The country comes to town

France's celebration of its rural life is a foodie's paradise. By Margaret Campbell
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The Independent Travel

Trade fairs rarely attract trainloads of visitors from all corners of a country, with the national rail service offering special deals for travellers eager to peruse the wares on offer. But the annual French Salon de l'Agriculture – held each February on the south-west fringe of Paris – provides different, edible proof of the exception française so vaunted by the chattering classes on the other side of the Channel.

Trade fairs rarely attract trainloads of visitors from all corners of a country, with the national rail service offering special deals for travellers eager to peruse the wares on offer. But the annual French Salon de l'Agriculture – held each February on the south-west fringe of Paris – provides different, edible proof of the exception française so vaunted by the chattering classes on the other side of the Channel.

Whatever the inroads made by "McDo" and other fast-food giants, the French remain attached to eating: witness the standard two-hour lunch break, the passion with which French men will discuss the exact texture of a sauce, and pride in their country roots (the French paysan suffers from few of the pejorative connotations attached to the English peasant).

These twin obsessions – the countryside and all things food-related – come together for 10 days every year in the vast exhibition halls at the Porte de Versailles. Parisians and provincials alike flock to this corner of south-west Paris in anticipation of a fun and tasty day out.

No politician worth his or her best Ile de Ré sea-salt dare miss the event: whatever is happening in Iraq, President Chirac will find time between today and 2 March to admire prize-winning cows, try some traditional saucisse and demonstrate his attachment to rural life. Television news bulletins will have nightly stories about dairy farmers from distant shires who have travelled all the way to Paris with their prize livestock, or look for the human interest story in Alpine villages where goat-herders are dying out.

The Paris-Expo halls are big enough to accommodate a few vote-catching political egos and numerous TV cameras. Ordinary visitors (and their children) are welcome too, and will find plenty of interest, whether or not they would normally have anything to do with farming and its related industries. And if you happen to be a tourist in Paris, it provides a priceless insight into the French psyche.

The Salon is a celebration of rural life, local customs and the entire French food-chain. Everything connected with economic life in the countryside finds a place here: associations promoting eco-tourism; agro-food exhibitors offering modern technology to maximise yields, and thereby fuel butter mountains and wine lakes; and tractor manufacturers demonstrating their latest models.

There are competitions for the biggest and best cows, sheep, pigs and dogs, and show-ring parades of massive bulls. An entire hall (No 7) is given over to equestrian competitions and showjumping. Elsewhere, panels of judges peer knowledgeably at pig's trotters, and anti-globalisation campaigners and small-scale farmers provide information on the merits of organic farming.

Children can stroke docile farm animals, while their parents will be encouraged to book holidays in traditional gîtes, purchase country-made crafts or plan a new garden.

From the hungry visitor's perspective, the food stands are the most alluring element. All the ingredients that make French cooking so delicious are on display – and available for sampling – in fresh abundance. Regional specialities abound: olive oils from Provence, oysters from the Atlantic coast, dozens of types of bread, fresh vegetables and even Alsatian choucroute. French brewers' associations and wine producers make sure that no one goes thirsty.

Normandy is this year's guest of honour. In Hall One you can expect plenty of Calvados, cider, dairy products, beef and seafood, as well as information on visiting the region. And if you can wait a week, it gets even better: within the Salon, another foodie event, the Cheese and Milk Products Fair, will put 400 types of fromage on show from 29 February to 3 March.

The Salon de l'Agriculture is open from 22 February to 2 March daily, from 9am to 7pm, with late opening (until 10pm) on Friday 28 February. The Paris-Expo halls are best reached on Line 12 of the Paris Metro (stop Porte de Versailles), but can also be reached on line 8, stop Balard (walk east along Boulevard Lefebvre). Admission €10 (£6.60) for adults, €6 (£4) for children aged 7-14, free for children under 7. For more information, call 00 33 8 92 68 66 63 or go to www.salon-agriculture.com

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