Saint-Flour: the Golden Lentil

09 December 2020

“If Esau sold his birthright for a bowl of lentil stew, it must be said that its use as a food is ancient indeed.”

Pellegrino Artusi

Lentils were the first legume to be cultivated, and the first food to be cooked.

The story begins in Egypt, where the silt of the Nile made the soil along the riverbanks exceptionally fertile. From here, boats departed across the Mediterranean to export the lentils to Greece already in antiquity. Lentils have been an important agricultural and commercial product for thousands of years across the Mediterranean basin. As such, they have lots of stories to tell! From their symbolism to their role in real historical events, we’re connecting to a distant and fascinating part of our history every time we eat them. Do you know the story of the blond lentil of Saint-Flour?

Saint-Flour Golden Lentil, from success to abandonment

lenticchia bionda di Saint-Flour suolo

The Planèze is a volcanic plateau in the Mounts of Cantal, in the Auvergne region. It’s a vast basaltic highland with rich volcanic soils well-suited for the cultivation of lentils.

At the height of its success at the beginning of the 20th century, the production of Planèze golden lentils (now known as the Saint-Flour golden lentil) was around 1700 tons a year. But in the 1970s, the farmers started to abandon it for a more profitable business: the raising of cows for dairy.

The two fathers of the golden lentil

Towards the end of the 1990s Pierre Jarlier decided to bring this forgotten crop back from the dead. He launched an appeal to find the blond lentils, which had barely been seen for more than 30 years. He spoke to a priest, Father Boussuge, who wrote about the lentils in the parochial newsletter. che scrisse un annuncio sul bollettino parrocchiale. The Cibiel family from Cussac saw these appeals, and brought some seeds to a council meeting. Unfortunately, these lentil seeds turned out to be too old to sprout.

The story might have finished there, but instead… Pierre Jarlier met Jean-Pierre Bonnaud, a researcher at the National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA) and “father” of the Puy-en-Velay green lentil.

Rebirth

The first attempts at planting the golden lentil started in 1998 with 16 varieties recovered from the INRA seed bank. They were sown in the fields of Bernard Martres in Alleuzet and of Gérard Cibiel in Cussac. At this time the Chamber of Agriculture, who wanted to start a campaign to promote quality products, decided to invest in the project.

In 1999, Michel Bras, the famous French chef, was called upon to test the taste of these lentils. He responded: “Let’s organize an agricultural and gastronomic selection, choosing the best varieties, the ones best-suited for their quality and taste.” And so it went. After a careful selection, they decided to plant 3 of the 16 rediscovered varieties on one-hectare plots. Then, in 2000, they expanded the production to larger fields.

Taking flight

lenticchia bionda di Saint-Flour campi

In 2001 the Association of Golden Lentil Producers of Planèze was formed, and with it a distribution network. As Serge Ramadier, the manager of the Presidium explains: “The value chain had finally been recreated.” The community of local councils in the town around Saint-Flour and other local businesses contributed financially.

The Saint-Flour Golden Lentil is now spread beyond its namesake town, across Cantal and elsewhere in France. Its status as a Slow Food Presidium has contributed to its fame and recognition: both for the quality of the product and for the organizational efforts of the producers in the face of the risk of the lentil’s complete disappearance.

Our golden lentil resists well to the climate, as it’s well-adapted to that specific terrain and doesn’t suffer in the summer drought. The harvest is performed by a combine harvester, like in the wheat fields. There are around 40 producers growing it today, over 100 hectares of terrain. It’s even on sale at the Coop in Switzerland.

by Michela Lenta, info.eventi@slowfood.it

The Saint-Flour Golden Lentil is one of the international Presidia featured in the Virtual Showcase of Terra Madre Salone del Gusto. There are over 400 producers present! In the Schengen Area only, you can even buy some of these products in our online marketplace.