It's 9 AM on Saturday morning when I turn up at the Paris International Agricultural Show. Any minute now, François Hollande is supposed to engage in one of the fair's main attractions: the presidential tour. Today, however, things won't be going quite as planned.
A few minutes into the official visit of Hall 4, farmers have railed against our dear president with all their might, and after a stream of invectives and altercations, the presidential security service has slapped some wrists. The results: one broken nose and four arrests. The president quickly aborts the visit and has canceled the scheduled tastings. Instead, he's decided to set up an impromptu meeting with the unions in an office far away from the crowds. After waiting two hours for him to step out of the secret session, it's time to take things into my own hands: I'm going to improvise a gastronomic tour of France on behalf of the president.
The Paris International Agricultural Show was founded in 1964 by Edgard Pisani, France's Minister of Agriculture at the time. The show became a mandatory stop for any politician looking for press. The visit usually starts up at the cattle's ass of dawn in the first wing, followed by the Innovation and New Technologies booths in Hall 4, where this year, agricultural drones seem to be all the rage. Two saleswomen try to sell me an advertorial on their latest drone prototype, and I ask if they got the chance to see François Hollande a little earlier: "He stopped by our booth this morning before the mobs," answers one of them. "He told us that technology is the future of agriculture!"
Every president has their own tasting strategy. We all remember the great Jacques making the trip, inhaling beer, wine, fish, and meat for ten hours straight. There's also the Sarkozy method, which consists of insulting visitors in between two bites of a tartine. Hollande, on the other hand, has always gone the low profile route, passing from booth to booth like a timid enthusiast. For my own tour of the various regions, I call upon my entourage. I decide to establish my own government; I nominate my brother Oscar as Prime Minister, while my buddy Mathias takes on the role of Stéphane le Foll. The rest of the group fills the other ministry seats as they see fit.
To kick off our warpath, I take my interim government to the Cantal department. Nothing like a good truffade to clue in your stomach on what's in store for the rest of the afternoon. This dish from Haute Auvergne, made with mashed potatoes, Salers cheese, and garlic, makes for a perfect accompaniment to red meat.
"Is the coarse salt in the truffade making you a little thirsty?" asks the Cantal man behind the counter, pulling down a tap handle. Soon enough, glasses of Bougnat beer, and "Birlou," a chestnut liquor, line up in front of us. It is just the thing to help those truffade potatoes go down a little easier… and to get those brain cells firing.
After this first mouthful, we head towards the Moselle zone, where Mathias's first, brilliant reflex is to order a pinot noir—a little rosé from Vic sur Seille, which happens to be a gold-medal winner among Lorraine wines. "This wine pairs wonderfully with our cheeses," suggests Émilie, who works for cheese producers Ritterwald. We sink our teeth into three farm cheeses: a Munster, a Marguerite (a kind of Camembert), and a tasty Comté. "If he comes back, the President better like my cheese," comments Émilie. "My husband and I definitely plan to get our products onto the tables of the Élysée as soon as possible."
A little further down, a bottle grabs my attention. The Moselle department is decidedly full of surprises. St. Patrick whisky, a single malt aged five years, is slightly peaty, certified 100-percent Moselle, and bottled in Metz. Action breeds action: Our whole clan takes a turn. One doesn't just pass by a whisky from Lorraine.
After knocking one back, you simply can't say no to an andouillette. It's off to Brittany, then, to the "Ty Glazig" booth, a family business based in Quimper that specializes in the distribution of traditional Breton products. The deli meats section has us salivating in no time, particularly the andouillette sandwich, made of white pork typical of Brittany and dripping with mustard. "That's a sandwich for Chirac," comments the owner. "He would have loved it."
We ingest it in a matter of minutes, capping it with "a nice little apple juice," to use our server Loic's turn of phrase. The juice is, in fact, a demi-sec cider, another gold medal winner. It is aged for eight weeks on tap, like beer or wine, which adds notes of sweetness that are especially welcome as a mustard-infused fire rages in our mouths.
Since we're rubbing elbows with regional nationalists, we may as well move on to Corsica. We walk over to the island's booth, whose slogan sets the tone: "Corsica, Land of Excellence." Nothing more, nothing less. While we're ordering Figatelli sausages, Mrs. Pécresse turns up at the Île-de-France stand across from us for a press conference. Our independence-loving friends, who by now are a few Ribellas in, seem amused by the performance. "Ribella," in Corsican, means "rebel." "It's a beer from Patrimonio, brewed with the province's spring water," explains master brewer, Pierre François Maestracci. "We also produce other hops and our own barley to obtain these types of amber ales."
After a quick cigarette out in the cold, we head to Corrèze, the native land of François Hollande. We're greeted by a Tullist, who proudly presents his city's slogan: "Get out of your bubble and come to Tulle." This might just be the best municipal punchline I've heard since the unforgettable "Nîmes, the city with an accent." He quickly gets down to business: "I'm going to make you my specialty: a pint of 'Bergère,' the beer from Saint Bonnet de Bellac, with a shot of vodka. It was one of our interns' favorite cocktails. You're going to get giggly after the first glass." And giggle we did, probably too much, as we filled our mouths with Égletons sausages to dampen the effects of the vodka.
Generally, after five regions, the crowd starts getting a little drunk, presenting less of a threat to the President. The journey from one stand to the next provides great opportunities to shake some hands—like when we bumped into Noël Jamet, five-time world champion of pig squealing, and my prime minister coaxed him into a selfie and a live demo.
All the way up in Hall 7.1, where the Pas de Calais region is set up, I take a meeting with the Maroilles union. The duke of the brotherhood is waiting in traditional attire, rendering the visit quite official. We taste a Maroilles cheese from the La Capelle commune, one of the union's favorites. A cheese this strong calls for a robust beer, and we opt for "La Ch'ti," an 8-percent ABV blonde beer brewed near Lens. It's so good that we stay for a few more rounds, to muffle the scent of the Maroilles on our breaths.
Sozzled from the northern beers, we forge onward to the Réunion booth—despite the time difference, we are determined to taste the best rum. We settle in at the counter of a Réunion community from Strasbourg, which offers delicious accras de morue (codfish fritters) and "sausage rougail." We top those off with a round of rum so as to warm up my colleagues in government. Whether it's flavored, coconut or exotic, one glass follows another like a crescendo leading to the final bouquet.
Generally, presidents spend a little extra time at the booth representing their native regions. Most of my delegation came from BAB (in other words, the golden triangle of Bayonne, Anglet, and Biarritz), so naturally, we staggered over to the stands of the Basque Country, planning to meet our death in the Motherland. As it turns out, the cure for too much rum consists of ham from Bayonne, a few slivers of Ardi-Gasna (a local sheep milk cheese), and several glasses of Ackerbeltz, a wheat beer from Ascain. One exhibitor from Tarn made the mistake of passing by with a plate full of sausage; he left with an empty dish and bad memories of our dirty jokes.
At 7 PM, it's a wrap for the show's first day, ending our improvised presidential visit. Outside the main hall, a few of my most devoted ministers are sprawled out on the sidewalk, having given all they could to the French nation. In the diplomatic Uber that takes me back home, I realize to what extent my experience strikes notes of authenticity: like so many French presidents before me, I am heading home from the International Agricultural Show in a private car with a driver, completely plastered.
Vive la République et vive la France !
Arthur makes videos for MUNCHIES France. When he isn't eating like a president, you can find him on Twitter.