I am standing inches away from Jules, an enormous Charolais bull that weighs about 1,500kg and stares at me with big blue eyes. A handwritten note warns, “Ne Touchez Pas” but this has no effect on a couple of French schoolchildren, who push past me to gently pat Jules on the nose.
This is the Salon International de l’Agriculture, an annual event that sees “la France profonde” make a pilgrimage into the centre of Paris, transforming seven vast pavilions of the Parc des Expositions into one big farm. More than 4,000 animals are brought here from their peaceful pastures; cows, pigs, sheep, chickens, horses, donkeys, goats. And during nine days, more than 700,000 people – mainly Parisian families – flock here to take a nostalgic trip back to the bucolic, idealised rural world of their childhood.
Living in Paris you simply can’t escape the Salon but, surprisingly, the event tends to slip under the radar of most tourists. This year it celebrates its 50th anniversary, and the opening, on February 23, will come with even more fanfare than usual. The city’s Metro will soon be plastered with posters, and news bulletins will begin to carry stories of shepherds bedding down beside their animals to keep them calm, or visits by politicians keen to be seen embracing the powerful agricultural community.
Former president Jacques Chirac was a natural at the Salon, quaffing a beer with farmers before tucking into his favourite tête de veau. Nicolas Sarkozy fared less well: when a member of the public refused to shake his hand the then president started swearing at him, an incident that went viral online and was never forgotten by the electorate.
While adults seem most interested in learning how beer is brewed and tasting organic dishes, the children flock to workshops ranging from baking lessons and animal drawing to classes that gently explain how pigs end up as sausages.
There is more than just animals and food here. Wandering from pavilion to pavilion at last year’s event, I meet companies selling holidays riding horses across the Camargue or staying in shepherds’ huts in the Pyrenees. Knife-makers from Laguiole lay out a frightening array of gleaming blades, while sheep’s wool from the Alps is woven into kitsch knitwear. And then there are the hundreds of restaurants and stalls offering foie gras from the Gers, ham that has been cured in the mountains of the Auvergne, tangy Etorki cheese from the Basque region, and oysters harvested in the Bay of Arcachon.
There is a whole section dedicated to exhibitors from outside France, a whirlwind tour in which I pass Swiss monks theatrically slicing Tête de Moine cheese and dancers from Martinique promoting rhum agricole. But the real stars of the show are the animals, who seem to adapt well – a huge sow snoozes in the Village des Cochons having just given birth to a litter of piglets while the perfectly coiffed long-haired merino sheep stay quiet and docile despite being surrounded by animal lovers snapping away with their smartphones.
The crowd quickly parts when a teenage farmhand rushes through the crowd pulling a longhorn Salers cow that is late for the grand competition. It might seem like a strange temporary zoo but the Salon includes serious business too – the prestigious Concours Général Agricole is a competition dating back to 1870, with medals awarded not just for the best of the 300 breeds of animal but also to thousands of products, from charcuterie and cheese, to honey, olive oil and cognac. A médaille d’or will guarantee extra sales but, for many, this isn’t about profits. Nothing can compare to the pride on the face of Mathieu, a farmer in a broad-brimmed beret whose bull has just won the Aubrac category. He confides in me that his secret was to bring litres of water from his well to stop the huge beast getting homesick.
The Salon de l’Agriculture runs February 23 to 3 March