05 March 2010

Le Salon de l’Agriculture

A few years ago, I attended the annual Salon International de l’Agriculture, here in Paris, spurred on not only by my interest in and support of the industry that makes possible the food and drink I enjoy so much — but also by fond memories of the Texas State Fair, and the carloads of free stuff my brother and I used to get there. As schoolkids, we would run all over Fair Park, grabbing samples, brochures, gifts, anything that was offered to us (and quite a lot that wasn’t). Surely a celebration of all the best that France has to offer would far exceed my wildest hopes.

Six sous? Ces six saucissons-ci sont si chers!

I was wrong about that — which is why I’m not attending this year. The admission fee is, like so many things in France, more expensive than it ought to be, and there’s almost nothing given away, once you get inside. If you want to sample tasty treats, from sausages to seafood to Sauternes, from raclette to rack of lamb to Rocamadour, you have to pay again. And again. And again.

“France is western Europe’s largest agricultural producer
and a leading exporter of farm products.”
[World Book Encyclopedia]

Also, there is no midway; the nearest you will get to a rollercoaster is the Métro outside. However, as a display of the astonishing variety of domesticated flora and fauna in this country, and the myriad products that are fashioned out of them so ingeniously, the Salon de l’Agriculture functions beautifully. I’m glad I went — and one year or another, I’ll probably go again.

“France produces butter and about 400 kinds of cheeses,
including Brie, Camembert, and Roquefort.”
[World Book Encyclopedia]

French farmers don’t have an easy lot, for all the protections the government allows them. Like farmers everywhere, the French are at the mercy of the elements, and this week — after a long winter of killing frosts and freak snowstorms — came windy rain and flooding in the Vendée and Charentes. Thus on the television news we’ve been buffeted between cheery reports on the Salon (Look! A bunny!) and heartbreaking scenes from the southwest. Fields poisoned by saltwater left behind when the flood receded. Great piles of dead livestock, including sheep and goats born only a few weeks ago. Damaged equipment tossed around. Barns brought down. It seems almost hypocritical to celebrate the richness of French agriculture at such a time.

Flooded farmland in southwestern France, this week

And yet — what more eloquent defense of farming can there be than this? It is the quality and variety of France’s food, perhaps more than anything else, that has made this country the envy of the world. At the Salon, again and again, you see why. According to one news report, judges in the tasting categories must sample some 4,000 products before declaring winners. Naturally, my interest is drawn more to the food products than to the raw ingredients, no matter how exotic some of the prize-winning livestock may be. From this stems my disappointment that I, who am not a judge, get to sample a total of zero products at the Salon; honestly, I’m happier at the market, where prices are lower and I’m less tantalized and less disappointed.

Nevertheless, as one looks out across the rows upon rows of pens of livestock, each animal more gorgeously groomed than the last, one can glimpse the care and pride that go into raising the least and the ugliest of them.

The French seem especially keen on birds and animals with extra plumage and fur, especially if it’s ruffled: it’s sort of a combination of animal husbandry and haute couture. I have seen more ruffled chickens and rabbits than you can imagine, but it must be said that they don’t look any happier than regular critters do. Most of the livestock, in fact, appears to want very much to be somewhere other than the Salon.

Il est très é-meuh:
Chirac makes a new friend.

By far the best way to attend the Salon is to be Jacques Chirac, the former president — and, long ago, agricultural minister, as well. Scheduled to attend this year’s Salon this morning, Chirac is considered a great champion of French farmers. They will ply him with free food and drink even now that he is out of office; they will even let him pet the animals. A real ham, even by political standards, Chirac enjoys himself thoroughly at these affairs, and just watching him on the evening news can bring a smile to your face, even if you dislike the man. He’s having such fun — he can’t help himself! It’s all so noisy and colorful — so tasty and so smelly! The farmers love him!* And look! There’s another bunny! His enthusiasm for the Salon is contagious.

Dan Rather used to advise me, whenever we visited a country that was new to me, to visit its places of worship. That, he said, was a terrific way to understand the people. He didn’t take into account the markets and fairs of a country, and yet in France these are, in their way, among the holiest places around. The French have invested a tremendous amount of time and thought to the question of what to eat, and how: for them, food and drink are not merely a matter of survival but a definition of character. Even if you think you understand this about the French, it helps to see it all laid out before you at the Salon.

En plus, c’est vachement amusant par ici!

*NOTE: The farmers despise Nicolas Sarkozy, who insults them, which makes their love even sweeter to Chirac. Sarkozy put off his visit to the Salon until the absolute last minute, this year, which in itself has insulted the farmers more than usual.

[With the exceptions of the pictures of the flooding and of Monsieur Chirac, all photos come from press pages at the website of the Salon International de l’Agriculture. This year’s Salon continues through the weekend.]

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