The egg heads

Blood pressure: checked. Cholesterol: checked. In which case, it’s time to take an overnight coach (with some indigestion pills close at hand) in search of the world’s biggest omelette. And you don’t even have to leave Buenos Aires province to get a piece of the action.

The Pigüé giant omelette guild (population of Pigüé, approximately 15,000; number of eggs used in the omelette, 15,000) has considered getting the Guinness Book of Records to Argentina in order to assess its handiwork, but an official judge comes at a price that the non-profit organisation can ill-afford.

“We do this for us, for the pure enjoyment of it, plus it is completely free for anyone who wants to eat it,” says Milena Pomiés, one of the 90 or so guild members who breaks eggs and bears the 32-degree heat of the frying pan along with her five-year-old twin sons Jano and Siro, the guild’s youngest members, and her mum Silvia. “So it doesn’t really matter whether they come or not. Although one French town uses 16,000 eggs, those are cooked in two sessions, so we know ours is the biggest because we only use one pan.”

The annual event, now in its eleventh year, ties in with the founding of the French town, which celebrated its 125th anniversary last Friday. The party is an international affair, says Master of Ceremonies Eduardo de Castro. “You’re an English woman in a French town talking Spanish in Argentina and about to eat pasta made by an Italian,” he says prior to the welcome lunch which the guild is hosting for its 40 visiting French counterparts.

There are seven omelette guilds around the world: the Confrérie de l’Omelette Géant began in France 35 years ago in Bessières and Belgium, the US, former French colony New Caledonia and Canada also host the event. Although it is the newest, Pigüé’s guild actively promotes its French heritage by taking the omelette show on the road, and has visited Córdoba and Villa Carlos Paz among other cities. Bessières’ brotherhood has been involved with Pigüé’s party since its inception so it’s an ideal cultural exchange for the 40 French men and women to stay in the Argentine agricultural town which houses its own French Alliance as well as a Peugeot dealership.

MORNING HAS BROKEN. As dawn begins to break Saturday, although there is no sun rising, some older ladies on the coach start to chatter simultaneously with the birds outside. Their final destination is also Pigüé. “Oh yes, we’re going to ‘omeletear’,” says one, rather too enthusiastically for the time of day. Sleepily stepping off the coach an hour or so later at 7am, grumpy grey clouds nestle threateningly close to the hills: would rain call off play? Would all those eggs end up in a good home? In 11 years of extra large omelette-making in Argentina, it’s never been cancelled…

The giant omelette party is very much a community-focused one involving various generations and all its ingredients — 15,000 eggs, 150 kilos of ham and 20 combined kilos of spring onions, parsley and chives — are donated by local producers. From teachers to journalists and the local mayor, people from all walks of life are involved with the guild, some even coming from Bahía Blanca to participate, which is where the eggs also originate. Honouring the town’s French heritage on its anniversary, the 90 members start preparations a week before the cook-off to wash down the frying pan and remove the pig fat which has protected it from rusting over the past 50 weeks.

As the cook-off taking place on the first Sunday of December, work begins in earnest the day before. The herbs and ham require cutting and chopping, which even the twins Jano and Siro assist with. “If they didn’t enjoy it then they wouldn’t come,” says their mum. And of course, the giant frying pan on wheels needs to come down from its 90-degree angle in the air and be set up onto its tram line. Then the wood needs to be unloaded, the fire laid, the eggs broken and then blended by a giant (naturally) drill-like whisk, and of course 16 square metres of metal will need to be scrubbed down once every last piece of egg has been scraped from the pan and digested… but only if it doesn’t rain.

PAN-IC ATTACK. On chopping duty at Pigüé tennis club hall, the 12 women with their knives poised, are anxious. It’s Saturday afternoon, and water is bucketing down with some kind of vengeance to make up for the previous 10 years. One guild member says it’s never rained for the omelette party, and that the heavens normally open a day or two after the event. “Don’t let the farmers hear me say this but I really wish it wasn’t raining!“ she admits, referring to the appalling dryness of the local land. Nervously, one of them puts a nose round the door every few minutes to give an update, and once the chives have been dispensed with come the magic words: “the wind is coming from the south.” The clouds start to shift and word comes that the giant skillet is about to uncovered in the municipal park. The mood also shifts and the women turn to the task in hand, making short work of the ham and sighing over the more problematic parsley as they discard the yellowing leaves, only pausing to share mate. One lady picks up hammy scraps from the floor for her dog — everyone benefits from the giant omelette — and the hall permeates with chives, then parsley and finally spring onion.

The ground is surprisingly solid at the park, despite the 10mm of water that descended upon the town in two hours. Supported at a 90-degree angle, the frying pan which measures 4.5m in diameter reluctantly judders its way onto the grass and comes to rest on its rail track. Once the eggs are cooked it will then be wheeled away from the fire so the guild members can serve up the 8,100 portions. A few hours behind schedule, the cleaned pan is now out and the wood has been prepared, ready for an early start Sunday morning.

SUN-DAY. Could the day begin in any better way? The skyline is spotless, not a menacing cloudy puff in sight. Saturday is but a bad dream. Walking up to the municipal park, the eucalyptus trees’ scent is eclipsed by smoking fires as meat is slowly grilled for the unlucky few who won’t get a piece of egg. The frying pan has now been cordoned off and is surrounded by hundreds of spectators eagerly cheering the guild members on. By following the white chefs’ toques which are standing to attention despite the morning heat, whose wearers are all busy breaking eggs and pouring mixture into huge bowls, preparations have just begun.

Now, Pigüé’s annual party is called the giant ”omelette“ but it should be clarified that this is not of the flipping variety. Eduardo explains: ”In France, omelette actually translates as scrambled eggs, and the version that is flipped over — which traditionally has cheese and ham in it — is a Swiss omelette. It shouldn’t be confused with the Argentine ”omelet” which is similar to that.”

Talking while guild members are serving up thousands of cholesterol-laden portions (“We’ve run out of forks!” one says excitedly, Eduardo admits the rain gave cause for concern.

“The weather wasn’t very promising at all and it would have made it very difficult to place the frying pan onto its rails,” he says. Nodding towards the deep blue sky, he adds: “The forecast had said it would be cloudy, but that was just a forecast, wasn’t it? We really weren’t expecting such a sunny day, and neither were we expecting such a great response from all these people.” Attendance figures are officially confirmed by the number of plates used.

Back in 1999 there was some interest in the first cook-off, and Eduardo reckons this has increased ten-fold. Although they have always used the same pan, the guild needs to take into account the increasing numbers of portions year-on-year, although it won’t be investing in a new skillet.

“No, but we have been talking about raising its side so it’s taller and has greater capacity,” he says.

Making giant scrambled eggs, the only such dish on such a large scale served up in Latin America, and for free, takes team work although less organisation is required after 11 years as the guild is a perfectly oiled machine that knows what it’s doing. With five grand masters, three men and two women who are chosen by a secret ballot, offering their invaluable experience, Eduardo confirms that preparation really begins just the week before.

As it is the only such event on the continent, people travel from all over, including Santa Fe, Concordia and Entre Ríos, for their portion, and the French contingency is always supportive. However, Canadian colleagues are notably absent this year, probably because of the economic crisis and also swine flu, says one guild member. “We’ve made a big promise and now we need to keep it for 2010,” adds Eduardo.

EGGS-PERIENCE. Watching families and friends work together to satisfy the greater hunger of the masses (I, for one, didn’t breakfast on Sunday), it’s quite a sight to watch the scrambled eggs come together. Despite the enormity of the meal, it takes around 40 minutes before the grand masters decide the eggs can be served up and Pigüé cooks them substantially so they aren’t runny. “For the first few years we cooked them like the French do, quite liquid, but there was a lot of wastage which was a real shame,” says Graciela, Eduardo’s wife.

The guild members take turns scrambling the eggs before they are poured into the hot oil, switching in and out to stir it up with their enormous paddles — it’s a phenomenal team effort which is utterly efficient and they all have a jolly old time doing it. The Herald slips on some rubber gloves and gets stuck into cracking a dozen or so eggs (romper los huevos is a fabulous double entendre) and also takes charge of a paddle briefly: the heat was so intense alongside the skillet that combined with the blazing sun you could have fried an egg on my forehead.

And of course there’s the million-dollar question. What do giant scrambled eggs taste like? Given a more-than-ample portion (clearly I had “no breakfast” written all over me) and accompanied by a chunk of a three-metre baguette, the texture was firm but not too chewy, there was plenty of parsley and ham to give an overall taste sensation and it was extremely satisfying — nothing more passed my lips until 9pm that evening — although I would have added some salt (but I’m frequently accused of being rather Argentine with regards to my high sodium intake so that is not a criticism).

Essentially a show, the Pigüé giant omelette party is unique due to the dedication and love that goes into its production. With a huge cast and a larger audience, any show that simply draws to a close because its spectators get to eat it can only be classified as “eggstraordinary”.

About Pigüé
The valley town of Pigüé is in the south east of the Buenos Aires province 545km from the capital and 132km from Bahia Blanca, and was founded by French immigrants from the Aveyron area. Its name is taken from Pi-Hue which means “meeting point” or “place for assembly” in the Mapuche Indian language, and refers to the battle of Pihué which took place on February 15 and 16, 1858, a fight instigated by the Indians over claims regarding that particular area of land.

The guilds
France: Bessières (1973), Fréjus (1987)

New Caledonia: Doumbea (1984)

USA: Abbeville (1985)

Quebec: Granby (1988)

Belgium: Malmedy (1996)

Argentina: Pigúé (1999).

15,000 eggs weighing 55 grams each

150 kilos of ham

Around 20 kilos of parsley, spring onions and chives combined

Salt and black pepper

An unspecified quantity of sunflower oil, “so no one else can copy us and make it!” says Master of Ceremonies Eduardo de Castro.

First printed in the Buenos Aires Herald in November 2009.

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