Americans are the best when it comes to consuming excessive amounts of protein, and barbecues are the easiest way for them to achieve this. In France, outdoor cuisine is historically neither a religion nor a way to show our patriotism, but a nice way to spend time with our families on Sundays and a way to escape the daily routine.
One thing is for sure: We don't come close to them in the barbecue category. There are American barbecue associations like the Kansas City Barbeque Society, which consists of more than 50,000 members versus its French equivalent, the French Federation of Outdoor Cuisine, which doesn't reach beyond 600 members. Founded by Jean-François DuPont in 2011, it's responsible for creating the Camargue BBQ Festival that takes place every year in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, an area known for the Camargue bulls, mosquitoes, swamps, and sizzling, grilled meat.
I decided to take a trip to witness the definition of French barbecue with my own eyes. I have to confess that when I arrived at the festival, the barrage of country music, cowboy hats, and boots weirded me out. I quickly realized that all of it was a mere expression of the circumstances, like a pop-up country environment that had taken over City Hall, which is usually surrounded by restaurants that serve local, traditional dishes like gardianne de tarureau (bull meat cooked in red wine), brandade de morue (brandade of cod), and moules de Bouzigues (mussels).
It was there that the Camargue BBQ Festival has installed its grills under unbearable heat and the 500 degrees produced from more than 20 grills in action. The result: a life-sized oven where the liters of sweat expelled are equivalent to the liters of beer consumed by the 8,000 visitors.
For any amateur, the Camarge BBQ Festival is a way to learn new cooking techniques. But the competition is fierce. Between the 160 teams that compete in seven different categories—pork, fish, chicken, lamb, bull, and vegetables—the festival is a great moment to for the town to come together and dine family-style, putting aside conventions that would otherwise make someone seem rude for eating off of other people's plates. Everything at the festival is free thanks to the local sponsors that gladly feed almost one ton of meat to 8,000 people.
For Jean-François DuPont, the organizer, there is no better place for this event to take place. "Camargue is a land of animal breeding, for creatures that are predestined to be grilled or braised. When I was a kid, we could have barbecues on the Beauduc beach, but nowadays, it's forbidden. Barbecues are a way of freedom in a society full of constraints and prohibitions. Here, anyone can be the king of barbecue."
For my part, I've never shared this kind of belief. Before I realized that this festival isn't a joke after all, I first tried to understand the motivations behind why these people take part in it. Why did the Polynesian team travel all around the world to end up here, with kitchen towels on their shoulders and spatulas in their hands, when they could be grilling in their own backyard?
But this competition allures three kinds of barbecuers. First, there's the barbecue fanatics, who have been obsessively training for weeks (and often end up becoming the champions). Then there's some who are a bit too confident in their own talents who have been told—probably a bit too much for their own good—that they are "the kings of barbecue." Lastly, there are some who participate by chance out of curiosity, passion, and fun.
Each team that competes for one of the six great prizes has a total of five members. The Picador Grill Heroes, The Galinette Team, The Ouf Tis, and The Mother Hen competed in three of the main categories: beef, bull, and lamb. Mother Hen's chef, Bruno, hailed from l'Oise, is not here to have fun. "We are here to compete. My job is to kill it."
Further away, two kids from the Martinique Islands studying in Paris, Gérald and Lee-Joy, drew a large line of people who wanted to taste their food, a mixture of sweet and savory. Onion peelings, parsley, thyme, and melon skins, and "all that waste that gives meat flavor," sizzled on their grill.
After two days of competition, a jury deliberated for a long time in order to determine who followed the five essential criteria to display the ideal barbecue techniques: taste, cooking, originality, presentation of the dish, and workspace cleanliness.
Among the winners, the Kaupenui from Polynesia won the Public Prize for their salmon burger marinated with pineapple juice, coconut, vanilla, and lime. But the great winner was—without a doubt—Team Galinette, declared Grill Masters 2015 after gaining the most points in every category. Thierry, Anthony, and Sebastien worked really hard for it, training seven weeks in advance for the competition. Their dishes included a de-boned chicken stuffed with black pudding and sewed up with a fancy technique served with braised apple and fig chutney and polenta fries.
There are no money prizes for winners; just barbecue grills. For Jean-François DuPont, that is not the most important thing here: "The motivation is behind the title and the competition is the point." In America, these kinds of heated competitions can be found in every corner of the country, but in France, this is the only one that we have. It's not as patriotic as American barbecue, but I'll take it.