Every year in the heart of the city, Paris holds the Salon de l’Agriculture (Paris International Agricultural Show). This is a weeklong celebration of the heart and soul of France, a country where people are still sincerely proud of their paysane (farming) roots. The show has been in existence since 1843 and it has been held inside Paris since 1855 when it was first held on the Champs de Mars, which is the green space between the Eiffel Tower and the Ecole Militaire, and also where my boys took their first steps and where we spent the first 5 years of their lives. From Napoleon, to world wars, to tourist from every corner of the world; if that ground could talk!
The Salon de l’Agriculture is not your local 4H show or county fair, forget “Some Pig” and Charlotte’s Web. The Salon de l’Agriculture had almost 620,000 visitors this year and is held in urban Paris, surrounded by tall buildings, choking congestion due to the always jammed ring road around the city and the ministry of defense down the street. The expo center that holds the fair is enormous and also holds international car and boat shows.
The French are tied to their regions and it is important for them to flaunt what their region has to offer and at the same time they respect and want to know where their meat, cheeses and produce come from and how they’re handled. There is a normalcy in knowing that your beef used to have a face and that it didn’t just mysteriously arrive at your grocery store wrapped in plastic.
This year a bull mistakenly thought he was in Pamplona and not in Paris and escaped. Besides the obvious image of a bull running in the streets of Paris making me laugh was the fact that in the news reports they told the race of the bull. It was a Highland Cattel from the Jura. Oh, the shame. 🙂
The Salon de l’Agriculture is always held at the end of February, which often coincides with the winter school break for the Parisian kids. However, this year the Paris vacations were early and they didn’t overlap, which was not a bad thing because everyone was in town and not skiing or sunning and could have a chance to visit the show.
The fair is opened every year by the sitting President. This year and for his 5th and last time, it was Francois Hollande who did the honors. Leave it to the French to turn something as simple as an agriculture fair into something political. The president opens the show and during the week other elected officials or politicians running for office make strategic visits. In France it is extremely important for politicians to be seen as “in touch” with the salt of the Earth and they need to be comfortable with holding a calf, maybe pulling an utter and definitely shaking lots of hands. In the past there have been missteps and they cause huge embarrassment to the politician and can even spell their demise. In 2008 while Nicolas Sarkozy was in his first year as President of France he was going through the fair shaking hands. He put his out to someone who wouldn’t accept to shake the conservative President’s hand. Sarkozy was caught on camera replying “Casse-toi, pauv’ con!” which literally translated means “Get lost, asshole”. He didn’t get reelected in 2012… Besides the escaped bull there was some excitement when presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron got hit in the head with an egg.
This year we all went as a family the last Saturday of the fair. There are four parts to the fair- the animals, the plants/grains, the professional equipment and the food and wine section. For me obviously the highlight of the show is the upstairs, which has row after row of stands for all of the different French regions, including the overseas territories like Guadeloupe and Martinique.
We started our tour around the halls on the first floor looking at the different cows, sheep, horses and pigs, oh my. The differences in the species of horses or sheep for example are vast. Some are tall and lanky while others are short, stocky workers. There was an impressive dairy stand offering free samples of yogurt and also of milk with some flavored syrups. I chose chestnut and it was really good.
We walked quickly through the halls showcasing the crops (highlight being the Eiffel Tower of fruits and vegetables) and headed towards the food section. Just as when we go to the Salon Nautique (the fancy Parisian version of a boat show), we always find our way to the Bretagne section. Often my boys get a crepe to eat while we are walking around and I get a kouign-amann. This time around Frenchie and I had a beer and the four of us continued our quest to find some lunch.
Walking through the wine section on a crowded Saturday was not quite as fun as in years past. In the good old days we spent quite some time in the Antilles section drinking Ti Punch. A few years after our twins were born we decided to buy each boy a case of Château-Neuf-du-Pape from the year they were born. We tried many wines and found one we liked and purchased it there and had the cases delivered to us at home. This is definitely not your local county fair.
There is a great movie called Saint Amour that came out in 2016 and stars Gerard Depardieu that is partially filmed in the Salon de l’Agriculture. Depardieu and his son are farmers and are showing their cattle at the fair. The highlight of his son’s year is coming to the fair in Paris and going on a wine tour through all the regions. The plot thickens as Depardieu takes his son on a real tour through France with a Parisian taxi driver. Here is the trailer in English.
After too much walking (my boys’ complaint not mine) we each found something to eat. The boys munched on some sausage until we found a stand that was selling sandwiches with thin sliced dried saucisson (like a salami for lack of better description). Frenchie had some quiche Lorraine, not as good as mine 🙂 but he liked it and I had a sandwich of foie gras. Don’t worry we all had a good helping of vegetables for dinner!
What is so striking to me is that food and livestock go together so naturally in France. We were just feet away from the snouts and rear ends of pigs, cows, sheep etc. and that intimacy doesn’t change the relationship the French have with their meal. In fact, it even creates an understanding and respect for the animals that give us our milk and meat. Here in France all meat and produce sold must, by law, label where the food came from. It is up to the consumer to decide if they want a Chilean apple or an apple grown in France. Even McDonald’s France caters to this particularity of the French psyche. They sell a burger called Le Charolais, which is a race of cow from the Burgundy region. Can you imagine McDonald’s selling burgers labeled with where the meat came from, from the teeny tiny region within one of our states? They wouldn’t because it’s not an important factor to the American “super size, hot & ready” consumer.
While it’s neither the Louvre nor a boat ride on the Seine, the Salon de l’Agriculture offers an interesting look at the relationship the French have with food. Visiting this fair just scratches the surface in the quest to understanding the French but hey, they do have an Eiffel Tower.