Excitement builds across France this week, as well as for this writer - I’m like a 5 year old those few days before Christmas Eve. Why? Because we are a few days off the opening of the ‘grande spectacle’ that is the 2012 Salon International de l’Agricole (better known to all as SIA) in Paris.
The President will declare the fête open this Saturday morning (25/02) and then, it being election year, he’ll walkabout, trying pressing flesh with the rural classes – a couple of years back one farmer made the headlines for steadfastedly refusing to shake the outstretched hand of this most urban of Monsieur le President’s.
Here at Porte de Versailles we’ll find everything from ferrets to foie gras, bulls and cows, chickens and sheep – in fact any animal reared or employed on a farm, 4,667 of them to be precise, will be on splendid display because they will be the best of the best in all France.
The Limousin bull, Dolcorsllwyn Fabio, was sold in Cumbria yesterday for £126,000, the all-time record for the breed in the UK , as reported in Tuesday’s Daily Telegraph. The magnificent Fabio would be amongst the best of bovines at SIA where Limousins will stand alongside every other French breed, from the ever popular grand Charolais to the lesser known Abondance and Montbéliarde – the latter two best known for the milk that goes into AOC cheeses like Abondance, Comté, Vacherin Mont d’Or and Morbier (not sure about AOC here, but it’s deep and creamy tasting with an ash streak running through the centre).
Quickly pushing, shoulder to shoulder with gloating farmers past the arrays of polished farm machinery, colleges and banks’ offering courses (this year’s theme being employment in agriculture), money and more, and you arrive in hall after hall of food. Well over 1,000 exhibitors are listed for 2012 SIA.
Cheese aside, because that has its own pride of place in the Salon des Fromages, just about – and probably – all foods are on show and most on sale. Foie gras will be there by the fresh lobes and cuit - hopefully I might bump into my this week’s food hero , London butcher par-excellence, Jack O’Shea, the man that stood firm on foie gras and was made a scapegoat nonetheless for having the ‘cheek’ to trade in foie gras, albeit clearly branded with the store’s name and logo – funny that. If we loaned a ferret from SIA then we’d surely catch us a rat.
Anyone wanting to rant about animal welfare and on-farm cruelty should look no further than a glass of milk. Foie gras production, preferably artisan, is not in any way cruel and the sooner its critics got themselves to an artisanal producer and witness first hand le gavage, the sooner the storm in the teacup will leave us as they realise, to their relief, these chosen ducks and geese actually enjoy the special attention and extra grain – science tells us their necks are without feeling, so hurt it does not.
Industrial food production is mostly bad – and some much worse than others. Keeping cows industrially to provide us with cheap liquid milk, means the beasts are lactating un-naturally for 8-10 year and longer is. At slaughter their carcases crumble in your fingers from calcium deficiency. In life they suffer too. QED.
This is not the case where the milkers are loved and cherished -and so have consistently good yields because, its known and recorded, happy cows milk better.
SIA sets to put our food production in an agreeable setting, that is not to say the industrial will not be there – it’s just they won’t be celebrated by Blue Collar Gastronomy.
I say little more at this stage otherwise I’ll spoil the posts to come from Paris. My one big focus this year will be smart and celebratory chickens – Poulets Fermiers - as I will start to introduce my exclusive Poulet de Gournay into the UK, as well as help, fingers crossed, to introduce a pure breed Fermier bird to a retailer too. I’m also taking some SIA first-timers from a British retailer around the show one day – and it’ll be just great to view the occasion through their fresh, enthusiastic eyes.
As you can imagine for the hungry SIA-goers there are hundreds of ‘couverts‘ around the major halls – pop-up restaurants long before the ‘pop-up’ descriptor became chic – offering one choice entrée’s like cassoulet, choucroute, tartiflette and more – best described as food for hungry farmers. The noise levels generated by the many thousands of excited visitors becomes near deafening, but never unpleasant, as the afternoons roll on for the 10 days of the show. The last Friday night is a ‘nocturne’, with the show staying open until 11pm.
SIA’s aim is to bring the real, living countryside into the French capital – Parisians flock there in droves, as do entire farming families from the regions, all suited and if a tad too tightly booted for a great day out. Even the Metro to Porte de Versailles is rowdier than when France is playing at home at Stade de France, or the Tour de France finishes on the Champs Elysees every summer.
At 12 Euro to enter, with another 50-100 Euro’s spending money you’ll wonder why you ever visited any other food fair as you return home weary and happy, with top class foods and wines in any categories you choose, ready to relive their SIA experience. I can think of nothing you won’t find – from sea, river, lake, field, hillside or mountain - small and large scale, exotic alongside the ordinary – but all mostly 3 A stars and an extra gold sticker for achievement.
The much-admired Concours General is judged at the SIA and products will proudly display their small white laurel leaf roundel announcing gold, silver or bronze. Products displaying this are generally best in class.
Little wonder for me that the Royal Show (Stoneleigh) chose to retreat into oblivion a few years back – in more recent years it was a very sad reflection of how the British support local farming and food when seen alongside what happens across the Channel. It’s there for the taking with Eurostar - and for anyone who’s calling or interest depends on food, SIA is not to be missed and yet it’s surprising just how little is known about it over here.
Whether it’s sorting sheep from goats, milk from cream or whatever metaphor you choose, SIA is a ‘must-see’ destination for everyone who cares about and is involved in food. We Blue Collar Gastronauts will be there in our thousands, most without even realising they’re deserving of the tag.
Google ‘SIA 2012 Paris’ for more information