Pop Quiz: Chilling at the Paris Food Markets
By Theadora Brack
This week, we’re jet setting to Washington, D.C. for a little Franco-American Pop Quiz. Hip Gees and High Jumpers, this one’s or you. Pour on the laugh soup. What’s my line?
Take a gander at the yellow house on the right. Who lived in these historic Georgetown digs during the late 1950s?
For bonus points, give us the name of the masterpiece he or she worked on whilst living there.
1. Our charismatic “Mystery Guest” also lived in France, and thoroughly enjoyed shopping and hobnobbing at the Paris food markets. Our “M.G.” wrote:
“Shopping for food in Paris was a life-changing experience for me. It was through daily excursions to my local marketplace on la rue Bourgogne, or to the bigger one on la rue Cler, or best of all, to the organized chaos of Les Halles—the most famous market place in Central Paris—I learned one of the most important lessons of my life: the value of les human relations.”
2. Here’s how the “M.G.” described the scene:
“You could find virtually anything under the sun there. As we dodged around freshly killed rabbits and pig trotters, or large men unpacking crates of glistening blue-black mussels and hearty women shouting about their wonderful champignons, I avidly jotted down notes about who carried what and where they were located, worried that I’d never be able to find them again in the raucous maze.”
Any Guesses? Give us your awe.
Scoop on Les Halles: Winding it back to the late 12th century, go-getter King Philippe Auguste expanded Paris’s central market, gifting it with a new location, rooftop shelter and the world famous name, Les Halles. By the way, this king of the original urban re-do also paved streets, created a sewage system, organized the first Paris police force, and built a defense wall, along with a fortress on the site of the current-day Louvre. How to top that?
In 1851, Les Halles received another makeover courtesy of Haussmann. Decked out in cast-iron girders and cathedral-worthy skylights designed by architect Victor Baltard, novelist Émile Zola described Les Halles as the “stomach of Paris, a modern machine beyond all measure which represents the true axis of the city.”
Setting the scene
Time travel, blow us away. First, the smells, detectable from blocks away. Sharp cheeses, rotting vegetables from the days before, animal manures, stale beer spilled by the vendors. Then imagine the cacophony. The noise of delivery wagons rumbling over cobblestones. The shouts of drivers reining in their carthorses. The squeals of live pigs and bleats of sheep.
Poisson Un, Poisson Deux
Above it all, the hawkers (a.k.a. the “criers” of Paris) would have lured you in with their loud rhythmic songs touting their goods.
And what a range of choices to be had! Brandy and coffee vendors selling their beverages by the cup were at the top of the market’s pecking order while the fishmongers didn’t rank as high—even though they had the best track record, consistently moving their finny products from the coast to the city in just a few days.
“Come on ladies, come on ladies, one pound fish, one pound fish?” Like today’s London-based “fishmonger” Muhammad Shahid Nazir’s “One Pound Fish” rap tune gone viral, one might say! Clipping Nazir, very, very good.
The End is Near
Unfortunately, not everyone felt the big love for Les Halles or the myriad colonies of huge, well-fed rats who had long taken advantage of all that free room and board in the old market.
And so during the 1970s, all the vendors were relocated to Rungis (now the world’s largest wholesale fresh food market) outside of central Paris, and the venerable old structures were demolished and replaced with an underground mall complex that now faces its own doom. For every season turn, turn, turn—indeed.
On the Sunny Side
Today, throughout Paris, there are currently about 70 roving open-air markets (“marchés volants”) and 15 covered markets.
Heads-up: They don’t call them “marchés volants” for nothing. The “flying markets” appear only once or twice each week on their assigned market days, sell their goods, and then roll up their canvas roofs and move on to another neighborhood.
Tip: No market close to your hotel or flat? Don’t fret. Most arrondissements have bustling “rues commerçantes” (shopping districts) which have many of the same advantages, if not the same Old World atmosphere. Abbesses is a favorite.
Now, thanks to the miracle of old post cards, we’re able to dial back the clock and tour Les Halles and Le Marché aux Fleurs à la Madeleine. Roll the tape!
Dig Pop Quizzes? Check out Paul’s Paris by Cellphone site. Don’t miss his “Where is it Wednesday” contests.