France’s agricultural heart
Image: Jenny Deeprose
The annual Salon International d’Agriculture, held at the Porte de Versailles in Paris is spectacular. In 2023, free from Covid-19 restrictions, this extensive exhibition was able to showcase areas of agricultural and traditional France, bringing the concerns of France’s rural workers, producers and protectors of traditional farming to the fore. Running from 25 February to 5 March this popular show also coincided with children’s half term, and so attracted nearly 60,000 visitors. It is unique in that it appeals to families who find out where their food comes from, and the trade – for wide ranging contacts and buying opportunities.
The president of France, Emmanuel Macron, knows well this heartland of agriculture needs to be wooed and listened to. He spent 13 hours at the show on its opening day. Cows of every breed in France are cared for on-site by hundreds of agricultural workers, and this year climate change protesters mingled with them, along with older employees angry with the change in pension age and its financial consequences.
There are prestigious competitions on site too. In the massive Hall 1, cows, sheep and pigs are judged in large public arenas, while the thousands of French food specialities are judged behind closed doors in Hall 7.
The professional Concours Général Agricole has been the barometer of quality and popularity since 1870, with judges deliberating and awarding medals covering the sectors of meat, poultry, wines, honey, foie gras, jams and of course dairy products (produits laitiers). Medal winners can display the distinctive oak leaves logo, and can command a premium price throughout the retail environment.
It’s been my privilege for some years now to join the 800 or so judges for the finals of the produits laitiers. A large crowd, renewing friendships and making new ones, was waiting to see what table they were going to be on, and what cheeses they were going to be asked to assess and blind-taste. There used to be an export section of cheese, yogurt and butter, but now nearly all the judges are French, the classes are varied, and cover all the regions of France and their specialities. There are tables of yogurt, milk powder and different types of butter.
In the displayed cheeses waiting for us, hundreds of different cow’s milk offerings were there, including sizeable Beaufort, Cantal, Comté, and others representing all the fantastic variations, including rind washed, mould-ripened, mature, fresh, in wheels and conical – the sight and aromas are pretty impressive. The large hangar-like hall was filled with tables, and gradually the groups of six judges sat down happily for several hours, absorbed in their work.
I was directed to Table 176, and greeted by six large ‘fromage de chèvre pâte pressées’. An interesting challenge, and a table of four friendly Frenchmen, from various sectors of cheese making and selling. The only person on the team who did not appear was, according to the list, a Madame Carole Fromage, provoking giggles from us all (Mrs C Cheese). The stages of judging in France are carefully monitored and not always collaborative, with pages of instructions and stages. The overall aim of the judges, according to the General Principles sheet, is “The sensorial evaluation, examining the organoleptic qualities of a product using all the senses.”
We then proceeded to spend quite a time examining and assessing the aspect and texture of each cheese, looking for irregularities in colour, dryness on the edges, maturation faults or unexpected damage. These observations (according to instructions) should be noted in silence by each judge on their personal paper, but happily my neighbour can give me the nod for ‘la or le pâte’ so my answers don’t have too much crossing out. Speaking French regularly helps, but writing is a different challenge. This group were very inclusive, and my opinion was asked for throughout.
As the cheeses were so large, we had to borrow a fearsome double knife from the stewards, and it took some strength to cut them, but always with a sense of anticipation. These cheeses were not AOP (Appellation d’Origine protégées), so they varied a lot. Aroma and flavour command high marks in the process, and this was quite a revealing taste experience. One member of the team commented that the larger the cheese, the less “goaty” flavour seemed to permeate the heart of it. Indeed, the affinage (maturing) varied, giving interesting rather than consistent aroma and taste.
The fascination of judging in a team is that although there can be personal preferences, the medal winners stand out for all those on the table. In past years I have experienced a few Gallic outbursts of disapproval at someone’s choice. One of the team said two of the contenders were the texture of raclette. These are cheeses with smooth paste, rather soft and good for melting, and not usually associated with a mature goat’s cheese, and slightly bland in character. One of the six was declared brutal, which seemed quite drastic. It was more farmyard, salty and unbalanced.
We awarded a silver medal to No:23498, a cheese which we found out later (results published on-line) was made by Fromagerie de la Corec Cazalas, called Le Crabot Artisanal. This was a cheese with character, with a long taste and good full flavour.
The dairy is in the Ariège region, close to the Pyrenees, near Bethmale. It makes a wide variety of cheeses, with cows, goats and mixed milks.
A creditable bronze medal went to No: 42065 from Fromagerie Jean Faup, also in the same Ariège region of the Pyrenees using goats’ milk produced within 40 kms of the fromagerie. It has been making cheese since 1904 in Bethmale, and this medal winner is called Montagne de Bethmale.
After we had filled in the results sheets and thanked each other, there was time to go and visit the other halls. The food and drink of France in Hall 3 were a constant delight, with more cheese, wine, pastries, breads and chocolate, and in each area an opportunity to eat a traditional lunch or snack, such as local charcuterie, with a glass of wine. One could experience Normandy, the Dordogne, Picardie, Provence and Corsica, all in a few hours. One could also buy food delights from the regions too.
In Hall 1, beside the cattle, the dairy industry is represented by family friendly milk bars, recipes and samples of yogurt, shakes, and competitions for children to underline the importance of dairy products in the diet. It offered a great opportunity to meet and encourage consumers.
Agriculture and its celebration of French animals, crops, and products is at the heart of this Salon, and gives the different areas of the food industry an opportunity to show the value of good food. Dairy is seen as an integral, valued essential of life in France. It was strategic place to be in these tumultuous times.