France does a good line in food festivals, celebrating everything from lemons in Menton to the pink onions of Roscoff. Yet few can rival Bessières’ Fête de l’Omelette Géante for its ambition. This three-day event, which combines dinners, Easter Egg hunts, parades and performances, culminates on Easter Monday with a grand culinary feat — the cooking of a colossal 15,000-egg omelette, big enough to feed 2,000 locals and visitors.
By the time I arrive, the organisers — the grandly named Global Brotherhood of the Knights of the Giant Omelette — have already cordoned off the town’s marketplace for the big cook-off. As a bonfire crackles in the centre, about 100 volunteers, all dressed in yellow and white, gather around a long table and begin cracking eggs into large bowls.
I ask a member of the brotherhood about the legend that often gets touted as the festival’s origin. It tells of the occasion when Napoleon Bonaparte supposedly stopped off at an auberge (small hotel) nearby and was so enamoured with the omelette he ate that he insisted on returning the next day with his army and ordered the innkeeper to prepare one large enough to feed them all. “Yes, some people tell that story,” says the local, rolling his eyes. “But it’s really about community and friendship around the world.”
In 2023, the festival will mark its 50th anniversary. During its half century, it’s inspired six other giant omelette festivals around the world, in Provence, Belgium, Argentina, New Caledonia, Louisiana and Quebec. Each event has its own chapter of the Global Brotherhood, and many members of these other chapters make it to Bessières each year to take part in the original festival.
At the end of the table, a pile of eggshells steadily grows until it’s a metre high — at the end of the event, these shells will be taken by the locals and used for fertiliser and chicken rearing. Meanwhile, Bessières’ Chevaliers (knights), identifiable by their tall toque hats, being positioning an 850kg, 13ft frying pan over the bonfire with the help of a forklift truck. They then tip 70 litres of duck fat into the pan as it warms. Soon after, the eggs are transferred into huge aluminium pots and whisked with hand-held paddle mixers (usually used for concrete mixing), into which chopped chives, salt, pepper and the mild chilli pepper piment d’Espelette are added.
Eventually, the knights begin to pour in the various pots of egg mixture and, as it begins to cook in the pan, they stir it with huge wooden paddles to prevent it from sticking and burning. I get talking to some of the volunteers and ask them where they’ve travelled from. One couple are from the brotherhood in Malmedy, where the Belgian festival takes place. They take turns: one holding their baby while the other helps to put slices of sourdough bread on paper plates. There’s a woman from Quebec, the sole representative from the Canadian brotherhood, who’s come to see old friends. I also meet a retired GP from Fréjus, home to the Provence festival, who explains to me that each of the world’s seven giant omelettes has its own distinct flavour — in Provence, for example, they use olive oil and add fines herbes (usually equal amounts of chopped fresh parsley, chives, tarragon, and chervil).
It takes around half an hour for the omelette to cook, at which point the volunteers snap into action, serving it on 6,000 paper plates, which are efficiently distributed, along with wooden forks, to the spectators gathered around the square.
I admit, I don’t have high hopes about the actual taste of a dish made on this scale, especially as the end result more closely resembles scrambled eggs, but when I take my first bite, I’m proved wrong. It’s delicious. I’d happily ask for seconds, but the giant frying pan is miraculously empty.
How to do it: Entry is free, along with a plate of bread and serving of omelette. This year’s event takes place 8-10 April. Visit Occitanie.
Three to try: French Easter specialities
1. Easter bells
Instead of having an Easter bunny to announce the arrival of Easter, France’s main symbol for the celebration is closer to its religious origins: chocolate church bells. They relate to the tradition of church bells remaining silent until Easter Sunday, when their peals symbolise the moment to feast. Chocolate bells can be found in chocolateries throughout the country.
2. Easter lamb
Like most other Christian countries, lamb dishes grace the nation’s dining tables on Easter Sunday. In Normandy, there are the salt-marsh lambs that graze the pastures close to Mont Saint-Michel; in the Lot, there are the Quercy lambs which are said to ‘wear sunglasses’ because of the black patches around their eyes; and in Sisteron in Provence, they celebrate the Fête de l’Agneau each Easter weekend with their famous local tender lamb.
3. Pascadou Aveyronnais
Pancake batter is used in many incarnations at both the beginning or end of Lent, be it crêpes or beignets (donuts), but in the Aveyron department in the south of France, the preference is for Pascadou pancakes. This savoury speciality incorporates fresh herbs, such as parsley or chives, as well as green leaves such as spinach or Swiss chard into the batter, which is fried to create small fritters. They’re traditionally served after Easter.