I’ve just returned from the the Salon d’Agriculture in Paris. This magnificent exhibition, which brings together all that is best in French agriculture, is like a tour of France in one day. (Click here for the English-language website, including video of the fair.)
At the huge exhibition space by the Porte de Versailles, the Salon fills 7 vast halls each year and is organized, among other themes, by animals and by regions. So you can, for example, visit the halls dedicated to horses, or chickens, or pigs, and the halls dedicated to products from Provence or the Languedoc or Normandy and other French regions.
I started with a tour of French cattle, sheep and goats. There were enormous Charolais bulls wearing leather harnesses, beautiful Abondance cows wearing bells, Merino sheep from Arles in southern France, black and brown goats from Corsica…. The sheer scale of the event is overwhelming and you hardly know where to look first as you come across dozens of different breeds, pass the stadium where prizes are awarded, watch demonstrations of sheep being shorn or cows being milked. You can discover the process of making Roquefort cheese, taste goats cheese from the French Alps, and cows cheese from the north of France.
The next hall was showing horses, mules and donkeys. There were working horses, stud horses, horses for riding in the countryside, Camarguais horses which are directly descended from a prehistoric breed… There were hardy mules, little donkeys from Provence and larger donkeys from the north.
In each hall, you found clothing and other accessories that went hand in hand with the animals on show – saddles, hats, harnesses, stirrups – and a mass of written information.
The hall showing birds was perhaps the most astonishing. The sheer variety of chickens, doves, pheasants, pigeons, geese and ducks really was overwhelming. Some creatures were hardly recognizable as birds, so elaborate was the breeding to give them flamboyant feathers. There were birds that looked like huge feathery snowballs, birds that had massive plumes on their heads, birds that appeared to be wearing large feathered jodphurs….
Many of the birds and animals were for sale but they were also there to win prizes. Once an animal has won a medal at the Paris Salon d’Agriculture its value, for reproduction, is boosted and its price is higher. In the case, particularly, of bulls and horses this can mean big money for the farmers who bring their animals to town.
Passing slowly through the halls showing animals, I arrived at the halls showing agricultural produce by French region. Again, the variety was astonishing – and thrilling. There were wines from every region, light rosé wines from the south for example, full-bodied red wines from Burgundy and champagne from, well, Champagne obviously. There were cheeses from across France. Oysters from the Atlantic coast and from the Languedoc on the Mediterranean coast. There was charcuterie from the north and east and notably from Corsica. There were farmers and suppliers displaying olives and oils, fruit and vegetables, cured hams, pickled cucumbers, sauces, spices, chestnuts, nougat, honey, lavender, rice from the Camargue, soap made with olive oil…. A cornucopia of colours, scents, textures and tastes. And of course, at every stand you could try a bit of this product and taste a bit of that.
It’s difficult to convey the scale and the excitement of the Salon but if ever you find yourself in Paris at the beginning of March it’s an event that is well worth visiting. For the equivalent of a few dollars you can easily spend an entire day enthralled by the huge variety of creatures and produce on display. You can see animals you’ve never seen before, learn things about agriculture you had never dreamed of and taste foods you’ve never tasted in your life.
I ended my agricultural and gastronomic tour of France in the hall dedicated to the DOM-TOM – the overseas territories still linked to France. These include territories and islands in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans as well as on the South American coast. Here I tried several recipes on stands run by people who’d come to the Salon from French Polynesia, Réunion and Mayotte. “Do you want the hot sauce or the hot sauce?” a woman asked me, beaming as she ladled chicken and peppers onto a paper plate. I chose the hot sauce and believe me it was hot. A man displaying huge exotic flowers on a nearby stand – ‘birds of paradise’ I think they were – burst out laughing when I started to eat. “See?” he said. “That’s French food too. French food with a little variation!”
Variation, or variety, is what the Salon d’Agriculture is all about. It’s a stunning exhibition bringing the amazingly rich sights, scents and flavours of France together in one vast event that you won’t regret visiting.