An unlikely marriage of Boule de Fort and Fish'n Chips

Aileen Kelly

ESU Loire Valley members and friends met on the morning of Saturday, 13th January, for what was to be a most enjoyable first event of 2018.

Thirty-seven members and guests arrived at the Cercle de Boule de Fort in the rue des Carabiniers de Monsieur in Saumur at 10.15am. For most of us this was to be an introduction to the traditional Anjou heritage game of Boule de Fort, to be followed by a traditional British Fish'n Chips lunch.

We were warmly welcomed by Jean-Pierre and Jean-Yves, our hosts and instructors for the morning.  The President of the Fédération des Societés de Jeux de Boules de Fort du Saumurois, M. Dominique Leclert, also arrived to wish us good luck and an enjoyable initiation.

A brief history of this unusual game, and how it is played, was given to us by Jean-Pierre with helpful translations, where necessary, by Roy Powell, our Treasurer, and member Michel Cartillier.  We were interested to hear that the history of the game of Boule de Fort has two hypotheses: the first that sailors invented the game by playing it in their boats on the river Loire. When one views the curved alley between 20 and 24 metres long it is easy to believe this. The second hypothesis emanates from a recent study and shows a more sombre explanation: that the game may have been invented by prisoners working on the construction of the embankments of the Loire. At the time there were over 200 windmills along the Loire. The mechanism of each of them involved large wooden ball bearings. The prisoners had the idea of playing with the worn ball bearings in the hollows made by the excavations in the earth. Whichever theory is correct, the real boule de fort as we know it almost certainly originated in the Anjou region between 1715 and 1719.  

Today, of course, the game is played in indoor alleys, which are almost all made from a very fragile plastic material.  Perhaps this is why it is the only game in the world played in carpet slippers! 

We were put into two teams and were given personal tuition to help us to bowl.  The rules of the game are similar to those of pétanque, in that the aim is to be as close as possible to the target, called the master (le maître), but the bowling techniques are very different. This is because the aspherical ball is a little heavier on one side than the other.  Although balls are now made of plastic, many bowlers remain faithful to the old wooden balls which are still made by craftsmen such as Roger Fassilleau in Morannes. The time which elapses between the bowling of the ball to when it stops close to the master is approximately 45 seconds to one minute, depending on the length of the alley. A game of 10 points can take between two and two and a half hours.

The morning was rounded off by an aperitif offered to us by the Cercle de Boule de Fort, marking the end of a most enjoyable and informative morning.

At this stage our plans changed from those that had appeared in the invitation. Unfortunately, the lunch purveyor had a family emergency and was therefore unable to provide the lunch as planned.  The committee rallied to the challenge and found the “Bistro les Traditions” only a short distance from the venue, who provided an excellent “traditional” dish of British fish and chips, wrapped in brown paper, followed by a chocolate brownie, all served by very pleasant and attentive staff.  For lunch we were joined by more members and our two instructors and the restaurant, unable to accommodate all forty-six of us at one time, provided two sittings. This proved advantageous for the second group of twenty-three who were able to stay at the centre and continue to practise their new-found skills.

Whilst some members may already be familiar with this unusual game, those who had an “initiation” and enjoyed the experience may find the game la boule de fort a good way to get to know their local neighbours - there are, after all, 110 clubs in the area to choose from!

Thank you to everyone who made the day so enjoyable. In particular, we would like to extend thanks to our new friends at the Cercle de Boule de Fort and to promise a return visit in the not too distant future.