It’s 10.00 on a blustery morning and a handful of Limousin cattle are ready to make their debut at the 57th edition of the Paris International Agricultural Show in a sprawling exhibition space at Porte de Versailles. The cows’ human handlers hover around, untangling tails and delicately removing dry dung from the caramel-coloured hair around the animals’ derrières. One farmhand sprays a sugar-infused water solution on his cow’s coat before brushing it vigorously. The substance, he explains, adds more lustre to its already glossy hide. “It’s like hair gel,” he says, patting down a few wisps of static hair on his own head.
Time is called and the bovine quintet are led through the livestock hall to a small arena where they are presented individually by name and then paraded in front of bleachers and 100 or so people.The steady clang of cowbells jars with the bad house music that’s being pumped out of the speakers, while a commentator reels off each of the animals’ qualities over a microphone: the impressive breadth of the rump on one, the elegant amble of another and, as some of the beasts will be auctioned off later in the week, the superior cuts of meat that each of them will no doubt provide.
Despite the faintly absurd talent-show element to these proceedings, this agricultural get-together, which takes place every spring, is big business – it attracts thousands of participants and more than 500,000 visitors a year. France is Europe’s largest producer of agricultural goods, with an industry valued at about €73bn in 2018. As such, cow petting, among other activities at the salon, has become an integral part of any political campaign: there is a long tradition of reigning presidents and hopeful candidates stopping by to offer their support, press flesh and push their agenda. Former president Jacques Chirac, previously the minister for agriculture, was a regular fixture in the halls. But current president Emmanuel Macron holds the record for spending the most hours on the ground, staying well past closing time and taking the opportunity to sample wine (he’s rumoured to be a fan of bordeaux and côtes du rhône reds – but who isn’t?) and other French delicacies.
Back on the fair floor we meet Noisette, a three-year-old grass-fed cow who was raised near Limoges. She looks set to be sold for between €7,000 and €8,000. The cow’s companion, 22-year-old Maeva Walek, is here working for an uncle who has names for each of his 260-strong herd. “I love animals and I have always wanted to work with them – but this is life,” she says of the upcoming sale. Vegetarianism might be a growing global preoccupation but, in France, meat, much like wine and cheese, remains a matter of national pride. The sizzling scent of freshly grilled beef burgers is ever-present throughout the venue.
Not all of the animals here are destined for the butcher’s block though. During the week-long event, more than 3,000 beasts representing 392 breeds, including the show mascot, a Charolais cow from Burgundy named Idéale, will compete before returning to pasture.The prize-giving part of the agricultural salon is a serious matter for both the farmers and presiding judges. In the “poule de decoration” (decorative poultry) category, an eye-catching line-up of birds is judged on alignment, plumage and markings, then given a score out of 100. One perfectly handsome golden Pictave rooster is eliminated simply because of its bad posture and tail sickles that sit “too high”.
In France, the production of many types of food and wine is not only limited to specific regions but also protected by an official decree known as Appellation d’Origine Protégée (aop). The “Champagne” label is perhaps the most renowned of these protected designation of origin categories but many more are covered. Comté cheese, for example, can only be so called if it is made in the Franche-Comté region of eastern France and the milk is sourced from the montbéliarde or French immental cows that graze in the upper pastures of the Jura Massif mountain range. The pasture here, which is abundant with wildflowers and herbs, influences the unique nutty flavour of the cheese. As consumers become more disconnected from the terroir, the salon hopes to enlighten people on such matters, instil national pride – and flog a little cheese as well.
Proud citizens such as Gerard Bars, who is the grand master of the confrérie (a “brotherhood”) dedicated to the rillettes and rillons of Touraine, are there to help. Bars, a former butcher, dons his group’s official garb – a green academic-style gown and a yellow wide-brimmed hat – and spends a day at the agricultural show every year as a sort of ambassador for the preserved pork delicacies. He has year-round responsibilities as well, as do the other 1,000 such associations in France, which aim to safeguard the gastronomic heritage of a product in a particular region. Every confrérie has its own regalia, motto and song. The provenance of any French product is more profound than its place of origin: it’s about protecting a heritage but it’s also about France’s global image. The French romanticise everything and it pays off with tourism.
Bars and his colleagues hover around a cluster of stands stocked with rillettes in the producers’ hall, an enormous space that showcases more than 600 French products hailing from the Nord-pas-de-Calais all the way down to Languedoc-Roussillon. The exhibitors are split into 13 geographical regions, and throngs of people cram in to sample saucisson from Languedoc, artisanal beers from the Auvergne and the dense and sticky kouign amann pastries that you can only find in the boulangeries of Brittany.
At a beaujolais wine bar set up in the Burgundy department of the hall, a lively brass band began whipping up excitement at 10.00. The musicians swill from their glasses between numbers and, after a lively instrumental version of Avicii’s “Wake Me Up”, the red-faced saxophonist yells out, “Goodnight, everyone!” He corrects himself when he realises that it’s not even midday yet. “We’re really not used to playing in the morning,” he says with a laugh.
Here’s some food for thought: has the coronavirus clampdown and panic-buying of produce made us stop and think about the importance of the provenance of what we eat?Well, it should.
The Paris agriculture fair that we report on here, which shut a day early due to the virus, is about much more than Frenchmen in funny hats flogging butter, pâté or sauvignon blanc (though that didn’t hurt the photoshoot). It’s really about visibility in an industry that’s long kept its procedures opaque. It’s also about chefs and food shops knowing the practices of the farms that make their meals. It’s about the fact that customers are, or were, finally beginning to demand transparency and trust from farm to fork.The conversation today should be about how we can keep up this momentum and support for these vital services rather than just ceding trust to supermarkets and brands that deal in bulk.
At monocle we’ve long devoted our food coverage – on Monocle 24 radio as well as in our newsletters, magazine and books – to small brands doing it better, restaurants creating community hubs and independent shops touting sustainability and sensible production. All of which, sad to say, are now in jeopardy as never before.
Wherever this issue finds you – and within whatever impositions your government might have placed on movement – smaller food producers, shops and restaurants need your custom and kindness as never before. Their survival will affect the richness of our cities and the fabric of our food infrastructure long after quarantines are eased and life returns to normal (and it will return to normal).
The fact that this virus likely started at a Wuhan wet market (maybe with an ill-advised bat barbecue or pangolin pie), presses home the notion that what and how we eat is important in avoiding risks as well as keeping us fighting fit. Fingers do need to be pointed about how all this began but that’s not for now. Right now we need to shop locally and support our friends and communities. We wouldn’t judge if you opened a nice bottle of sauvignon blanc either.
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