The International Agriculture Show is a yearly event that takes place in Paris in late February or early March. In 2011 it is taking place between February 19 and 27, and theme is ‘Farming and Food: the French Model’.
So over 1000 exhibitors and 3500 animals from 34 countries will be on site, focussing on France’s regions, technologies and traditions, with about 600,000 visitors expected to come and see their wares.
It is also where many politicians, hoping to snatch the rural vote, make an appearance to shake influential hands. Nicolas Sarkozy went on the Saturday morning (apparently after a faux-pas at the show in 2008, he prefers to keep a lower profile).
I went on Saturday, fortunately missing any Sarkozy brouhaha, and started with Pavilion 1, where the livestock was on display. When I walked into the enormous Pavilion, the perfume of hay wafted over me and, cut off from all natural light in the cavernous space, I felt as though I’d departed from Paris entirely.
This was completely different to being in some sanitised museum – I was looking at living exhibits, with famers and producers who were only too ready to talk to me and let me touch and taste their produce.
I was shocked by the size of some of the cows. Being a born and bred city girl, I’d always though cows were about the size of horses, but a bit bulkier – these were like buses in comparison! And the pigs – the sleeping giants at the Salon de l’Agriculture were four times the size of Babe.
In contrast, the chicks were scraps of feathers, smaller and softer than anything from a Kleenex ad.
And when I reached the cages of birds and rabbits, I felt like I was in a giant pet store. Excluding Bénédicte’s incredibly skittish cat, the only pet that was ever in my family was my sister’s goldfish, which I think died after a month (neat freak that my mother is, I think she changed the water too often). So my sister and would always press our faces up against pet-store windows to look at the puppies and kittens tumbling over each other, and the long-eared bunnies dozing peacefully. Here I stared at the rabbits – small balls with little, pointy ears, Angoras which were just ears sticking out of their fluffy coats, and the long-eared rabbits with their ears tucked against their bodies. I ached to run my index finger and thumb down one of those ears to see if it felt as velvety as it looked.
And then I moved on to the food. Pavilion 1 had an area devoted to cheese and dairy products, and Pavilion 7 exhibited produce from the different regions of France. I tasted sample after sample, one chocolate and hazelnut biscuit good enough to make my cheeks flush . . . but I’d already spent my money on caramelised and chocolate coated nuts by that stage, so had to slink away. One day I’m going to have enough money to go to one of these shows and buy everything I want.
I was even lucky enough to see some demonstrations.
One was of a girl making a soft white cheese – large disks of cheese rested in cylindrical casts with holes for the whey to seep out. All of the cheese casts sat on a wooden table with a groove cut out towards the edges, down which the whey slid into a bucket at one end of the table. As a man was explaining that the cheese needs to be left until the mould can form a rind, the girl quickly flipped each disk of cheese onto her palm and deposited it back into the plastic cast upside down to keep the shape and texture uniform.
I also saw a man preparing a Millet aux pommes du Perche. First he whipped up crème anglaise, whisking it until it seemed artificially bright. He sautéed some thinly sliced apples in butter, then coated them in honey and flambéed them with local alcohol. Next he spread a canary-yellow layer of custard into a casserole dish, topped it with the apples, and then added another layer of custard. After garnishing the dessert with chopped nuts, he put a green bowl of butter over the stove to soften the butter for a glaze. He lifted the bowl . . . and left a ring of green plastic on the stove.
Yes I did get to taste it, and it was lovely – the butter and apples melted together perfectly.
The next pavilion also focussed on food, but international food this time, where 34 countries each had stalls presenting their specialties (Australia wasn’t one of them, though I’m not sure what we’d show).
After visiting one of my students, who was working at the show that day and had told me about it, I took a brief tour of the crops and plant section and made my way home.