The Food Chain On Parade

Salon de l'Agriculture

Parisians Gorge On Regional Specialties
During Annual Farmer's Invasion

Paris:- Wednesday, 26. February 1997:- After the last couple of days of really heavy rain, when I look out it is breezy, and blue with clouds. Waiting for the toast to pop, this morning's Le Parisien says the flat racing starts its season today at Maisons-Laffitte.

Besides not ever having been to this track, it might be raining tomorrow and I can look at the cows on Friday at the Salon de l'Agriculture - but when I ask; the car is booked for the day. Maisons-Laffitte is quick to drive to but a long way around by train - so it's cows today instead of fast horse flesh.

The métro, after Concorde, is crowded. School is in, except on Wednesdays when it is at least half-out, but this métro car is more full than that - it is like rush-hour on Line One; except it is Line 12 to Paris-Expo. As expected a lot of riders get off at Montparnasse; but unexpectedly a lot more riders get on and if anything it is more crowded than before - is everybody going to look at the cows?

A friendly but large beef

At the Porte de Versailles, the whole gang pours off. I have never seen this big platform so full. As usual, the out-of-towners and newbies head for the wrong exit - as I did myself the first 30 times - and this creates more jam as two-thirds fight to go one way and the other third try to push through to the other. I hope we can get clear before the following train unloads.

I get in by flashing last year's badge but before hitting Hall One, I see the breeder's have a tin house to receive foreign breeders and I take a hit on its door to find out what they're up to. Everyone gets tangled up in knots trying to answer my silly questions - do French breeder's have a Web site? If they do, it saves me reading all their stuff and then writing it up. They direct me further and in Hall One I blitz through the press office and update my badge. (They all think I want to pat the cows for free; they don't really believe I'm going to write this.)

Right from here, there are big picture windows looking on the big ring - where the prize animals are paraded before judges, and if it wasn't for it being the funky hangout of journalists with their half-full plastic cups of cold machine café, it would be a good place from which to 'cover' the whole show.

There are bleachers at either side of the big ring and there's no problem getting a seat. This is just around the corner from the press office, but there is authentic straw on the floor already. After looking at the ring my way is blocked by a cow jam; by a double line of beefs waiting their turn for the show-off. No worse than a herd of big R5's at Etoile; I squeeze around them.

Then the aisle numbers I saw down here from back there, are nowhere to be seen. I see a cute beef instead. It has a warm wet nose about the size of my head.

When I was little I remember that cows were the size of trucks - police trucks, the black and white ones. These ones, these French beefs, these are huge. They say 'slabs of beef' and they are like the sides of houses with western-style cowhides draped on them. Why then, are steaks so tiny?

I think my nose is not working because I'm not getting the smells I got here last year; I wonder if the memory will hold over for another year?

There are prize animals left and right, lazily leaving legs like trees trunks in the way to be gently stepped over. The breeding people - their association that is - have their stand here; several of them. Did you know 'limousin' is the name of a cow? See one and you'll know why. A lot of car parts have French names; I wonder if they all originated with cows - probably not; but I often have the feeling the world has forgotten more than it thinks it knows now. The breeders have an 'off-line' Web site - one that will be 'on-line' soon - so there's no address to go with it.

Last year I thought there were far more animals than people to look at them and this year it is the reverse. Since I can not say much about these animals - without looking up a lot of stuff - I decide to head for the hall with the regional specialties to see the beer that has hit the evening TV-news several times already.

A gaggle of kids are looking at an animal on clean straw and they are reaching in through the barrier-thing and petting it on the head and the shy ones, on the nose. Parents are watching carefully, but I think this animal is not very awake. It is a kid-size animal and it is lying down and it is getting a lot of attention while giving little.

Behind, a little girl has found a space to get between the barrier and a wall, to get close to the next animal, a very big, blond cow. She goes to pat it on the nose, which is much bigger than her head and bossy sees this movement and turns this business and the little girl jumps back a bit. I bend down to one metre and tell her cows don't eat little girls - and then forget what it's called, they eat - and tell her they eat grass - 'gazon.'

Another kid gets in there and the cow gets interested in her too for a second, before turning back to some delicacy in a metal pot, and the little girl is telling me which animals she likes and the other one pipes in with her favorites and then the cow is interested again, but so is mom - 'turn my back for a second and if they don't get eaten by a big blond cow, there's this Parisian molester...' and I remember the regional specialties and scoot outa there. But.

They eat 'paille' mostly - when they aren't eating high-grade vitamins and other body-building good food that looks like buckshot, that grows their bodies seven different ways but mostly, up.

Before going 'up' to Hall Two on the way to Hall Three where the goodies are, there is a semi-huge line just to get on the escalator, and it is slower than the ones at Concorde in the rush-hour.

Hall Two is full of Agri-Information and I deviate from my single-minded route to see if I can get any. As with the breeders in the hall I've left, they are not on-line yet, but soon. Be patient. This is also the case for some travel people who can arrange for visiting farmers to visit farm sites in France.

Hey. I bet you never thought of that. Visit French farms. If Paris gets about 20 million visitors a year, where do the other 40 million visitors to France go? In reality, they probably go to Disneyland Paris - but some, just a few mind you - do come to France to look at the basic end of the food chain.

Again, without looking at the two kilos of paper full of wildly interesting facts I have right here at my elbow, let me say that agriculture is a very big business in France.

For starters, there are 60 million picky French to feed; for seconds, there are 60 million visitors a year to feed too; and for thirds, there is a lot of exporting of what's left over. Now you know why so many people live in Europe - to be close to French food!

France has a reputation for good food. What you probably don't know is that France suffered from famines occasionally, up to within a couple of hundred years ago. And you all know that old famous miss-quote of Marie-Antoinette's, "Let them eat brioche," when the Parisians were grumbling about not having enough bread.

It is a miss-quote because Marie-Antoinette only had brioche and was unaware of bread's existence, and as she had plenty of it she just naturally thought there was a lot of it around. There still is; what we might call 'wonder bread' overflows French supermarket bread shelves. The forms of it are different, but it is true 'wonder bread' all the same. Regional specialties to the horizon Sometimes it is packaged differently and sold as 'hot dog buns' - in French - but it is all really brioche.

Hall Three is a very big, L-shaped hall. It is where the 'regional specialties' are and it is the hall that everybody who comes to the salon comes to sooner or later, depending on when they get hungry. There are six 'halls' devoted to this salon, which probably makes it second in size after the Foire de Paris - which also has 'regional specialties' by the way.

If you are from some part of the funky western world and you have a salon like this one, it probably has a hall or a space given over to samples of food. The ones I saw before I came here, used to have all the new concoctions that had been invented during the year by the big food multi-national conglomos in their labos by the fuzzy-headed scientists in white dentist coats - all the new snacks and the magic, new, effortless, self-buttered high-cal, stupendously exciting NEW version of pre-packaged two-tone pop corn, with the bag made out of corn that can be used to make tacos with.

The French don't have this amusing stuff in Hall Three. They only have bread, cheese, wine, oysters, hams, sausages, some booze and a bit of beer. That is 105 kinds of bread, 450 kinds of cheese, either 10,000 or 410 different wines, dozens of different hams, about a dozen kinds of fresh oysters, dozens of dozens of kinds of sausages, 340 kinds of booze and a great deal of different beers. There is some imported stuff from former colonies like Martinique too, so there are a few hundred varieties of spice things. I forgot sauerkraut; there's 24 different versions of it.

None of this stuff is labeled by any big food multi-national conglomo, French or otherwise. I can already anticipate the next question. You want to know if it safe to eat things you put in your mouth that has a label that you've heard of, or some hand-made label, of pure civilian fantasy?

Today in Hall Three, it looks like there are about 5,000 visitors here at the moment, and all of them are eating and drinking this non-brand-name stuff, and there are no people lying on the floor and writhing in agony.

Throughout France, day and day out, millions of people consume these foods and drinks - none of which are approved by the Institute of Plastic Food, which does not operate in France in any case.

Normally, brand-named, approved, plastic-packaged food-like stuff can be purchased in supermarkets or grocery stores; and often these establishments have no other variety.

It explains the reason for the tremendous popularity of the Hall Three at the Salon de l'Agriculture, and at all other manifestations in the Paris area where 'regional' foods and specialties are offered. Plastic food does not fill one up and people get hungry for the 'real' thing.

There must also be some deficiencies in the general functioning of France's distribution systems; because it seems as if a great number of people here today are not Parisians - they are the French from the 'provinces,' this vague area of France located somewhere beyond the Ile-de-France. They must be here today, because these 'regional' specialties are not available in their 'region,' and the only place they can be found assembled in one geographical place, is in Paris. And only occasionally at that.

This then, is good news and bad news. If you are not here today, you may be on the coast, at Trouville for example, where the only 'regional' specialty is oysters - and it means oysters for breakfast, lunch and dinner; every day except during months with 'r' in them.

Getting these essential facts together has made me extremely thirsty and I find my way to the stand of the French brewers association. Last year they had a copper coupola of a turkish pot on display, Hand-made sausages but this year there are two dim caverns that I skip because there will be no light for photos.

At their press reception I try to find out about alcohol-free beer and they don't seem to have heard of it. I am directed upstairs to their 'beer terrace' to discuss this with their official spokesperson. I am offered brown beer or yellow beer or Evian. This water is not my favorite, but neither are the other ones.

After more fruitless enquiries about 'zero-beer' I accept a water, in quite a nice wine glass. As I rest I gaze out over the vast hall and all I can hear is chewing and drinking, and see 'regional' signs extending to the horizon.

One of the by-products of most commercial breweries is gas - which can be handily used for making soft drinks. Since the gas is free, this can be a high-value-added sideline. Many serious ex-beer drinkers and ex-wine drinkers do not like soft drinks, because they are not only gassy, they are also too sweet - and totally unsatisfactory as a beverage. Fruit juices, while not excessively gassy, are often too sweet to sip for long.

Out of 350 million Europeans there are one or two that would like to drink beer or wine, but for various reasons - medical or legal - can not. Water, no matter what the label, is quickly boring. Too much café makes a person 'wired,' and like speed, may keep one awake. Tea is a form of oriental soup and unless you like soup a lot, tea is not a serious option as a long-term drink.

So then, with all the trouble they go to, to make wine and beer, why can't they make it without booze in it? They say it is hard to take alcohol out because these beverages are made from natural products - but I say they aren't trying very hard. I say they're missing a good bet. 'They' don't just disagree with me; they don't even feel like discussing it.

Although I'll be back to carry on the good fight another day, this is the end of this salon for me. On the way out I stop to chat with the beer-puller and learn that the 'official' beers are nameless. Both are Alsatian, both are from small breweries with non-national distribution - and - get this: these beers are served, yeah, in the wine glasses, but they are clean wine glasses. The two beer nozzles are joined to their barrels by pipes that are clean.

These two necessary items can turn a horrible beer into a so-so beer, and they can turn a good beer into a fantastic one. Remember it: clean glasses and clean pipes. Without them, even a homogenized beer made from banana sludge will taste like it sounds. Prosit!


Try out AgriWeb, also known as the Ministère de l'Agriculture de la Pêche et de l'Alimentation . This new Web site has been in operation since 23. February. It has 13 sub-sections, dealing with all aspects of agriculture in France. Some of the information may be less than complete for the start-up, but for those interested it will be a site to watch and perhaps follow regularly.

Le site du Cercle des Fromagers will tell you everything you ever wanted to know about cheese in France, in French, in detail.

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