Bella and the VIPs

bella04Meet Bella. This bovine beauty was the mascot of this year’s Paris International Agricultural Show.

Aside from good looks, she and I have a few things in common. She comes from the Rhône-Alpes region of France, although a little further south in La Savoie. She’s one of a sturdy breed of cows – Tarantaise – not the biggest but among the most hardy. Adaptable, she’s known for keeping the grassy slopes of the Alps trimmed in summer which helps prevent avalanches in winter. And which also produces some of its best-known cheeses: Beaufort, Tomme, Reblochon, Abondance…

(I’m going to stop the analogy here – although I’ve been called a cow, I’ve never stopped an avalanche and don’t produce anything but words!)

But I’m sure that Bella, along with the hundreds of other animaux de la basse-cour – farm animals – who found themselves in Porte de Versailles over the past two weeks, felt like a fish out of water. I know I did when I arrived in Paris. The lights! The crowds! The rude waiters!

Le Salon de l’Agriculture International, as it’s now called, is an annual celebration of food. And of what the French call ‘terroir,’ meaning the ability of a specific place to produce a specific product. Saucisse de Toulouse, quenelle de Lyon, jambon de Paris: it took me awhile to understand the importance of terroir. Surely a sausage is sausage, no matter where it’s produced? Mais non! The Appellation d’Origine Contrôléé is a gauge of quality when it comes to the designated origin of French produce.

Terroir, in a nutshell, explains the philosophy of French gastronomy. It is why wines are named after their regions rather than their grapes. It is why a cheese called a Saint-Marcellin (a creamy, raw-milk cheese so fragile it has to be contained in a little cup) can only be produced there.  Or a poule de Bresse, a specific breed of chicken with its own label, can only be raised in that region.

And It’s what makes it so much fun to discover France. Because as you travel around the country, you will stumble upon all those magical places that produce the wonderful products…like Roquefort (ah, it’s a town, not just a cheese?). Champagne (a whole region for producing the bubbly?). Just about every bled (slang for town) has its own culinary claim to fame in France.

The small town I lived in for years in the Côteaux du Lyonnais was known for a kind of peach I bet you’ve never even heard of: la pèche de vigne (vine peach). A much deeper red in the color of its flesh, it’s the peach equivalent of a blood orange and makes a velvety juice like no other.  Every year the whole town celebrates this fruit at the Fête de la peche de vigne.

And all of these wonders are celebrated each year at the Paris International Agriculture Show. Along with the hundreds of different breeds of pigs, cows, chickens….and since it became ‘international’ a few years back, produce from Italy and other European countries.

I’ve never made it to the show myself, but every year the media regales us with stories from the salon and les coulisses (behind the scenes). Politicians petting farm animals is the French version of kissing babies. Here’s Hollande in action.

The organizers even made their own version of the ‘Happy’ video featuring the VIPs – Very Important Paysans (with a cameo appearance from the French Minister of Agriculture).

It is what we call ‘un grand moment de la culture française.’ And one year, I’ll go. Although, like Bella, I’ll probably need several weeks to recover.

Check out David Lebovitz’s blog for a true foodie tour of the show.