Ivresse Oblige

Last night at dinner Jack mentioned that the big agriculture fair was happening down at the convention center at Porte de Versailles. This was doubly coincidental; not only did it accidentally correspond with my visit, but it was in the very same space where I used to install and deinstall copious quantities of contemporary art at the FIAC every October. That fair has moved back into the Grand Palais–it was relocated during extensive renovations–but this agriculture thing is freaking gigantic, using just about all the halls, which translates into acres upon acres of floor space dedicated to food and drink of every imaginable variety (provided it has something to do with France, or at least Europe). This here is the real Charcutepalooza.

And it is packed. Not with tourists, either; these are French people, both Parisians and tour buses full of their more distant compatriots, who flock to this show to look, learn, eat, drink, and generally get their gastronomy on in vast numbers. It’s a madhouse. I began in the most crowded hall, where the livestock were: it was almost impossible to move, it was so crowded. Nothing at all like the art fairs I became so accustomed to working, not least because at this one the horseshit was quite literally horseshit. Here’s a shot of the courtyard between three of the halls. It was twice this dense inside; these people were passing between buildings, gasping for air, vomiting, and relieving themselves against the sides of the buildings, then heading back in for more. For a gigantic facility dedicated to encouraging a veritable horde of people to pour unfathomable volumes of food and drink into themselves, the number of bathrooms was appallingly low.
On the left is the hall with the animals, on the right is the foods of the world, where I went next, and the huge one in back is the one I went to last.

One of my fondest memories of the FIAC was the time I spent on top of a ladder futzing with something expensive while being yelled at by the gallerist in Spanish and simultaneously translating it into French for the benefit of the hapless dude I was working with. That was the moment when I realized that I might actually be good at my job. Lest that seem smug, ask me about the time I got lost driving a truck with $20 million worth of paintings in the back sometime.

The livestock hall was so oppressive that I got out as soon as I could, which took about 45 minutes. Packed, I say. Everyone was good-natured enough, which helped. The animals did not look happy, though the crowd fawned; there was a large central ring where they were run and paraded while a woman introduced them by breed, region, and function to warm applause, but when they weren’t being shown they sulked in pens all around the periphery looking bored.

Nonetheless, they were impressive and beautiful beasts, and well cared for. This country loves its animals, both alive and cooked.

Once I extracted myself from that hall, I went into a food hall; this is the one full of stands from other countries, haphazardly represented and heavy on the kitsch. Barmaids dressed up like St. Pauli girls pulling steins of beer and dipping fondue, big plates splayed across groaning tables to tempt the hordes, mounds of sweets, multiple booths piled with prosciutto di parma and parmigiano, girls in Russian peasant costumes selling little blinis with caviar and a shot of vodka: this was the foreign hall and despite the occasional quality products (Catalan charcuterie, Moroccan spices, Japanese tea) it mostly felt kind of cheap and desperate, like a theme park. There were moments when I felt myself slipping into Hunter S. Thompson mode, recoiling at the costumed gluttony all around. The countless booths selling identically awful looking candy were enough to make me gag, even if they were fun to photograph:

This dude was giving out samples of porchetta:

Moroccan teas:

Dried fruits:

It went on and on and on and on and on.

There were at least a couple other halls that I didn’t get into at all, including the one with all the farm equipment and machinery.

Further on, however, was the two-story hall of all the French products, arranged by region. This was serious, high-end, real-time food porn, and it’s where I spent the rest of the day. I sampled every damn thing I could get my hands on, and had many a pleasant chat with producers and vendors who weren’t too busy. Some highlights included the saucisse Limousin (picture below), as well as the ham at the same booth, the Jambon de Bayonne (cured with lots of Espelette pepper), which I had plenty of, and foie gras in various forms. There were oyster bars, crêperies, sandwich stalls, educational booths, presentations, and literally thousands of different things to buy and eat. This included a vast array of sausages and cured meats of all cuts, shapes, and sizes.

Besides oysters, there was other seafood.

Here’s the Jambon de Bayonne. Note the fat smeared all over the cut parts of the joint; this helps them dry out evenly while they hang.

There were garlands of Espelette peppers and jars upon jars of dried powder, which is how it is normally used.

Tarbais beans are the required variety in a cassoulet. I bought a box of seed beans so I can grow them myself, since lugging one of these bags home seemed unlikely.

It’s really not possible to convey how many stands there were selling this stuff; most of my wide shots are cluttered and unhelpful. If there had been something to climb on top of, I could have taken a better picture of the scale. There had to be dozens of booths just selling foie gras and related products in every conceivable form.

And yes, that’s about fifty bucks for a jar of fatty liver.

Much as I wanted a can of stuffed goose hearts, I resisted.

Finally, after achieving a state well beyond satiety, I took up permanent residence in the Burgundy section and worked my way methodically through it. All the other wine regions were well represented, but I only had eyes for Burgundy.

This is the point at which my knowledge of the language crossed over from pleasant convenience into the realm of valuable utility. One of the great things about this country is that if you introduce yourself as a painter and food writer who just won a charcuterie contest, people immediately and visibly reassign you to a much higher mental category than they had put you in when you wandered over. It’s kind of a trifecta for being treated like someone other than a tourist. This country values culture and food more than ours does.

Some vendors were more willing to let me taste than others; sometimes there was a negotiation involved. A few flat out told me “non,” and one said tasting was by invitation only. But most of the others were welcoming and happy to talk while I sipped. When you know a little bit about the wines, they tend to open up and get enthusiastic. I had some energetic and interesting conversations with people who are clearly passionate about what they do, and tasted some lovely things. Plus, the near-total absence of spit buckets made for a festive atmosphere, especially as I got into the fourth hour of tasting. I’m not going to post pictures, because most of it isn’t available in the States and this post is long enough as it is. I just want you all to appreciate the hardship I underwent so I’d have something interesting to report.

Today I came down to Gascony; I had a lovely lunch with Kate and her sister after an effortless train ride, humming along smoothly at 200 miles an hour. Something else they value more here than we do at home. Tomorrow we head out for adventures: the meat of the trip.

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5 Comments

  1. March 4
    Reply

    Oh, man, I can only imagine the fun in that food hall!

  2. Peter
    March 4
    Reply

    Zoomie: Yes, it was fun. Pretty chaotic, though.

    Mardi: So good. We might drive down there on Wednesday, since I made friends with the people.

  3. March 5
    Reply

    It’s really sad how excited I am about those beans.

    Enjoy yourself!

  4. March 7
    Reply

    How overwhelming in such a deliciously excessive way! I think that dried sausage time has arrived for me. Those meat photos are killing me….

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