I am compiling a list of the best black puddings. It began in Spain when I encountered my first morcilla de Burgos, a rich, spiced black sausage bulked up with rice. I was smitten. No black pudding could compete with this, I thought. But then I moved to Cumbria and in the flat hinterland of the Solway plain I found a butcher who made trays of the black stuff, studded with nuggets of fat the size of a child’s thumb. A portion of this was a veritable slice of heaven. I’ve sampled Stornoway’s, of course, and a black-pudding Scotch egg, but nothing ranked alongside the twin fruits of Burgos and Great Orton.
Given this enthusiasm, you can imagine my unfettered delight when I learnt that the little town down the road from my Normandy retreat this Easter was renowned above all for itsboudin noir. Chapeau to Mortagne-au-Perche for having such a claim to glory. Now, when there’s a town in the region famous for its black puddings, you could be forgiven for fearing that all else would be diminished — but this neck of Normandy, Le Perche, is glorious all over. It is a place where every farmyard looks like a Corot painting and one expects to see Millet’s wooden-clogged peasants gleaning in the fields while native Percheron horses nobly turn the sod.
We encountered the most contented boy in France in a little bistro in Longny-au–Perche, munching his way through an enormous bavette steak with roquefort sauce, and grinning at us non-stop. He was about ten, and with his striped T-shirt, sophisticated air and evident gastronomic delight, he couldn’t have been more French if you’d slung a string of onions round his neck and popped a Gitanes in his mouth. This bistro was also notable as the place where we distinguished ourselves by ordering a rare steak and a lapin au moutarde, a double act that startled the proprietor into questioning our origin. He met our ‘Ecosse!’ with a triumphal ‘Aha!’ of sudden comprehension. ‘The English do not order rabbit, or rare steak.’ Vive the auld alliance.
As with so much of northern Europe, the long shadow of war is still cast upon the landscape. Even the tiny village closest to our gîte had received an American bomb during the war. The most moving of the many memorials was the one in Mortagne to ‘Combattants sans uniforme’, a wretchedly evocative bas-relief of two etiolated figures accompanying a list of the eight Jewish occupants of this little town who died in the camps.
Happily, however, while the ghosts remain, these places lead a tranquil existence today, and even the current French security concerns seem confined to the occasional ‘Je Suis Charlie’ poster. This allows the visitor to concentrate on other important matters, like that boudin noir. Discovered in a Mortagne charcuterie, beside a calf’s brain in a bucket, this smooth, soft and deeply flavoured sausage debuted at number one on my list. Boudin more, s’il vous plaît.