This rural department of Pays de la Loire is characterised by wide open fields providing ample room for cattle to graze. Some poor cows live indoors all year round. Not here, where the beef is top notch.
In this green and pleasant land, the number of people employed in agriculture is three times the national average. Beef production is by far the biggest industry and a label rouge guarantees the meat you eat (much of it makes its way to Paris) is of superior quality.
The town of Evron plays host to an annual meat festival, Festival de la Viande, around September. There’s a competition for the cattle, with sheep and goats on show as well. The event has been held every year since 1966 and sees Maine Farm Beef (label rouge) served to visitors who also come to browse the stalls and enjoy some live entertainment.
With herds of cows comes a large amount of milk to process. There’s even a milk museum, Lactopole in Laval, the largest of its kind in the world. A guided tour in English will reveal why France really is the land of cheese. Exhibits include the very first Roquefort ‘cheese piercer’ invented in around 1873 by Etienne Coupiac.
Cheesemaking is an ancient tradition in Mayenne. Fromagerie Vaubernier on the banks of the River Mayenne celebrated it’s 100th birthday in 2012. Some of the cheeses made in this part of the country are eaten every day in the UK and as far afield as America and Australia. The most famous of these is the little wax coated Babybel, produced in Evron.
Port-Salut is another famous name. It was invented in Entrammes by Trappist monks and to this day it is possible to visit abbeys in Mayenne and buy monastic produce. The shop attached to Abbaye de la Coudre in Laval, for example, sells products sourced from many monasteries. These wines and beers, sweets and jams help keep the community going.
There are enough fruit trees in Mayenne to make cider, pommeau and perry too. A special conservation orchard planted at Sainte-Anne de Champfremont is home to 70 species of apple trees and 20 species of pear trees. Many farms are open to visitors who want to try before they buy.
Traditionally, the local cider would have been drunk by farm labourers for refreshment while working out in the fields, helping with the harvest of crops. Maine pommeau is stronger stuff – an apple liqueur aged in oak barrels for 18 months minimum. It has been granted AOC status and has a sweeter taste than some of the others out there.
Nowadays, a bottle of cider may be enjoyed during the course of a day’s fishing. There’s no shortage of opportunities in Mayenne, where trout fishing is particularly popular. Try the lakes near the fish farm in Parné-sur-Roc on the banks of the River Ouette. If all else fails, you’ll find river fish like pike are often on the menu in local restaurants. You certainly won’t go hungry here!