Once a year cows, pigs, sheep, goats, birds, flora and fauna — not to mention a vast cornucopia of foods, wines and liqueurs made from them — make their way to Paris from France’s diverse regions, including its overseas colonies, for the Salon de l’Agriculture.
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The Salon de l’Agriculture encapsulates France’s commitment to its agricultural heritage, especially on the part of the capital, which has, since the late Middle Ages, depended upon importing food into the city. Unlike medieval antecedents, such as the Foire Saint-Germain, the salon no longer plays an essential role in supplying such products to Paris. Nevertheless, no other event so effectively offers Parisians and others the opportunity to sample and learn about them.
For many Parisians, an annual visit to the salon is their primary contact with rural France. One father from the edgy 20th arrondissement explained that he’d brought his daughters, who are 5 and 8, because although they had no trouble recognizing exotic zebras, lions and elephants, they had difficulty with common farm animals.
Salon de l’Agriculture exhibits beckon with specialties
With more than 4,000 animals, the feeling is that of an old-fashioned county fair blown up on an epic scale. However, all of the counties are represented against the backdrop of the most cosmopolitan of cities.
Gourmandizing visitors often find it hard to spend more than a perfunctory moment visiting cows, watching sheep-shearing and equestrian feats, or perusing the somewhat disappointing fruit and vegetable pavilion, which is admittedly challenging to mount in winter. The fair’s largest section, which features two football-stadium-sized floors filled with French regional foods and wines, beckons too strongly.
It is tempting to nickname this area, “infinite variations on pigs and grapes, punctuated by ducks, geese and plenty of cheeses.” Sausages of every shape and size dangle alongside hams from Bayonne, Auvergne, Franche-Comté, Corsica and numerous other regions. Oenophiles sample grand cru wines and engage in prolonged, sotto voce negotiations with winemakers in the subdued Burgundian section. The overseas area, however, buzzes with Caribbean music, tropical fruits and Creole boudins, as visitors jostle to purchase cups of Planter’s Punch. Waffles, caramels, ice cream and oysters proliferate in the Breton area; while a cacophony of cheeses, sweets, honey and preserves vie for attention at nearly every turn.
The Île-de-France features bakers, who prepare baguettes on the spot, and members of the Confréries de l’Île de France, wearing Masonic-like robes and medallions, who proffer samples of protected-name brie de Meaux. This guild-like organization has plenty of other regional counterparts, whose members can be found parading around in similarly antiquated garb.
The fair’s layout bears no relation to geography, which produces surprising juxtapositions. This year, the Norman area, replete with artisanal Calvados and seafood, adjoined the southwestern section, overflowing with foie gras and a staggering array of other duck-based treats.
Those who prefer not to graze on take-away items and free samples can opt to dine at one of more than 30 restaurants, each specializing in a different region.
For the artisanal producers who exhibit at the salon, it represents big business, not because of retail clients but for the numerous wholesale buyers who attend from across France.
The competition for the annual Concours Générale Agriculture, which has since 1870 awarded medals to the best examples of a broad range of foods, wines and liqueurs, takes place over the fair’s nine days. On opening day, visitors visibly flocked to stands flaunting gold medals from 2012, such as for duck foie gras at Jean-Pierre G. of Landes; or for Champagne over at Champagne Sanger. By the closing day, attendees sought out newly minted winners such as Biper Gorri for its Basque piment d’espelette and the Nyonaise Cooperative, which won medals for several Côtes du Rhone wines and for its olive oil. Every winning product can thereafter carry a sticker announcing its award, so the prestige and profits of winning reverberate long after the fair.
A powerful political stage
Politicians keenly milk the Salon de l’Agriculture’s symbolic potency. French President François Hollande opened this year’s event, while former Prime Minister François Fillon of the UMP and Marine Le Pen, head of the right-wing FN party, also made conspicuous appearances. During last year’s lead-up to the French presidential election, overt campaigning was rampant.
So too, fast-food corporations such as McDonald’s, which has been wildly successful in France since emphasizing the use of French products, and agribusiness invest in large stands.
Nevertheless, with a host of rare, conservation breeds, plenty of demonstrations and interactive displays, and especially the strong presence of so many artisanal producers and vendors, the salon powerfully promotes and protects France’s agricultural heritage and gastronomic culture.
Rare Casta and Lourdaise cows, now under conservation, at the 2013 Salon de l’Agriculture. Credit: Carolin C. Young