The boys from Bram - by Rupert Bates
Meet the Spangheros. A bit like the Sopranos, only scarier. Just kidding, for their successful business in the south-west of France – meat, cars and an astonishing family rugby legacy – is built on entirely reputable foundations.
Mind you, given the size of the Spanghero brothers, it would be unwise to pick a fight with them, commercial or otherwise. Tony Soprano v Walter Spanghero? My money is on big Walt.
If you alight on Narbonne – the delightful cathedral city in the Aude region of France – you are obliged, if you have an ounce of French rugby history in your soul, to track down the Spangheros – six brothers who all played in the Narbonne pack when the club was a force in the land.
Walter and Claude – legends of Gallic forward play – went on to play for France and in the case of Walter captain his country and earn a seat in the pantheon of the greatest players of all time.
While it was in the orange of Narbonne that the rugby legend started, you have to head west to the town of Castelnaudary to find the business heartbeat of the Spanghero empire. Even if all bar the few ducks who have wisely kept their heads under water on the Canal du Midi know them for their sporting prowess, everybody, including the very nervous ducks, knows them for their food.
Maison Spanghero is a 100 million euro a year food business, supplying supermarkets – vegetarians look away now – with that signature dish of the south-west cassoulet (beans, duck, sausage and pork), as well as beef and foie gras - cue ducks ducking under water.
Maison Spanghero was founded in 1970 by two of the Spanghero brothers Laurent and Claude. The company will get the meat from the abattoir to the shopping basket. Their range of meat dishes amounts to some 32,000 tons of meat a year, with the company now run by Laurent’s sons Jean Marc and David.
As I sit at their Castelnaudary headquarters – a town dedicated to cassoulet, with the dish on the sign as you enter and a huge statue of a woman holding a steaming pot of cassoulet - a family tree is called for. Guy Spanghero, who runs an international import-export meat business, is happy to oblige.
The six freres are Laurent, Walter, Jean-Marie, Claude, Guy and Gilbert, not forgetting the two sisters Annie and Maryse. The brothers’ late father Fernand came over from Italy and settled as a farmer in the village of Bram, near Castelnaudary. The meals served up by maman Romea brought a whole new meaning to the expression groaning table. They were feasts to sate giants, which was just as well, as she had given birth to six of them. Their famous Bram table was also the feeding trough for the farm workers, so huge slabs of meat were served up daily.
“Often we were 18 for lunch,” said Claude Spanghero, the former France second-row. Claude clearly did not go short, for at 59 he still he cuts an imposing figure. Working the land as children added muscle to bulk.
Claude, capped 22 times in the second-row and back-row in the 1970s, produces ‘plats cuisines’ traditional meat dishes of the region served in earthenware pots. When I met him he was dressed in a white butcher’s coat and drawing heavily on a cigarette.
From the safety of another country I would say he bore a striking resemblance to Herman Munster without the bolt. You suspect Claude, 6ft 5in, smokes a few cigarettes, for his voice is deeper than the ocean. Gruff does not begin to describe it.
He was good company, telling anecdotes from his rugby past, but alas dear readers, despite a reasonable command of French, I could not understand a word.
It was time for a beer and a short drive to the fabulous home of international businessman Guy Spanghero, whose son Nicolas played in the second-row for Harlequins, until his move back to France and Colomiers this season.
“You’ll like this room,” said Guy, leading me into what could only described as a very smart bar.
There was a giant screen for watching sport and the room was full of rugby memorabilia, as well as plenty of evidence of Guy’s love of wine. “Have you been to Gerard Bertrand’s L’Hospitalet vineyard and restaurant near Gruissan? He used to play for Narbonne.” I certainly had and drank deep from his cellar. I also met the mayor of Gruissan one Didier Codorniou – le petit prince – rugbymen everywhere.
Guy went behind the bar and pulled a ‘pression’ of beer from the tap, before bemoaning the demise of the once grand Narbonne club, relegated from the French Top 14 two seasons ago and where his second son Philippe now plays.
“Narbonne will not be promoted any time soon. The likes of Toulon and Racing Metro have too much money”.
Then to lunch and Le Tirou restaurant – a favourite and where Guy is treated like royalty. In Castelnaudary the Spangheros are royalty.
It had to be foie gras followed by cassoulet, washed down with the wines of the region. Nicolas Spanghero warned me I would be well looked after,
While at Quins Nicolas lived in Ealing with his wife and two children, renting Raphael Ibanez’s house. Inevitably Nicolas’s first club was Castelnaudary. He dreamt of being a fly-half until his genes told him he had to be a forward and he grew and grew into a 6ft 7in second-row.
“I then moved to Toulouse where I was competing for a place with players like Fabien Pelous and did not get enough first team games. I moved on to Dax and then Castres. I had plenty of offers from Narbonne and they still ring from time to time.”
A call from Dean Richards and the desire for a fresh challenge prompted the move to London where he immediately added beef to the Quins front-five.
Spanghero played for France age groups teams and progressed as far as France A, but a full cap eluded him and at 31 his chance has past. However he carries the Spanghero rugby torch with pride and passion.
“In France we heard about Harlequins’ dilettante reputation, but I found the opposite when I arrived and I have huge respect for Dean Richards. The Premiership is much more physical than the French Championship. The average standard of teams is higher in the Premiership too.”
He satisfied his taste for French food by frequenting le Bouchon Bordelais in Battersea or Brasserie Pierre restaurant at London’s Liverpool Street. Back to France at the communal Spanghero table he loves to spar with his father and uncles.
“They are very old-fashioned in their rugby views, forgetting the game has moved on. It is like we are talking about different sports and the arguments are very funny.”
The final stop on the Spanghero trail was to see the biggest name of all Walter at his Toulouse car business Sud Ouest Autos and he accepts his nephew’s argument.
“I am from another time. You would not have found me doing hamburger commercials as Frederic Michalak does. Good luck to him but France is famous for its great food, wine and natural products. Le terroir,” said Walter Spanghero.
Back to food and wine again. When once told that training at altitude helped increase your red blood cell count, Walter replied the best way to up the count was to drink a bottle of red. If there was a drugs test “drink a bottle of white to restore the balance”
He knows he’ll be accused of being an old fart – go on I dare you – but Walter Spanghero, who resisted all professional overtures from les treizistes, believes rugby lacks a little of the warmth and camaraderie of old.
“I appreciate it is a professional game now, but what about the club loyalty? I spent 15 years at Narbonne and only moved to Toulouse for two years because of work. And do not get me started on lineout lifting,” said Walter, remembering the warzone of lineouts in his day.
Spanghero’s great love of animals explains whey he is not in the family meat business. Walter has a teaching farm for children near Toulouse, complete with chickens, goats and a menagerie of others. You suspect he is also hiding ducks from his brothers, to spare them becoming foie gras.
Walter shares his office with two dogs. “Meet Jimmy. I named the dog after Jimmy Connors. I used to be the director of the Toulouse tennis Grand Prix.” I then meet Walter’s son Xavier who works in his father’s car business. Dynasty has got nothing on this lot.
Walter has had a series of eye operations, which he admits is slowing him down. He has a golf handicap. What is it? “My hands.” Your hands? “They are so big I cannot get the golf ball out of the hole!” he laughs and waves dinner plates that block out the Languedoc sun.
Walter is 6ft 1 - two inches smaller than Wales scrum-half Michael Phillips – but Spanghero’s presence says 7ft 1. Walter, who won 51 caps in the back-row and at lock from 1964 to 1973, keeps in touch with old teammates, including France lock Elie Cester, whose former bar Le Pub Twickenham I drank in regularly under his patronage during a year playing rugby for Valence in the Drome valley. This year was the 40th anniversary of France’s first Grand Slam in 1968, with Spanghero and Cester key figures.
If you have visited south-west France over the last 30 years, chances are you have eaten Spanghero produce or driven one of their eponymous hire cars. If you bought enough meat during the last World Cup you got a jersey displaying the pack numbers of all six brothers and a Spanghero branded rugby ball.
The family would like to get their meat into UK supermarkets. In the meantime a word of warning. Do not let any of the brothers slap you heartily on the back. Your shoulders will end up in a Cassoulet pot in Castelnaudary. A great rugby family. A great family full stop.