It’s about soldiers returning from Europe in WWI and what they saw “Over There” (another classic WWI song). After seeing Paris, the song intimates, how will the boys ever get back to work on the farm milking the cows and slopping the hogs?
The obvious solution: let the boys stay there and bring the farm to Paris.
During the week of February 25 to March 4, Paris was a giant barnyard, at least at the Porte du Versailles Exhibition Hall. It was the 49th edition of the grand Salon International de l’Agriculture where farmers and commercial exhibitors from all over France presented their animals and products to us city folks here in the City of Lights.
A few statistics for you number crunchers in the audience: for the 2012 edition the salon organizers anticipated 1,142 exhibitors and 4,667 animals. In 2011 there were 678,732 visitors, which included the professionals involved in the salon.
It’s a big deal here.
A little history: the origins of the salon go back to the General Agricultural Competition which was officially launched way back in 1870. It was a competition for animals, food, wine and youngsters planning to make a career in farming. In 1925 it moved to the exhibition halls at the Porte du Versailles, at that time on the outskirts of the city. It’s been an annual event ever since.
As soon as you enter the first of 7 halls, you’re vaguely aware you’re not in a cosmopolitan environment any more. Massive cows and bulls greet you with a “meuh” (“moo”) some lowing deep, others content (as cows are, even French ones) in their stalls of hay and metal. Off to one side you hear a crowing of an award winning cockerel and the occasional bleating of sheep. Even with the carpeted passageways with the bright electric lights overhead, you have to watch out for the, um, cow patties as you walk.
Smack dab in Paris proper.
My major interest in seeing the cattle was to take a close look at what I’d been eating the last ten years. There is a debate among French meat-eaters where the best beef originates. Is it the Charolaise from the Burgundy region or the Aubrac breed from the southern edge of the Auvergne in south central France? Tastes vary but the cattle seem content enough.
One of the most crowded of the exhibits in the animal halls was the incubator of hatching chicks. A farmer with a head set microphone spoke to the crowd, letting us all touch the fuzzy down of the new born chick. As we watched, new chicks started to chop away from the insides of their egg shell homes, ready for life on the outside…and to become immediate celebrities of the salon.
Across the hall I spoke to a chef from the Auvergne. He had just finished frying up small pieces of veal cooked in a marvelously simple sauce of crème fraîche, chives, garlic and balsamic vinegar.
“Balsamic vinegar?” I asked. “That’s not very French.”
He smiled. “Non,” he admitted. “It’s Italian. But it works.”
The large and elaborate exhibits in the commercial halls touted the superior quality of French produce from pommes to courgettes (apples to zucchini). There was even a stand for corn, though corn doesn’t figure very much in French cuisine. A friend told me a story of how she cooked an elaborate, truly American meal, complete with corn on the cob, for a French friend. The friend sat aghast at the corn when she was served, looked up slowly and said, “This is what we feed the animals!”
Just more for us, I say.
And of course there was the section of food, foods from around the world. Interestingly, there was a large amount of Russian caviar for sale. One could buy a tiny blini, the size of a half dollar, topped with some fine caviar for 3 Euros (they’d throw in a shot of vodka for free). Artful displays of products from Spain, Bulgaria, Japan and all regions of France promoted culinary excellence (and a relaxing lunch with quality ingredients). In the Swiss area, a cheese maker stirred a large copper kettle of milk, demonstrating the slow cooking of the famous Gruyère cheese.
This is Paris, so you can imagine that this section was especially packed.
Fairs such as these are important to all of us, illustrating where our food is coming from. As in America, the French farm is disappearing. It’s important for all of us to remember the hard work that’s involved in bringing our daily bread and meat to the table.
And to find new ways of keeping ‘em down on the farm before and after they’ve seen Paree.
Doug Cushman is a former Redding artist and author who lives and works in Paris. He was born in Springfield, Ohio, and moved to Connecticut with his family at the age of 15. In high school he created comic books lampooning his teachers, selling them to his classmates for a nickel apiece. Since 1978, he has illustrated and/or written more than 100 books for children and collected a number of honors, including a Reuben Award for Book Illustration from the National Cartoonists Society, New York Times Children’s Books Best Sellers, and the New York Public Library’s Best 100 Books of 2000. He enjoys hiking, kayaking and cooking (and eating!). Learn more at his website, doug-cushman.com.