Love, love me dough

Forget food as art. Mimi Oka believes that food is intrinsically social - and her village made a 14-foot baguette to prove it
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Sorde l'Abbaye, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, is a one-bakery, three-bar village of 500 inhabitants. It suffers ills common in rural France - a dwindling number of farmers, the migration of its young. But it does still have an annual festival going as far back as anyone can remember. Nine years ago I bought a ruin in the village. This year, for the festival, I teamed up with an artist and designer called Douglas Fitch to create a 14-metre baguette. It would be part of an ongoing series of "Orphic Feasts" - fodder for a book.

The authors of the original Futurist Cookbook thought - or affected to think - that food could be art, and went about dipping apples in perfume to make the point. Our plan was more social: to produce a carnival of food that was inspired by ideas of sensuality and aesthetics, but was still meant to be eaten. The idea was greeted with some bewilderment at first ("This is what you do in your country?") but the festival did list La Baguette Enorme en Gala on the programme (right), and obtained permission for it to be eaten amidst the ruins of the 10th-century Abbey, once an important stop on the pilgrimage south to Santiago de Compostello.

Ernest Cazaux, the village baker, produced 240 kilograms of dough for us, with help from Noel Comess, owner of the Tom Cat Bakery in New York. Restaurateur Barry Wine seasoned and pre-grilled a two-metre shark we found in Biarritz, a turbot, many chickens, a salmon, a trout, the entire catch from the village fishing competition, and countless duck breasts and sausages. We laid the dough out on trestle tables along one side of a basketball court. Whole pineapples and stuffed red peppers sat in the bread alongside roast pork, berries, chocolate, ewe's milk cheese and black cherry jam. We flung in other objects: plates, napkins, cutlery, tacky souvenirs, and a wooden rowing boat to echo the clandestine salmon fishermen who used to haunt the local river. A simple loaf of bread became a huge, voluptuous - some would say decadent - feast.

An oven reflector from sheet steel and cinderblocks was built and fired with dried corn cobs. We gathered up the village's brooms and mops, slid them under the mixture and tried to carry it over to the fire. But the dough was unwieldy and impossible to handle. After several failures, when the baguette was almost dropped, the group came together, listened and listened, balanced the bread on the broom sticks, then walked it over to the oven, and slowly slid it in. It was a triumph.

When it had cooked, 150 people assembled to carry it in procession. The shark's head poked out of the top; someone stuck a pipe in its mouth. The loaf weighed 550 kilograms. As one person tired of the burden, another stepped in. And the enormous, swaying sandwich lurched through the village.

By the time the baguette entered the courtyard of the Abbey, the sun had set. Two hundred glowing candles greeted the noisy train. The enormous loaf was ceremoniously walked over to a long table, and set down. The guests, invited to plunge their fists in, found themselves in a treasure hunt. Someone said that a set of car keys awaited a lucky reveller somewhere in the crumb, which inspired a frenzied dig. A woman proudly held aloft a Statue of Liberty, a tourist delighted in a can of foie gras, a child squealed: "A hundred francs!"

Some villagers had not been to their festival in more than 10 years. A lady whose sense of decorum would not permit her to eat without knife and fork picked through a salmon with her fingers and licked them with great gusto. Neighbours who had not spoken to each other in years were in deep conversation. Complete strangers fed each other by hand. When all that was left was a long bottom crust of burned bread, a farmer mentioned that his pigs would make a meal of it, and the baguette's final role was as a pigs' breakfast the following morning.

For Fitch and me the spirit of the project - the sense of collective nourishment - was encapsulated when my neighbour, Michel Pommiers, said: "The most beautiful moment wasn't in the baking, or even in the eating, but when the village came together to lift up that baguette and start the parade."

The next Orphic Feast will take place in Tokyo in November.