Giving the Food-Chain the Once-Over

The is one winner of a French cow.

Here Comes, There Goes, the Salon de l'Agriculture

Paris:- Wednesday, 4. March 1998:- While the week's issue often starts in the shower, the pitter-patter of variable-heat water drops on my skull stirred nothing up this morning.

Today is set aside for the big visit to the big Salon de l'Agriculture. I have 'plugged' this event, TV has run it every night, and the papers are full of it. How many traipse down to the Porte de Versailles because of our combined hype, I don't know, but I'm beginning to feel it is already discounted as far as I'm concerned.

In case you didn't read about it here last year, and the year before, Paris' Salon de l'Agriculture is the show where 'France Farms Inc' shows its stuff to blacktopped and cobble-stoned Parisians, as well as the rest of the world.

Except for industry, just about everything France does outside of Paris, is represented at this salon; ocean sailing excepted. To show this, almost the entire facilities at Paris-Expo are utilized. If you have only one day with which to tour France, this is the place to do it - but you should be prepared for a long day.

France Agriculture begins where Paris' suburbs give way to open fields, which is about where I live. If I happen to be checking the weather by looking out of the kitchen window - today's report: total grey - I have long ago ceased to be surprised to see a fieldmanitou tractor following a school bus. This is not quite the same as having rich earth under my fingernails, but it is a constant reminder that France is a country preoccupied with its belly and what to put in it.

This is a sling-shot - not tractor! - but a hydra-headed lifttruck.

As I am, so I eat breakfast. Mmm-good! Whip the gear together, do not get killed on the crosswalk, do not die of a heart-attack going up through the graveyard, and catch the train on time.

The SNCF is putting in cattle-barriers at La Défense to bother ticketless passengers; while removing outside ticket vending machines from the suburban stations. I catch the métro while forgetting of trying to figure out the logic of this.

At the, ah, Porte de Versailles, it is interesting to watch the descending passengers. There are two exits from the platform, and one of them is closer to the Paris-Expo grounds. Out-of-towners and infrequent visitors do not know which to take, so they mill around on the platform in uncertainty, while those who do know, battle to get past them.

Habitual visitors know which end of the train to take in order to avoid this confusion - the front end, the front car! - but I take the opposite today because I need vital supplies before plunging in the salon. When I do, it is at the wrong gate, and I am sent to the wrong building - but again - frequent visitor! - I know the shortcuts.

I do not get a three kilo press dossier. I don't think anybody does. The catalogue I do get, 112 pages, does not have any press-like 'facts' in it. Good. No facts in this feature then.

Same as last year, the big show-ring is in the centre of the big hall one. To the right of the show-ring some farm equipment is on display. I start here.

Does everybody know what a farm tractor looks like? At the front there are two little wheels close together, and over these and stretching back is the motor. The driver, or farmer, sits behind the motor, over and between, two very tall rear wheels. This tractor layout goes back more than a century, to the original steam-powered models.

What stops me, is a red sling-shot affair, with a low front and equal-sized wheels all around. Kids are trying out the driver's seat, inside a complete cab, and I can see that they could see enough to drive the thing. It doesn't look like any tractor I ever saw.

One of Manitou's salon guys tells me it is not a tractor. It is an all-purpose hydraulic platform: fork-lift, crane, scooper-dooper; it has every possible combination of accessories, with the exception of ploughs.

It picks up, scoops up, anything. You can bomb cows with hay-bales, for example. This is easier than chucking hay at them with a pitch-fork. I try to get the guy to say it is an all-round farm racing machine, but he won't.

A bit later, when I look in the big show-ring to see the best animals in the world on parade - I instead see one of these Manitou 'MLT 628's' - get this! - racing. Yes. A wiggly course has been set up and the idea is to race one of these - not tractor! not racer! - through the course, pick up a football suspended on a pole with the forks, and, thenbasque stand turn around and deposit the football in a pail on the ground.

This is when I see that, in addition to four-wheel drive, it has four-wheel steering too; it can go diagonally. No lift-truck I ever drove had this feature, although the Bulgarian one did it sometimes on ice.

French-Basque stands feature regional specialities.

I watch one young driver in a red baseball cap go through this course, pick up the ball, put the ball in the pail - and then fail to kick the ball into a goal three metres away.

What does this tell us? The kid will be a power-assisted farmer but will never be a rugby star. Life has its little disappointments after all. No matter - these machines are made in France in a big factory, located on what used to be a large parcel of flat farmland, near the Loire river between Nantes and Angers, in Ancenis.

After all this excitement, I have to see what I came here for - the cows. I look at the Spanish cows first because they are the first I come to. Actually the animal is a bull, but it is not like the ones on the cognac advertising signs or the ones I've seen in rings. This one might look pretty in the Plaza Mayor in Madrid, but it doesn't look like it's built for speed.

Then there is a building-wide quadruple row of cows and they are all taking the excitement pretty calmly. Many are chewing cuds in fact.

They have neat names like Limousin or Charolaise; Simmental or Bazardaise, Parthenaise or Blonde d'Aquitaine. They do not look like they are meant for eating, with their prize ribbons. Maybe the losers?

At your butcher shop, if you order a kilo of Charolaise T-bones, or maybe a roast of Limousin - I wonder what the butcher will say. In these days of 'crazy cows,' he'll probably say, 'welcome meat-head!' Oh yes, 'it' is still going on.

The other end of the food-chain is also very much in evidence, behaving in much the same way as they were on the métro platform. Wednesday means there are many school kids but besides this, many here are not Parisians - and they've come in whole families, with baby strollers included.

In front of the escalators leading up to the fly-over to hall two, there is a gigantic crowd trying to funnel itself onto one. The other one is pouring hordes into the hall. By remaining calm I get through this jam.

Hall two is jammed too, as is the passage to hall three, where the edible food is. This is sort of divided into 'regions' but I can't make any sense of it except that 'Provence-Rhône-Alps' seems to have the spot of honor, right in the centre of a building which seems to be U-shaped. Finding a way around here is like driving in Paris at night without a map or lights. Here there is no 'true' north - just food and drink stands in every direction.

I can't find the beer. This salon launches the 'March'-beer season, so this is a big event in France's more-or-less uneventful beer-year. I do find an exit door, but when I look out I see the periphèrique flying overhead and this serves to reorient me by 180 degrees.

Exhaustion overcomes me easily in places that are crowded so when I see a stand offering simple steaks I take a seat and order one. It comeschateau de mille with two small ordinary baguette pieces, a paper plate and a plastic knife and fork, and I get a water too. Fifty francs. The steak, advertised as Charolaise, looks like burnt hamburger.

While there are acres of stands, there are kilometres of people.

It is not. It is so tender that the plastic knife and fork set do not cut it; they tear it apart. Fingers could do it just as well. It is no treat for the eye, nor is the stand, but it does the job.

Another potential customer looks at this and decides against it, saying, "It looks like hamburger." I assure him it is not, but looks alone are unconvincing.

If he had seen the standing prize model of this, he would have tried it on memory alone. Which is what I've done. I realize this had spoiled me for red meat again - no point in eating it if it isn't like this, and it isn't likely to be - so the rest of the year will be chicken balls and frozen pizza.

Outside, rain threatens. I've missed the seafood section, the biological part, the regional tourism, the whole 'nature' tent, all of the horses, and all of the training and information stands; and by no means least, the entire veggie branch.

All the other people, a small army, walking towards the exits and the métro, look like they've missed far less than I have. They look over-saloned, pin-wheel-eyed.

For the ordinary, consumer-type visitor, it is not a salon you take ideas from. You come away with no plans for bio-gardening on your balcony for example.

What you do have is an idea that there is an awful lot of food in France. Excuse me, I need a 'digestive.'

35th Salon de l'Agriculture Web Sites

A lot of would-be producers of content for the Web spend a lot of time looking for a tiny 'niche' subject, in order to have the 'site of reference;' or the best site on the subject. I spent about a half-hour with Yahoo-France and finally AltaVista, trying to find this salon's 'big' site.

Paris' Salon de l'Agriculture is officially organized every year by the Comité des Exposition de Paris. For the occasion of this particular and huge annual event, the Comité's Web site has a page of general facts, and says the next salon will take place from 1. March to 8. March 1998. This then, is the 'content' for the present salon which is half over.

The commercial people hardly do better. The weekly guide magazine for Paris' events, 'Pariscope' Web site has exactly one page, which is about as long as the official Comité's.

I have never been able to find 'Metropole Paris' with a Yahoo search. Imagine my surprise to find it high on the list for 'salon' and 'agriculture' - for the report I did on last year's salon. I guess this is why I get occasional letters from transient readers, asking for information about events in Paris.

I know this sounds like I am beating Metropole's drum. The point is, rather, that there is something seriously wrong. Today I am at themy snack salon as one lone reporter, while there is an entire information industry at hand - which seems not to realize the sheer importance of France's place in the world's food chain - it feels kind of odd to be the lone drummer for this.

Yes, it does kind of look like burnt hamburger - but it isn't.

Well, not entirely alone. There are local farm organizations - in Brittany for example - which have their Web sites, with references to this salon. The reason I am not putting in their Web addresses, is because the search for 'Salon de l'Agriculture 1998' Web sites has nearly taken longer than my visit to the salon today.

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