For­get the Royal Show. As the Salon In­ter­na­tional de l’Agri­cul­ture pre­pares to open in Paris, Clive Aslet says it’s the French who re­ally know how to cel­e­brate coun­try life

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Front Page -

There are times when you have to love the French. One of them is next week­end when the Salon In­ter­na­tional de l’Agri­cul­ture (SIA) opens in Paris. Now an agri­cul­tural show may not sound very promis­ing if you know only the Royal Show or even the Bath and West, but the SIA is just so… French.

In Bri­tain, the coun­try­side talks to the coun­try­side and ur­ban man blocks his ears. Show grounds are all in the sticks. Across the Chan­nel, by con­trast, la France pro­fonde — rural, small-town France — comes rol­lick­ing into the cap­i­tal, camp­ing out in the Parisian equiv­a­lent of Earls Court. It is a vast event, more than twice the size of our big­gest equiv­a­lent, the Royal. This year it will oc­cupy eight ex­hi­bi­tion halls. My chil­dren were so ex­hausted when they first went that they had to be car­ried out. But even as their lit­tle legs buck­led un­der them, they were beg­ging to be taken back the next day.

The key is that the “agri­cul­ture” of the ti­tle is only part of it. This is a grand cel­e­bra­tion of show an­i­mals, re­gion­al­ism, les va­cances (most French take their hol­i­days in France), foie gras baguettes, field sports, fancy chick­ens, oys­ters, tins of cas­soulet and don­keys in many va­ri­eties — Provence, Grands Noirs du Berry, Nor­mandy, Co­tentin, Pyre­nean. And that’s be­fore you chuck in a brace of mules. At the SIA, you see them driven in front of cars by codgers in re­gional cos­tume.

As I grew up in Sur­rey, my re­gional cos­tume is prob­a­bly a pin­striped suit. In France, they still have re­gional dress, which they wear with panache. This is the place for berets. It is also the place for mu­sic: jazz bands, march­ing bands, danc­ing in the aisles. Lis­ten to Defra and you’d think there was no­body left in the Bri­tish coun­try­side un­der 65. Here it is dif­fer­ent. The man play­ing the ac­cor­dion — the ac­cor­dion, for heaven’s sake — is in his twen­ties. Imag­ine find­ing a young mor­ris dancer!

Try click­ing on com­par­a­tive web­sites. The Royal’s is busi­ness-like, with loads of tightly-packed text, links to themes such as es­tate man­age­ment and a pho­to­graph of a mid­dle-aged man in­spect­ing a trac­tor. The SIA screen shows a bright, sunny day on the farm. Noises come through the speak­ers. It is some re­laxed per­son whistling a merry

tune, over­laid with the sounds of birds twit­ter­ing, bees buzzing and the oc­ca­sional moo, baa and bark. This se­duc­tive vi­sion of rural life is what the SIA is all about.

A few years ago, the dairy sec­tor staged a spe­cial ex­hi­bi­tion en­ti­tled Femmes et Fer­mes. Beau­ti­ful, slightly grainy pho­to­graphs showed women nur­tur­ing their cat­tle and a happy event on Marie Noelle’s farm in the Côtes d’Ar­mor. Venus, one of the 65 milk­ing cows, has just had a calf, “born in the field with­out the least dif­fi­culty”. How it likes its “box laid with fresh straw”. Joelle in the Tarn-et-Garonne (20 cows) says: “I am at­tached to my roots… friends from Toulouse adore com­ing to the barns and get­ting on a trac­tor.” My taste buds cried out for the choles­terol-rich cheese th­ese splen­did lady farm­ers were mak­ing. The in­dus­try-funded equiv­a­lent in Bri­tain would be a dis­play of tri­an­gles from Dairylea.

Back home, my farm­ing friends froth when I tell them about such pre­sen­ta­tions. Danone, whose yo­gurt pots you may well have in your fridge, is an enor­mous French multi­na­tional, as big as any­thing we have in the UK. Mono­prix is no more lov­able than Tesco. But the French put time and money into craft­ing a myth of the coun­try­side and sell­ing it to the town dwellers.

There are other agri­cul­tural shows apart from the SIA. Se­ri­ous poul­try farm­ers have their own event. The ma­chines at the SIA are rather like the fire en­gines at the vil­lage fête: there to gen­er­ate a gen­eral feel­ing of good will. The SIA could be viewed as a glo­ri­ous PR stunt, in­tended to charm the ur­ban pub­lic into a hazily be­nign view of rural life. Nat­u­rally the show is sub­sidised by the Min­istry of Agri­cul­ture, just as all those charm­ing women farm­ers, with their dozen cows, have been sup­ported, his­tor­i­cally, by the EU’s Com­mon Agri­cul­tural Pol­icy (CAP). But, my good­ness, it works. Big though it is, the show heaves. More than half a mil­lion peo­ple, at least 40 per cent of them from Paris, will visit it next week­end.

The reach goes be­yond the cap­i­tal. Look at the coach park. Béatrice Col­let, the di­rec­tor, must find space for 1,500 coaches from the rest of France. The event is on na­tional television ev­ery day. The Pres­i­dent of the Repub­lic has come ev­ery year for the past 30 years. Usu­ally be­tween 30 and 60 se­nior politi­cians fol­low suit. This year, as the pres­i­den­tial elec­tions loom, the show will be stiff with them. It’s what Mme Col­let calls a ‘‘big po­lit­i­cal year’’. They will all be at it. Since ev­ery re­gion in France is rep­re­sented, pres­i­den­tial hope­fuls such as Sé­golène Royal and Ni­co­las Sarkozy will be sam­pling ter­rines and liqueurs from each of the 22 re­gions rep­re­sented. Paramedics may have to help them off the show­ground af­ter the elec­toral grande bouffe.

In France, un­like Bri­tain, agri­cul­ture re­mains a con­stituency. I cher­ish the me­mory of the year when Jac­ques Chirac ad­dressed an African au­di­ence, de­cry­ing the prac­tice of dump­ing CAP-sub­sidised food on the Third World. The next day he was at the SIA de­plor­ing the “stub­born­ness” of the EU Com­mis­sion for at­tempt­ing to re­form the CAP (of which France is the big­gest ben­e­fi­ciary), “which nat­u­rally will lead nowhere”. Priceless. It could only hap­pen in France.

There are other points of dif­fer­ence be­tween cul­tures. I re­call one I en­coun­tered on the Métro, be­fore even go­ing into the show. The Porte de Ver­sailles sta­tion was lined with posters show­ing a juicy steak. It was ac­com­pa­nied by one word: “Mar­guerite?” Mar­guerite is the most pop­u­lar name for a cow in France. The im­pli­ca­tion was that the an­i­mal that had been loved in life would be equally well re­ceived on the plate. Diplo­mat­i­cally, Mme Col­let does not re­mem­ber this ad­ver­tise­ment and em­pha­sises that this is not the re­la­tion­ship be­tween farm an­i­mal and vis­i­tor that the SIA seeks to pro­mote.

Even so, there is a ro­bust­ness about the French at­ti­tude that makes me want to cheer. Here is the adorable black Basque pig, sur­rounded by her ut­terly en­chant­ing piglets. There, bang next door, is a stall sell­ing the de­li­cious salami that is the rea­son for the pig­gy­wigs’ ex­is­tence. The French aren’t squea­mish. They have their feet in le ter­roir. Stom­ach, not sen­ti­ment, comes first.

Th­ese cun­ning coun­try folk know that they have to win over the chil­dren. Jamie Oliver, for­get it. Chil­dren here are draw­ing pigs, mak­ing ginger­bread men, pur­su­ing trea­sure hunts – all of which are de­signed to lure them into a sub­lim­i­nal un­der­stand­ing of the na­tional food cul­ture. I re­mem­ber our chil­dren, wan­der­ing home with a bal­loon tied to each wrist. The motto on the bal­loon? “ Le porc j’adore.” (A tip if you go with chil­dren: give them a mo­bile phone or keep them on a string. We had a ter­ri­ble hour when we lost our six-year-old in one of the vast, densely packed halls, know­ing that he couldn’t speak French.)

One of our chil­dren’s bal­loons was popped by a curly brass horn be­ing car­ried by a tyro hunts­man who had just pur­chased it. Yes, a hunt­ing horn. This year, how­ever, there will be no spe­cial sec­tion de­voted to hunt­ing, as there has been since time im­memo­rial. Civil­i­sa­tion at last, the an­tis will say. Well, not quite. It is sim­ply a re­flec­tion that the stalls in the hunt­ing sec­tion were not up to snuff. Crit­ics said they were in­suf­fi­ciently about hunt­ing: too much coun­try cloth­ing, too few duck de­coys. Vis­i­tors to the SIA want to see guns. Some of the vi­cious-look­ing knives would be enough to put a Bri­ton in prison. But this is France: there is even a gov­ern­ment-funded Of­fice de la Chasse.

Where else could you find a whole stall de­voted to a man crack­ing wal­nuts? Mole traps jos­tle with chain­saws, aro­mather­apy oils, hideous gar­den or­na­ments, but­ter­flies in glass cases, walk­ing boots, choco­late and rum. Rum? Mais bien sûr. Don’t for­get that the French over­seas ter­ri­to­ries are treated, ad­min­is­tra­tively, as though they were part of the home­land, and ex­ist as Dé­parte­ments de France.

You don’t, to be frank, see many black faces at the Royal High­land Show, be­cause on the whole eth­nic mi­nori­ties steer clear of the coun­try­side. But Guadaloupe and St Vin­cent burst onto the SIA stage with all the vi­brat­ing colour of the Caribbean. (“ La ba­nane dans tous ses états” — not some­thing you’d find at the East of Eng­land show.)

By this point, you will ei­ther be too tired from hav­ing in­ves­ti­gated the eight halls (don’t try to do them all, stick to two or three, is my ad­vice), or too hi­lar­i­ous from sip­ping the lit­tle plas­tic cups of wine, that you may cease to no­tice one or two other pe­cu­liar­i­ties of this event. But keep your eyes peeled for treats such as the Odysée Végé­tale. Only the na­tion of Proust would dare to call an ex­hi­bi­tion hall full of carrots and olive oil a “Veg­etable Odyssey”. No­tice the small steam train that ap­pears to be puff­ing be­hind that stall of sausages? On in­ves­ti­ga­tion, the clouds of smoke have been gen­er­ated by the stall­holder’s pipe. In Bri­tain, the hy­giene po­lice would have him in irons.

As an English­man, I could only blush be­fore the dis­play of our na­tional pro­duce that had seem­ingly been as­sem­bled out of my grand­mother’s store cup­board — ap­par­ently for no other rea­son than to con­firm the stereo­type of Bri­tain as a place of bar­barism, far be­yond the lim­its of the known culi­nary world. At least we can re­joice in our an­i­mals, our na­tive sheep breeds and… erm, cows. But where are the cows? ‘‘You must un­der­stand,’’ Mme Col­let blandly says, ‘‘that san­i­tary stan­dards have to be ex­cep­tion­ally high. Un­for­tu­nately we can­not ad­mit Bri­tish cat­tle.’’ French to the fin­ger­tips. Gr­rrr…

But it is, af­ter all, only an agri­cul­tural show. The Bri­tish have our chance to laugh. The gar­den­ing com­po­nent re­stores a sense of na­tional bien-être. As a sex sym­bol, Alan Titch­marsh may seem uniquely home-grown, but he could teach pro­vin­cial France a thing or two about plant­ing a border. Hav­ing in­dus­tri­alised ear­lier than France, Bri­tain has be­come a na­tion of hobby gar­den­ers, some­times gar­den­ing artists, more than food pro­duc­ers. Dis­plays of ar­ti­fi­cial flow­ers, vi­o­lently-coloured crys­tals in gi­ant cock­tail glasses in which to grow bulbs and ce­ramic fruit to put on the wall, re­veal France’s un­der­belly of rural kitsch.

This is peas­ant taste. But don’t throw down the pa­per in dis­gust at this use of the “p” word; French coun­try peo­ple revel in be­ing peas­ants. The As­so­ci­a­tion of the Peas­ant House of France has a stand. The UK, on the other hand, is a land of old rec­to­ries. The up­per-mid­dle classes have taken over the farm. Not so at this show. The fowl might sport pom­pons, ruffs, feath­ery feet and dan­di­fied, strut­ting gaits (the Leghorn cock­erel walks like Mick Jag­ger) but the peo­ple look­ing at them are an al­to­gether home­lier breed: beady eyes, home-dyed hair, leather driv­ing-coats, sharp el­bows, arms that don’t reach very far into their pock­ets when it comes to ex­tract­ing cash.

Avoid eat­ing at the restau­rant up­stairs: it is the one thing that is dire. In­stead snaf­fle up as­para­gus from the Lan­des, snot-bod­ied Brit­tany win­kles and soupe des hor­tillons (a Pi­cardie spe­cial­ity: hor­tillon is a wa­ter gar­dener who har­vests his leeks and cab­bages from a flat-bot­tomed boat), all of which are served at bare ta­bles by laugh­ing wait­resses for whom the whole ex­pe­ri­ence seems a good joke. The last time I felt such a spirit of sol­i­dar­ity in Bri­tain was on the Coun­try­side March.

No need for rural protest here. Ev­ery city dweller seems to have cousins or un­cles who farm. An es­sen­tial part of their iden­tity still be­longs to the re­gion from which the fam­ily orig­i­nally came. In Mme Col­let’s case it is Cham­pagne. She can­not sup­press a smile of pride when she says it.

You can buy into this sense of joie de vivre at the SIA. They bot­tle it for you to take home in Kilner jars, la­belled navarin of lamb, pot au feu and the like. Keep one in a cup­board and heat it up on a gloomy evening. It will make you smile, too.

Eye­ful power: the French coun­try­side comes to the cap­i­tal in the SIA, an event of pas­sion and panache that oc­cu­pies eight ex­hi­bi­tion halls and at­tracts more than half a mil­lion peo­ple – in­clud­ing pres­i­den­tial politi­cians hit­ting the ‘cam­pagne’ trail

Sales pitch: as well as the don­keys, chick­ens, cows and other an­i­mals from all over France on show, politi­cians (above left, from top) such as Jac­ques Chirac, and pres­i­den­tial hope­fuls Sé­golène Royal and Ni­co­las Sarkozy are ex­pected at this year’s SIA

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