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
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