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Environment

Foodies help save Pie Noir cow from extinction

The Pie Noir cow was once the mainstay of Brittany's dairy industry. Its delicious cream was prized in produce sold from Paris to the New World. Nearly wiped out last century, the breed is now enjoying a comeback.

Pie Noir cow from Brittany

The slow food movement is lending a helping hand to rare cow breeds.

The Pie Noir used to be a symbol of the Brittany countryside.

By the end of the 19th century, it was one of the most common breeds of French cattle, numbering at least half a million.

Its rich milk prompted the rise of the region's confectionery sector, with Brittany's butter biscuits becoming famous worldwide.

"Before the last 2orld war, the Brittany cow was very important," said Jacques Cochy, a modern-day Pie Noir breeder. "The milk was given to pigs and produced very good pigs for the 'Jambon de Paris.' Brittany butter was very famous and was exported to Paris and the USA."

Today, Cochy and his wife own 20 Pie Noir cows, as well as young calves, on their farm. They make cheeses which they sell directly to customers.

Yet for all the Pie Noir's delicious milk, the cows have a low yield compared to other breeds – and this nearly cost them their existence.

Pie Noir's heyday ends

Image of cheese

Pie Noir cows almost disappeared from Brittany's pastures.

When industrialised farming practices began to gain popularity in the 1960s, dairy farmers started selecting mostly for yield.

Although Pie Noirs eat far less than their Frisian and Holstein rivals, those breeds can produce about double as much milk.

"The milk was not paid for its quality, but for its quantity and the Frisian [breed of cow] produced most milk, so it was most interesting," Cochy said.

By the 1970s, the Brittany cows' numbers had plummeted from the half-a-million of its heyday to a mere 350 specimens, and the breed was on the verge of extinction.

Yet for Pie Noir breeders, and their supporters in the 'slow food' community, yield is not everything.

Cochy's eyes sparkle with pride when he talks about his cows' qualities, as if describing the sporting achievements of his own children.

As well as the creaminess of their milk, he explains how hardy they are – surviving happily in the rugged pastures of Brittany, how easy they are to breed, and how they have a very high birth-survival rate.

"But people didn't want to see this when they chose to eliminate it," said another Pie Noir breeder, Vincent Thebaud, who owns 15 of the cows. "The problem with modern society is, when we decide to get rid of something, we only talk about its defects."

Thebaud is one of the farmers who benefited from a special protection program set up in 1976, the first dedicated to a breed of cattle in France.

The program was designed to encourage young farmers to embrace the cow, and today there are around 50 new breeders in the Union Bretonne Pie Noir.

"Today, we farmers who own Brittany Pie Noir cows are working at promoting the cow and its produce in order to attract young people to come back to live in Brittany and make cheese using the local race," Thebaud explains.

"To be able to give consumers who don't have the possibility to work on the land the opportunity to eat its food is a second joy."

Frisian cow

The Frisian cow was prefered due to its higher milk yield.

Slow food boost

Food fans were treated to that delicious opportunity at the Slow Food convention "Salone del Gusto-Terra Madre" in Turin last month.

The Pie Noir breeders met like-minded customers, dubious of intensive farming because of what they consider its inferior quality and destructive nature.

The famers showed off a variety of products made from Pie Noir milk, including cheeses and a traditional local yogurt called Gwell.

Arnaud Beauvais and his wife, Nathalie, have a restaurant in Brittany where they have been serving local cuisine for the past 20 years. They were so impressed with the discovery of Pie Noir products that they now plan to introduce them to their menu.

For Arnaud Beauvais, the return of the Pie Noir has a special meaning since it is connected to childhood memories.

"I remember when I was a child I saw a lot of Breton Pie Noir in the fields. But now I think for the young people they don't see it at all."

But that may yet change.

In 2010, the number of Pie Noir cows reached 1600 – a happy turn of fortune for a breed, plucked from the brink of extinction.

Jacques Cochy, who was president of the breeders' union for 20 years, says Pie Noir supporters still have a lot of work to do when it comes to reaching out to the next generation of farmers, but he welcomes any contest based on quality: The flavours, he says, speak for themselves.

Author: Dany Mitzman, Sarah Steffen
Editor: Nathan Witkop

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