All things cheese in France

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

le Salon de l'Agriculture Paris 2011

I have issues with crowds. Too much humanity in any one place at any one time and in five seconds flat, I go crazy! So I know better! And yet, just like the proverbial salmon who somehow swims up stream, I find myself every year smack in the middle of what is undoubtedly, the mother of all crowds – the one at the Salon de l’Agriculture, staged in Paris every year in February. 

I must be mad! For one thing, the Salon starts during the second week of spring break when all good mamans parisiennes ou banlieusardes (ou papas for that matter) are desperate to entertain their children. So for less than a 10er for each of their little darlings, they can not only keep les petits and not so petits out of trouble for an entire day but educate them about their genetic connection to la  belle France at the same time! Second, this is France and according to Anthelme Brillat-Savarin - “The destiny of nations depends on the way they eat” - so food, specifically the newly crowned UNESCO World Heritage French Food and the agriculture that supports it, is an integral part of the identity and culture of les Frenchies. Third, NO French person worth his or her Paraboots, especially city dwellers, would be caught dead without a recent anecdote about how he or she regularly connects with la France profounde, hence in the midst of grey depressing winter, we (I included) dutifully flock in the 100’s of thousands to the penultimate expression of all things French / Food – the expo designed to show off our farms, the farmers, their animals, products and way of life.  

The Paris Exposition at Porte de Versailles is an immense site. 226,000 square meters (that’s 2,433,000 square feet!) of floor space; 8 pavilions; 1,000 exhibitors and 650,000 people cram into and outside of it. No matter what hour or what day of the nine this Salon runs, there are seemingly a gazillion children of all ages climbing all over each other trying to get in touch with the land. You cannot image it unless you have been there. Pure mayhem, it is OTT; hors contrôle! And for some reason, I am always there when staunch farm supporter and past president, Jacques Chirac (and the 100 or so news crew engulfing him) makes his way through the main hall, petting the animals, chatting knowingly with the farmers and munching the winning regional delicacies, with his hands no less! The people love him because, unlike the incumbent, being from Corrèze, Chirac definitely knows his cows from his cheeses!  

All that being said, I love it. Imagine, bulls the size of small cars; pigs the size of a pony with even more fur; doe-eyed merino and cashmere goats right there in touching distance! Behold everywhere cute baby everythings, except of course, those in strollers being pushed by their parents through la foule (mob to you) either into you or over your feet. For us city dwellers enamoured with country life, it is a bonanza, a must see and do, even if you are crowd challenged! So to brave this crowd from hell there have to be rewards! Products rarely seen off the farm like cheeses, an example would be that brought by a single producer, the Coup de Corne, made at the Ferme de Cabriole in Saint-Félix de Lauragais (east if Toulouse). It is a raw cow’s milk cheese made of milk from the beautiful Brune race of cows which produce milk super high in matiere gras that makes the cheese silky and unctuous like a triple cream but isn’t! It is also rumoured to be used in my personal favourite - Epoisse! Or imagine a 24 month Ossau Iraty rarely seen outside of la Pays Basque, nutty, crunchy and expensive but worth every centimes. And a plethora of foie gras, saucissons and charcuteries, or weird fruits like the tiny but oh so delicious pineapples from Martinique, all of which you can buy and gorge on later in the comfort of your own apartment. 

The Salon offers lots of other things to do too than seeking a centimetre of fresh air. The most interesting for me, besides the animals and rare products of course, is the the Meilleurs Ouvriers de France Fromager competiton (MOF). Only the best of the best and the hardiest of French cheesemongers, who compete over several months, win this prestigious title, which sets them apart and if not famous, then part of a very rare fraternity. Here they produce their piece de resistance of cut and presented cheeses. The chosen finalists go on to the last test in March, a blind tasting, where they have to identify a series of 30 or so cheeses – and believe me these contestants are impressive, as this test is like the one the sommelier go through for the World's Best Sommelier Competition. 

So after a day of fabulous farmers, mind blowing animals, goodies galore and crushing crowds, I head home with my clutch of brochures and food souvenirs to soak my feet and start to forget about how many times I had to control myself from hyperventilating and the desire to rampage through the hordes, to seek calm until next year… 

1 comment:

  1. My husband and I tasted le Coup de Corne last week and absolutely fell in love! It will be added to my list as soon as I can get a post written.
    (Though I'm going on holiday to the States tomorrow, so it might be a couple of weeks)