The world's one and only pig-imitation championship

Swine fever with a difference has gripped the picturesque French town of Trie-sur-Baïse, where you are cordially invited to take part in the world's one and only pig-imitation championship. Simon Calder sticks his snout in
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The Independent Online

"There's one problem with this place," said Patrick Garcia, as we drove through one of the drowsier parts of south-west France, all cornfields and beech woods draped across a ripple of hills. "It doesn't have much culture."

"There's one problem with this place," said Patrick Garcia, as we drove through one of the drowsier parts of south-west France, all cornfields and beech woods draped across a ripple of hills. "It doesn't have much culture."

It certainly doesn't have much public transport. In the absence of any bus or taxi in the town of Tarbes, I had thumbed a ride from Monsieur Garcia, a forklift truck driver. (Luckily he was at the wheel of his private car, not his work vehicle.) He dropped me on the edge of Trie-sur-Baïse, but declined the invitation to test the cultural value of the town's biggest annual event: a celebration of creativity in which man meets pig, makes fun of it, and then eats it.

Swine fever swept through Trie on Sunday, yet for all but the beasts in question it was a benign affair. A poster in André Dubosc's boucherie on the main street showed a pig spit-roasting another pig. The image heralded the Championnat du Monde Cri de Cochon. For each of the past 18 years, Trie has staged the world pig-imitation championship.

"Trie holds the biggest piglet market in France," says Maryse Maumus, the local hairdresser, who is also president of the organising committee. Faced with continued depopulation, a trend afflicting much of rural France, the mayor of '82 declared that only a pig festival could help stem the slide into agricultural anonymity.

It was, apparently, a couple of local lads larking around making pig noises that led to Trie enhancing la fête. In the absence of any rival claims, the town established its unusual claim to fame: a global contest to imitate the snuffles and shrieks of swine. The prize: a pig.

In the vast shed where the market takes place each Tuesday, 500 plastic chairs were installed, along with a sound system that compared creditably with the average rock gig. A bar was dishing out foaming glasses of pression, helping to soothe the nerves - and throats - of the participants. Considering this is an international final, qualification is undemanding: you need only add your name, address and telephone number to the list of competitors. This year, they totalled 11. A further seven had enrolled for the second component of the festival, the Championnat de France du plus gros mangeur du boudin - loosely translating as wolfing down a 4ft length of intestine filled with blood and fat in under 10 minutes. In this part of France, people are aggressively carnivorous. I asked Aubian Fernande, the 67-year-old retired shopkeeper who is secretary of the event, how many of Trie's 1,000 inhabitants were vegetarian? "Pas de tout."

So far, global interest in the festival has been limited. "We had a German who used to take part," says Mme Maumus, "but this year he hasn't turned up." Word is getting around the rest of France, though. While the French would never be so uncouth as to bet on the outcome of a pig-imitation contest on a Sunday, I gathered that a couple of outsiders - in both senses - were worth watching.

A team of enthusiastic young men from Toulouse, 100 miles east, had arrived to cheer on a first-time entrant, Eric Bonneville. He was the one wearing a plastic snout. "Let me tell you a secret," announced one of his pals in a kind of sty whisper. "When Eric was three days old, his parents left him on a pig farm, like Romulus and Remus. He learned to speak pig before he learned to speak French."

Stéphane Séjourné, and his wife Ghislaine, had travelled 300 miles south from Angers. He was returning after a four-year absence to enter the competition, and to celebrate the French affection for the pig. While the British pork industry has been reduced to headlines about swine fever and hoardings advertising McRibs, in France lard still means bacon, and cochonne (sow) remains a slang term of some endearment for a woman. M Séjourné's T-shirt read Dans le cochon tout est bon, dans la cochonne aussi - "Everything in the pig is good [ie. edible], and the same goes for a woman". Mme Séjourné didn't mind at all.

Any outsider who looked around beyond the pig shed would have discovered a pretty town with a big problem. Trie was created in 1323 as a bastide - a planned "new town" on a precise grid pattern of streets. Soon after, the Hundred Years War began and the British pillaged it. Further destruction ensued during the 16th-century religious wars, yet the last cut was the deepest. Trie is no longer the village it was. "The cloister of Trie," says Mme Fernande with sadness, "has departed to New York."

Rockefeller oil money bought up the exquisite cloitre from the Benedictine monastery, and shipped it off to be part of the Cloisters Museum at the top end of Manhattan Island.

In its place stands a garage, occupied by an old Mobylette and a new Mercedes. Trie's main attraction these days is the Place de Mairie, a square flanked by half-timbered houses and half-filled by a town hall on stilts, built above the retail market.

Back at the pig palace, there are sideshows aplenty, as in any good circus. My favourite was the Coupe Saucisson competition. From the top of a tower, a butcher launches a sausage into a tube. At the foot, the competitor is armed with a butcher's cleaver, with which to lunge at the saucisson as it whizzes over a wooden block. I can't see it catching on at Alton Towers, but there was an enthusiastic queue of people prepared to stake 10 francs on the chance of winning a sausage. For those who lost, charcuterie stalls were selling an encyclopaedic range of pork products in all their Gallic glory.

As 4pm approached, the sideshows emptied and attention switched to a stage decorated by cartoon pigs. Once the contest began, the sound system became superfluous as a sequence of squeals tore through the tranquil afternoon. Should you be tempted to enter next year, bear in mind that a few polite oinks will get you laughed off the stage. Instead, try to cultivate something akin to a baby's scream blended with a yelp from a psychotic puppy. Add a rasping saw-mill, and pepper the cacophony with the sorts of noises that punctuate animal cartoons.

Even then, success is not guaranteed. There were no live pigs around to provide a standard for comparison, though one was roasting nicely on a spit at the back of the hall. The judges comprise lifelong pig farmers, and know an imposter when they hear one. Stéphane Séjourné had clearly been practising his theatrical contortions, tugging at his cheeks to issue the kind of sounds that seemed sure to bring a sow running. Eric Bonneville preferred a more guttural series of squawks, but his plastic snout did not endear him to the audience. As with all events that seem ludicrous to the outside world, participants are expected to adopt a deadly seriousness.

As George Orwell didn't quite say, all pig imitators are equal, but some are more equal than others. The judges consigned M Bonneville to the obscurity of sixth place. The well-practised grunts of a local man, André Saren, squeaked ahead of M Séjourné to win a whole pig; the man from Angers had to make do with un demi.

There was one last hope for the Toulouse boys. One of their number, Stéphane Depos, took advantage of the lax entry regulations to sign up for the boudin-eating competition. He devoured the 16-inch black pudding in just under five minutes, claiming third place and winning a sausage. I met him in the Café de la Paix, seeking to obliterate the taste with copious quantities of pastis. "It was very long, and very hard to eat," he choked.

While the rest of us tucked in to spit-roasted pork, Stéphane and Ghislaine Séjourné looked anxiously at their watches and a large cardboard container that looked in need of a fork-lift truck. They had been planning to hitch a ride back to the railway station in Tarbes, but had failed to take into account the possibility they could be transporting half a pig. Then there was the problem of the train: "I hope we don't have to buy a ticket for it," said Ghislaine.

As I walked back along the main street, past M Dubosc's butcher shop, I noticed a poster appealing for blood donations next Thursday. The Orwellian implication was clear. Not all animals are equal - while humans have a choice about giving blood, the pigs of Trie do not.