Not long after our Cornish expedition, by the end of February in fact, brother Jonney and his wife Felicity came to stay with us here in Paris. They run a 16th century pub, The Cornish Arms, at Pendoggett in Cornwall, where we have stayed for the past many visits. The pub is a few miles from Port Isaac (otherwise known as Portwenn in the Doc Martin TV series) and St Endellion (famous these days for its music festival), where we were married.
The focus of Jonney and Felicity’s Paris excursion was the Salon de l’Agriculture (Agricultural Show) in its 50th year, held in the city at Porte de Versailles.
The stars of the show are always the animals and this year was no exception but for Jonney, a champion sheep shearer in days gone by, it was the main event. Many years ago Jonney further developed his sheep shearing skills in Australia, at Thargomindah, western Queensland, of all places. This outback town was at the heart of the Wide Comb Dispute in 1983, where during this time massive bullying and fights, and even a death, were part of his day-to-day shearing. He was a wide comb shearer, like many of his New Zealand mates, and they were the outsiders, doing the ‘wrong thing’ and not shearing with the narrow, slower shears. More on this fascinating story here.
So we set off for the Agricultural Show much relieved that Jonney wouldn’t be a) competing in any shearing competitions, and b) getting into any fights! Instead we had a brilliant time visiting many of the stands representing all the districts of France presenting their regional delights of food and wine. Then we spent time admiring the animals and of course, in particular, the sheep. This year’s mascot for the vast category of sheep, was Lorenzo the Merinos de Rambouillet. Stewart tells the story.
As obscure as it may sound, the Rambouillet strain of merino sheep meant a lot to me and to brother-in-law Jonney. So as the Paris agricultural show featured Lorenzo the Rambouillet we had to meet up with him and his mates.
A bit of history to explain why.
The first ever merino sheep, the best breed without doubt for wool production, were brought to Australia from South Africa for aspiring wool growers McArthur and Samuel Marsden.
They were little plain bodied animals which probably produced just five pounds of wool a year – a third of today’s production. I’d learnt while studying (if that’s the right word for it) wool classing at the Tech in Canberra that to get more wool, early Australian sheep breeders crossed their flocks with their very wrinkly French cousins. More skin area meant more wool so they were like a skinny little person wearing XXX sized jumpers.
But blowflies loved laying their eggs in all those wrinkles, so to make them better suited to Australian conditions the Peppin brothers pioneered a new strain of merinos by crossing them with big, plain-bodied British sheep like Lincolns.
There are now no pure-bred Rambouillet merinos left in Australia, but thanks to their Rambouillet ancestry, many modern merinos still have some pesky wrinkles, particularly around their tails. Compared to the sheep Jonney had shorn in the UK they were slow going, as he’d found in his years in the sheds of Thargomindah. And they could still be blowfly magnets if there was lots of summer rain, as I well remembered and my brother Ian well knows today.
So after a look around the food pavilions, Jonney and I were both very keen to see first-hand what one of these wrinkly blighters who had caused us both lots of wasted time and aching backs, actually looked like.
However we were to be disappointed. Lorenzo was there, but in his plastic raincoat – it was impossible to see any wrinkles or wool at all, just his head and horns. We can only imagine the plastic coats were probably there as protection against the pollution, heavy rain, and snow, we are experiencing these days. After all, they are growing high quality wool under there.
Lorenzo’s coat was the only disappointment and we came home laden with sample cheeses and sausages, and even tropical flowers from some far-flung part of the French empire. We’ll be back again next year, all going well. We love the Salon de l’Agriculture.
Soon after Jonney and Felicity’s stay we would be packing our bags again this time to take the brilliant Eurostar train back to the UK with London our destination.