Anyone who has even briefly investigated livestock production at industrial farms knows that the process is wholly unnatural, with animals reduced to meat-generating machines, forced to live in dirty, cramped conditions.
At Ferme des Levées, owners Anne and Jacques Volatier firmly believe in treating their pigs with respect and raising them with traditional, organic farming methods. Jacques began raising pigs in 2000, and prior to purchasing this farm, he had no farming experience and worked as a civil engineer in town planning. “I don’t know how exactly to describe it, but I had an intuitive sense that I wanted to find a way to help grow the planet and start a project that would benefit the local economy. The intuition has now become certainty and a way of life in the countryside.” He attended an agricultural training program for a year, acquired the necessary capital and decided to launch a pig breeding operation because it was a product that could be raised and transformed entirely on the farm.
Fermes des Levées is now fully organic and consists of 40 hectares of fields, some which grow cereals that will be used for pig feed. The pigs also eat the natural vegetation of whatever field they live in, and over the course of a year, they are capable of mowing down a field to its roots. Between the fields, Jacques has planted 400 elderflower plants to provide shade. The resulting fruit is used to make elderflower preserves and a syrup perfectly suited for flavoring water.
The Volatiers hold about 150 pigs, and it is impossible not to smile as Jacques waves at his drift of pigs and says enthusiastically, “I know this sounds funny in English, but I call them ‘Mes ti-tis!'” (This is a shortened version of “petits,” or “little ones” in French.) The pigs will grunt, root and frolic here for one year before being taken to slaughter; compare this to an average lifespan of four months for an industrially raised pig.
Each week, 3-4 pigs are chosen to bring to the slaughterhouse, 18 km away in Beaune. “We are lucky that there is a slaughterhouse so close by, because more and more often these days the small slaughterhouses are closing down,” explained Jacques. Even so, being in a new, noisy environment can visibly stress the pigs, and Jacques has lost several to the red ravages of porcine stress syndrome. He now tries to minimize the time the pigs spend at the slaughterhouse and spends time calming them beforehand. Unfortunately, due to legal restrictions, you cannot slaughter a pig on site in France.
Some of the meat is sold fresh, but much of it is cooked, cured and transformed into charcuterie products. We sat down to a buffet of crusty baguette, salads, and a platter of fresh pork products: ham with mustard seed, a specialty of the farm; pâté en croûte, marinaded meat wrapped in pastry crust; jambon persillé, jellied ham with a strong dose of parsley; farm-smoked ham; country pâté; rillettes. “All done without e-numbers!” said Jacques.
Sure enough, everything we tried tasted extraordinarily pure, from the sharp sting of the mustard to the springy snap of the headcheese. I fell in love with the rillettes, lacy shreds of meat coated in pork fat and spread in a thick layer on bread.
To finish the meal, we were served a typical rustic French dessert, a scoop of fresh cheese topped with cream. You can either sprinkle coarse cane sugar or salt and pepper on top to your liking. Either way, the soft cheese melts beautifully in your mouth, a tangy melange of cream and natural sweetness.
Some charcuterie products are sold directly to people who travel to the farm or randomly stroll past, but 80% of the goods are sold through the Dijon market at Les Halles. You can find the Volatiers there twice a week on Friday and Saturday mornings.