As the summer draws to an end in France, so begins the Comice season as the small villages unite and take turns in holding the local Comice or agricultural show.
In preparation, enormous hay bale sculptures appear, sometimes giant people, sometimes tractors or turkeys, the limit of the creators’ imagination seems to hold no bounds.
With so much of France rural, the local pride is evident. If you get the opportunity, take the time to visit as many as you can, they are usually held over two days (Saturday and Sunday) and are wonderful showcases for the local farmers’ animals and birds. It is lovely to see the enormous Charolais and other breeds of bulls close up, penned alongside their bovine wives and calves, normally we only spot them from the roadside, and then, often we comment that it is nice to see more bulls in the fields here than you do in the U.K. The magnificent Percheron French heavy horses are normally on show, beautifully braided and turned out for the occasion, sometimes the mares have their foals at foot.
For the children, there’s sometimes a petting corner where you will find rabbits, ducks and their ducklings, chickens and chicks, little ponies, miniature goats, calves, donkeys and maybe piglets and geese.
Often, local speciality stalls are set up, which will vary depending on which area the event is being held. Here in Le Mans, we have many commercial apple producers, so we have marvellous displays of the different varieties of apples.
Nearly every garden has a vegetable patch or potager, so competition is keen in the vegetable displays and alongside these, if you are lucky, you can watch vegetable carving displays and sample produce by local artisans.
At some time during the Comice, the mayor will give a talk and the local band will play. Food is readily available and normally there will be a large tent set up, which will provide seating for the three-course meal, it is possible to sit down to at lunchtime, providing you get a ticket.
As a showcase for the local agricultural machinery sellers, impressive colourful machines take pride of place, however, their predecessors, the combines and tractors of older times lined up quietly next to them and steal the show as the old men recount their memories of their lives when these machines were ‘new.’
Sometimes in the larger towns, there will be a spectacular fireworks display and entertainment during the Saturday evening, then on the Sunday there will be a Labour Concours, or ploughing match in the morning. The ancient tractors arrive, beautifully festooned for the occasion, proudly proving that they still work just as well as they used to, whilst the young farmers fiercely compete on their enormous modern machines, in accuracy competitions, closely monitored by the judges.
The animal lovers will find, on another part of the field, the Percheron horses being put through their paces. Singly or in teams of two, three or four, with their handlers, dressed in traditional costume displaying their ploughing skills with these beautiful animals, which have stood the test of time.
Of course being France, the bar tent is set up early in the morning for a verre de vin rouge, the mornings are getting a nip to them after all.
So, with summer fading, those of us luck enough to have the opportunity, can enjoy rural France as it comes into its own, proudly displaying its agricultural charms in a very hospitable way.
Susan Keefe is an author and book reviewer