Long ago, when French frog ranching was legal, the plump beetles and therapeutic waters around this spa town produced the tastiest amphibians in the world. When the government outlawed the trade 25 years ago, imported frogs jumped in, frozen and packaged in cellophane.
Josette Pouchucq wants to put the slime back in the frog business. Along with the 60 other ruling members of the Brotherhood of Frog Thigh Tasters, Pouchucq leads the struggle to restore la grenouille to glory by persuading the government to put fresh French frogs back on the table. Resplendent in the green robe and yellow sash of the Thigh Tasters, Pouchucq flourishes a broiled frog leg of unknown origin and says, "we prefer the frogs we eat to be French."
It's a gastropolitical affair fraught with economic dilemmas, environmental bugs and frog rustlers. The domestic population, which feed on insects and are important for pest control, had been dwindling since the French first started to saute the critters in the 11th century. Because frogs only talk in fairy tales, it was left to the Ministry of Agriculture and Fishing to speak on their behalf before they all were eaten. In 1977, it banned commercial harvesting of frogs.
The argument boils down to a battle between hopping mad environmentalists, who like their frogs wallowed in mud, and diners, who prefer them slathered in white wine. The EU annually imports more than 6,000 tonnes of frog legs. France consumes 42 percent of the production, while the kitchens of Belgium and Luxembourg cook a further 44 percent of the total. French frogs can be hunted only for personal consumption, and the laws against poaching are strictly enforced -- so the government says.
According to government figures, the French now eat a mere 70 tonnes of domestic frog legs. Herpetologist Andrew Blaustein, the frog man at Oregon State University, greets that appetizing statistic with suspicion. A leading expert on global amphibian populations, Blaustein says it's impossible to gather reliable figures on the sale and consumption of frogs.
"People in the frog trade don't want to talk," he explains. "Our most up-to-date research shows that Asia exported more than 200 million metric tonnes in 1995."
Pouchucq sniffs at the numbers. "If we could eat only French frogs," she argues, "we would not be buying foreign frogs."
Depending on their size, it takes between 10.8kg and 18kg of frogs to turn out 450g of stripped frog legs. A plate of 20 or so foreign frog legs costs around nine euros (US$8) at your average amphibian bistro. Some say frog tastes like chicken; in fact Indonesian and French frogs alike taste like frog. And all dissolve in the mouth like soft rubber.
Still, not all frogs are created equal -- particularly for the 20,000 people and six tonnes of Asian frogs scheduled to swarm into Vittel during the last weekend of April for the Brotherhood's 30th Annual Frog Eating Festival, the world's largest frog-eating jamboree. Pouchucq says that frog eaters from Belgrade to Quebec arrive most eager to grill, poach or schnitzel the 200kg of free-range French frogs caught for the event in Rene Clement's lake.
In these parts, the late restaurateur Rene Clement is known as the last of the great Lorraine frog ranchers. Back in 1952, Clement moved into a stone house on the banks of the Saone River, looking to raise crayfish. The water was too brackish for shellfish, so he turned to frogs. "The frog is like a woman," Clement told the local newspaper 20 years ago. "Only their thighs are good."