City slickers and milking machines

Sunday, December 13, 2015 0 Permalink 0

Farm snobs

I must be getting really French by now, because my snob factor is out of hand.

We were kindly invited by urban friends to come into town this weekend for the Midi-Pyrénées agricultural show in Toulouse. They know we like these sort of “farm” things, they said. And they go every year. Won’t we come along?

Oh, we accepted gladly, but I have to admit that we stifled a snicker. What could the city-slickers know about poultry, manure… gaver!? We were expecting to encounter an atrium full of disaffected chainsmoking black-clad skintights who had mistaken the Saturday morning hubbub for an after-hours disco.

On the way into town, we passed a billboard for a certain budget German import grocery chain which declared brazenly a too-low price per kilo for porc which was a “product of Spain.” By law they have to say where the meat comes from in the ad, because around here it matters.

I sneered over at M. in the passenger seat, and before I could catch the words coming out of my mouth I said, “Who would eat a Spanish pig? Are they even allowed to use the word ‘porc’ in that case? That’s misleading… That there is puerco!”

Now, we live 2 hours from the Spanish border, and perhaps more importantly, Spain is internationally celebrated for it’s high-quality pork. You see the problem.

But that snobbery is justified, I say. French pork, at least when you know the farmer, the butcher and very likely the pig himself, and his pedigree by several generations, is better.

I have friends who swear it’s exactly the same industrialized antibiotic-saturated mass-murder pork-farming that goes on in China or Texas, but these are the same people who claim that French healthcare is terrible, almost worse than nothing at all, while anyone who has ever been outside France well realizes that it is the best in the world.

It’s all relative, but overall, let me say that I trust the French pork, and I’ll take my chances with porc over puerco any day. Ditto the healthcare.

For his part, M. apologizes for creating a Franco-nationalist monster.

The Midi-Pyrénées Quality Food and Agriculture Show

We normally attend farm and terroir festivals in po-dunk rural districts, where an idle sheep is apt to be tethered and ruminating beside an exhibition, for those who already well know and are only there to criticize technique, on how brebis cheese is made.

“The proximity of the belching adds important flavor,” they may say, while others will vehemently disagree, and aspiring young farmers, lifelong rivals in training from childhood, eye each other suspiciously across bales of hay.

Such whispered aspersions as, “He puts imported molasses in his livestock feed…,” might come to entertaining fisticuffs. An occasional runaway mare lends a festive atmosphere. One old farmer at the last show danced a barefoot drunken jig with a pitchfork behind his blasé blue-ribbon bull.

Most people at these shows live less than an hour from the exhibition site, and the tendency is for every little thing to become localized to the max, down to the distance the bee had to fly to pollinate between trees. Less distance is better, but not too much less, lest the roots are cramped, and Grandmama once told us how deleterious that can be to the crunch of our apples… or walnuts… or foie gras stuffed prunes… or lamb kidneys.

But whatever you do, do not do it as they do in the next village over. Those poor lost souls!

The goal of these agrarians is perfection, and they try to get it just superlatively right. But the purism gets quite out of hand, even for me.

Our friends from the Brive Festival, whenever they visit us down here an hour and a half south, never fail to bring us some “real” bread from their village of 600. Because you see it is the best bread, and really it is the only bread worthy of the name. (Let us not even speak of their local pigs!) They say they bring it for us, who have to do without real bread every other day of the year, but we well know that they bring it for themselves, because it would not do that they eat anything less.

Accordingly most agricultural competitions and exhibitions are a celebration of a very local way of life, and while there may be a few chickens hiding out in downtown Toulouse, to my knowledge there are no flocks of sheep or cattle, much less snail farms, sturgeon and honeybees.

We never expected to find an interest in the grittier aspects of terroir in the downtown urban center of Toulouse, so the salon de la qualité alimentaire de Midi-Pyrénées, or SISQA, came as a completely wonderful surprise.

Here the center-city French, in a capital large enough that most everyone there could claim to be total strangers, enjoyed a very different tone, more vast but no less complete, in exhibitions of cuisine and agriculture from producers from as far apart as Cahors and Carcassone. The presentation was decidedly more sleek and fashion-forward, too, and particularly with regards to children’s educational booths.

These city children do not often step foot on a real farm, but soon enough, through diet, purchasing habits and appreciation of heritage, they will be responsible for the future of gastronomy and agriculture in France.

It’s in everyone’s best interest that they appreciate exactly what is happening on the farms, where their haute-cuisine comes from, and how it is made. There was even a space-age artisanal Armagnac tasting bar set up right in the heart of the educational play space, for the parents, to encourage lingering.

A tactile education

There were no competing rodeo riders or barefoot farmers, but there were petting pens and even a stylized corn maze. There were cow-milking mannequins and a beekeeper in a transparent tent broadcasting by microphone as he worked a real hive. Chicks were hatching in incubators before our eyes, turkeys were in plumed standoff with brave toddlers, and bins of various seeds, grains, animal feeds and oils were laid out for our tactile inspection.

There was much attention paid to current trends in organic farming – including aerial drones and robotic weeding – as well as basic instruction on what and how artisanal French products are made. One table was pressing blue cheese curds into molds, another showing how wool is spun, another how caviar is extracted from fish – that latter we may all well wish not to know.

Alcohol stills, prune-drying, butchery techniques, milking, wine and beer making, apiculture, trout farming, bread baking, fish cultivation, baby pigs and goats… We spent hours there and ended up with a shopping panier full of regional gourmet goodies: Anchovy paste, dried meats, blackberry wine and the best pesto (100% organic, made in the sun by the man who sold it to us) that I have ever tasted.

The vendors bent over backward to give samples of everything and explain the nature and quality of their artisanal products.

For lunch we had real Aubrac Red-Label steak tartare ground and seasoned to order right in front of us. It was heavenly – but the biggest surprise was such fine meat served with a plastic fork.

Marchons, marchons

Enjoy the photos, and please keep in mind this other aspect of the show: SISQA was a very definite and palpable victory for Toulouse this weekend. Here is a culturally plural France during what our President has called wartime.

Security was high. People are nervous. This is the winter of our fear of attacks in large gatherings, and our solidarity in preserving those gatherings anyway. Here were many colors and stripes of courageous Toulousains coming together to preserve our common heritage in a time of crisis, and teaching our children to do the same. It felt like a victory march.

Sometimes that emerging pluralism makes for strange combinations. I had never in my life imagined a dried pork sausage à la Maghreb. Now I have. It was spicy with the aromas of North Africa, but applied to an animal not eaten in that part of the world.

It is becoming a new tradition, just another delicious part of a very new France with a very old gastronomy. I have no doubt that in parlors and kitchens back home, the attendees are, like us, forming very strict opinions in their own mouths about which one of these innovative sausage-makers from the show makes the very best Maghreb spiced pork.

You will know them next year by the longest line, and the fact that we will be waiting in it.