas, buying local milk at a discounted price since 2015. They are now in the crosshairs of the FNSEA, with Patrice at the forefront.
Sometimes, Patrice thinks of closing up shop for good. But for the moment, the Riautés keep going, thanks in part to their unusual ice cream. “When I do the markets, all I have to do is put up a sign saying ‘Pork rillettes ice cream here,’ and within 30 minutes, we’re swamped,” Catherine said. “Even today, people show up specifically for the stuff.”
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Sébastien Freteau's rillettes set up.
Sébastien Freteau uses this giant wooden tool to shred the meat as it cooks in fat.
Sébastien Freteau's tool in action.
Rillettes are traditionally scooped up and served with bread or crackers.
The Riautés' cows.
The Riautés started making ice cream in 2017.
The Riautés' cows.
The Riautés produce 350,000 litres of milk a year.
The Riautés' dairy cows.
Patrice Riauté outside his stable.
Patrice Riauté serving up a portion of pork ice cream.
The pork ice cream is beloved to this day. Some people show up specifically to buy it.