It’s 10.00 on a blustery morning and a handful of Limousin cattle are ready to make their debut at the 57th edition of the Paris International Agricultural Show in a sprawling exhibition space at Porte de Versailles. The cows’ human handlers hover about, untangling tails and delicately removing dry dung from the caramel-coloured hair around the animals’ derrières. One farmhand sprays a sugar-infused water solution on his cow’s coat before brushing it vigorously. The substance, he explains, adds more lustre to its already glossy hide. “It’s like hair gel,” he says, patting down a few wisps of static hair on his own head.
Time is called and the bovine quintet are led through the livestock hall to a small arena where they are presented individually by name and then paraded in front of bleachers and 100 or so people. The steady clang of cowbells jars with the bad house music that’s being pumped out of the speakers, while a commentator reels off each of the animals’ qualities over a microphone: the impressive breadth of the rump on one, the elegant amble of another and, as some of the beasts will be auctioned off later in the week, the superior cuts of meat that each of them will no doubt provide.
Despite the faintly absurd talent-show element to these proceedings, this agricultural get-together, which takes place every March, is big business – it attracts thousands of participants and more than 500,000 visitors a year. France is Europe’s largest producer of agricultural goods, with an industry valued at about €73bn in 2018. As such, cow petting, among other activities at the salon, has become an integral part of any political campaign: there is a long tradition of reigning presidents and hopeful candidates stopping by to offer their support, press flesh and push their agenda. Former president Jacques Chirac, previously the minister for agriculture, was a regular fixture in the halls. But current president Emmanuel Macron holds the record for spending the most hours on the ground, staying well past closing time and taking the opportunity to sample wine (he’s rumoured to be a fan of bordeaux and côtes du rhône reds – but who isn’t?) and other French delicacies.
Back on the fair floor we meet Noisette, a three-year-old grass-fed cow who was raised near the Limousin capital of Limoges. She looks set to be sold for between €7,000 and €8,000. The cow’s companion, 22-year-old Maeva Walek, is here working for an uncle who has names for each of his 260-strong herd. “I love animals and I have always wanted to work with them – but this is life,” she says of the upcoming sale. Vegetarianism might be a growing global preoccupation but, in France, meat, much like wine and cheese, remains a matter of national pride. The sizzling scent of freshly grilled beef burgers is ever-present throughout the venue.
Not all of the animals here are destined for the butcher’s block though. During the week-long event, more than 3,000 beasts representing 392 breeds, including the show mascot, a Charolais cow from Burgundy named Idéale, will compete before returning to pasture. The prize-giving part of the agricultural salon is a serious matter for both the farmers and presiding judges. In the “poule de decoration” (decorative poultry) category, an eye-catching line-up of birds is judged on alignment, plumage and markings, then given a score out of 100. One perfectly handsome-looking golden pictave rooster is eliminated entirely because of its bad posture and tail sickles that sit “too high”.