My friend Axelle has a thing for cows. So it was only natural that I accompany her this past Tuesday to the annual Salon d'Agriculture in Paris.
The Salon d'Agriculture is a huge event -- imagine fashion week, but with fuzzier chicks. There are pavilions dedicated to farm animals, plants and flowers, and of course, the regional delicacies of France. Axelle insisted we go visit the animals first -- a classic French gourmande, she prefers to see the pig before she tastes the sausage.
As soon as we entered, we were confronted with a huge screen sponsored by one of industrial egg companies -- something you might use to reach the overflow crowd at the MTV music awards. We watched, in real time, as wet, matted chicks pecked their way out of the shell. As soon as they hit dry land they did a frenetic little dance, then fell into a coma-like sleep from the effort. I've never seen anyone fall asleep that fast -- except my husband.
From the chicks to the cows: Axelle wanted to say hello to the bêtes from Aubrac -- a particularly burly race of cows from the center of France. She got to talking to one of the women whose farm was represented at the show. This is where you realize that France really is one big village. Axelle had spent a week over Christmas helping to birth calves at a farm in the region. Of course, these farmers knew the family; it's only about 100 kilometers as the crow files. Her husband is a stone mason, she explained, lowering her voice. He made the tombstone for their son who had died in a car accident several years before.
We made a detour to find out when the cows would be milked, and picked up several complimentary bookmarks with anatomical charts of beef, lamb, pork and veal printed on the back. Cuts of meat in France are very different from the US -- the primer will be useful as I fight the line of grannies at the butcher.
The pigs were slightly less picturesque -- but there was one in particular that I was looking to make the acquaintance of. Le porc noir de Bigorre is a large black pig. I had only heard him described as a restaurant special -- his particular charm being that he can't be raised in captivity because he likes to roam free and eats only what he wants. That was enough to sell my husband on the dinner special, but I wanted to see this happy pig in the flesh. He was having a nap when we stopped by.
As we rounded the corner we saw the unruly crowd of cameras and microphones that signals the presence of a French politician. Sure enough, in the center, leaning on the shoulder of a younger man, was former French President Jacques Chirac. Chirac has long been a favorite at the Salon -- making a point to come each year and pet the cows. The crowd applauded as he went up the escalator. President Sarkozy got off to a rougher start when he visited the Salon a few days earlier. Sarkozy was insulted by a member of the crowd, and with the cameras still rolling muttered, "Casse-toi, pauvre con" -- which basically translates as buzz off, jackass. The Salon d'Agriculture is a particularly damning and symbolic place to make a political faux pas -- like George Bush telling someone to screw off on the floor of the New York stock exchange. More than a million people have already watched the clip on you tube -- and Sarkozy's approval ratings hit a new low of 38% percent. It certainly won't help his party, UMP, in the local elections coming up next week.
As we made our way towards lunch in the food pavilions, we stopped to see the donkeys. Axelle was in search of soap made from lait d'ânesse (donkey's milk). Apparently, Cleopatra used to bathe in it. We both walked away with a jar of rich body cream that smelled faintly of honey. I was trying to think of a way to describe the purchase to my friends in the US. "Donkey cream" would probably be a mistake.
Entering the food pavilion, we hit the jackpot right off the escalator. A jury awards prizes to the best products each year, and we fell straight into the arms of Ghislaine and Réne Boutines, the médaille d'or (gold medal) for foie gras. So what if it was 11:30 am -- never too early for paté.
The foie gras turned out to be both magnificent and essential, because it's impossible to drink Armagnac (the next stand over) on an empty stomach. We tasted Daniel Dubos' 1981 (this year's médaille d'or), the 1979 (pow, right in the kisser) and a eventually settled on a 1989 (a kick at the beginning and a smooth warm tingle at the end). Their website is here.
There was also the delicate matter of sausages. We were looking for smoked. Au Bon Fume du Pays had a specimen of particularly impressive girth called the Jésu de Morteau (the Jesus of sausages), not to be confused -- as foreigners and heretics often do -- with the Morteau de Jésu (Jesus' sausage). Hallelujah.
We plopped down for oysters around 2pm -- fresh and sweet as skinny dipping in the ocean. With renewed vigor we moved on to the cushiony prunes of Agen and a taste of golden Sauternes, thick as maple syrup on the tongue.
Axelle insisted we say goodbye to the cows on the way out. We sat down in the bleachers by the show ring with our packages. I was done, but the Salon was far from over. Friday was La Nuit Pomme de Terre (International Potato Night) and anyone with the name of a potato variety got in for free. Axelle went back with her sister's ID. Her sister's name is Amandine, which is also the name of an adorable species of potato.