By George Medovoy
There is no better way to breathe the spirit of Paris than to do as Parisians do and visit its lively street markets to find the ‘spirit of the village.’
Paris has all sorts of street markets: from permanent markets to roving markets served by truck farmers…from organic markets to specialty markets… and, of course, all-purpose flea markets.
I cut my teeth, so to speak, on one of the city’s food markets, which enticed me with fresh produce, fish and meats, as well as delicious pastries and breads.
But don’t forget the specialty markets, whose products run the gamut from: old posters, perfumes, honey, exotic birds, paper products, absinthe glasses, kitchen linens, cheese, wine, fashion… goodness, one could build an entire visit around these markets – each of them, to borrow the words of the French writer Honore de Balzac, “an undiscovered place, an unknown retreat.”
I discovered the Paris street market scene on the rue Mouffetard, one of the city’s oldest market streets, a narrow lane framed, like a living painting, with architecture dating to the seventeenth-century.
And nearby is the Jardin des plantes, or Plant Gardens, where King Louis XIII’s doctors planted a royal medicinal herb garden in 1626 – and which today, with its zoo and alpine garden, make for pleasant diversions during an afternoon picnic.
When the Romans inhabited Paris, which they called Lutetia, the rue Mouffetard was a principal thoroughfare. They built the nearby Arenes de Lutece, a 15,000-seat amphitheater for theater performances and, as expected, gladiator fights.
On my morning out, the number 27 bus dropped me off at a little square dominated by the fifteenth-century Church of St. Medard. There, fruit and vegetable stalls marked the beginning of the market.
But before I jumped into the market, I spied La Flute St. Medard, a quaint little pastry shop with lovely, fresh pastries in the window! What a lucky break!
It was morning, and since I hadn’t eaten a thing for breakfast yet, I went inside. The bell clanged as I opened the door. It felt nice and warm, a welcome change from winter’s cold.
I went right for the almond pastries, but a little hand-written notice in French admonished customers not to touch.
The proprietor, an aristocratic, middle-aged woman with crisp, blond hair, approached me.
“Bonjour, monsieur” she announced in a voice very much in charge.
“Bonjour, Madame,” I greeted her, and then said: “I’ll have one of the almond pastries, please.”
The woman selected a pastry for me and placed it in a colorful little bag. I paid the eight and a half francs (about $1.30), issued the polite “Merci, Madame,” and then walked outside, buttoning up my coat in the cold.
There were fresh Spanish clementines across the street, but my mind was on the almond pastry.
The almond paste had a velvety consistency unlike any I have ever tasted, and the dough, topped with fresh, sliced almonds, was as light as a crepe! Fresh Products, Artfully Displayed. So there I was, now surrounded by fresh products artfully displayed, savoring every morsel of a pastry fit for, well, fit for kings!
And while on the subject of French pastries, let us digress for a literary moment…
In the same neighborhood, at 75 rue du Cardinal Lemoine, there stands the Hotel des Grandes Ecoles, a charming little place that once served as a school.
In his Paris days, Ernest Hemingway lived right across the street, at number 74, and worked in an apartment around the corner at 39 rue Descartes. Surely, I thought, he must have shopped on the rue Mouffetard!
And, of course, he did know of the bakeries.
“You got very hungry,” he wrote in A Moveable Feast, “when you did not eat enough in Paris because all the bakery shops had such good things in the windows, and people ate outside at tables on the sidewalks, so that you saw and smelled the food.”
With Hemingway on my mind, I continued down the street, stopping at the fish merchant’s to admire fresh salmon and sole, large, red-colored shrimps, and textured scallop shells.
At La Maison du Fromage (the Cheese House), I saw hundreds of varieties of French cheeses. A few doors down, a fellow was roasting chickens in a broiler on the street, as other merchants sold wonderful chanterelle mushrooms from the countryside, oranges from Malta and Tunisia, and avocados from Malaga.
What a lovely kaleidoscope of colors…like a freshly painted canvas!
Michelle Billon, the proprietor of La Fontaine Aux Vins (The Wine Fountain), was stacking wine cases outside her shop, in anticipation of the day’s sales. She specializes in more than 400 French wines produced by small vintners.
I took her recommendation and purchased a bottle of 1999 red for roughly seven dollars. The wine had pleasant hints of orange and chocolate and was produced on the renewed soil of the Abbey of Valmagne, where a monk had worked the vineyards in the mid-sixteenth century.
And as for the hint of chocolate in the wine, well, it was the perfect transition for a marvelous French specialty – chocolate – at Jeff de Bruges, whose sophisticated white façade and brown lettering stood out from the otherwise rustic look of the marketplace.
Inside were all kinds of chocolates, but it was the giant blocks of it on a table that really caught our attention.
Yes, it’s true, the shopkeeper told me, that in France, chocolate’s cocoa content can near 80 percent, compared to maybe 20 or so in America. No wonder the French variety tastes so rich!
As I exited Jeff de Bruges, I chanced on one of those rare discoveries that gave everything a new perspective.
There, in front of the Café Mouffetard, I met one of those rare types whose life is, as we say, a permanent creative activity.
This congenial old fellow – we’ll call him rue Mouffetard’s resident street philosopher – wore Harlequinesque red-and-white checkered pants, with a pink scarf around his winter coat, and a distinctive “Cat in the Hat” chapeau festooned with medals.
There was also a cap on the ground… for some extra change, if one was so inclined.
His name, he told me, was what sounded in French like Quack-Quack! He went on about other people with the same name and how he had served in the French army.
I didn’t quite know what to make of his strange discourse, but I knew that I had discovered an authentic Parisian street character who, despite his wacky outfit, made a lot of sense.
Recalling French singers like Piaff and Brel who “grew up,” he said, “on the street,” he spoke lovingly of rue Mouffetard as a place “where they welcome artists who come here to sing and bring a certain ambiance – folklore, color.”
“I know everyone on the street,” he went, “and when I am not here due to illness, people miss me. People will say to me, ‘Why weren’t you here last week.’ Even the dogs miss me.”
“And what is the purpose of your presence here on rue Mouffetard?” I wanted to know.
“To enjoy Parisian life,” he said.
“To enjoy is to… take pleasure in human contact…the artists, the musicians, the merchants, and the shoppers.
“What is so nice here is the conviviality of the street. For example, you can enter the little cafes and find that they have retained their rustic quality from times past. Each table even has its identity of sorts.
“And voila, that is part of the warmth of this quarter.”
When not at his regular place on the street, near a singing guitarist, the philosopher of the rue Mouffetard occupies a place in Café Mouffetard, a cozy, workers café where the proprietors make their own pastries.
So when it came time, unfortunately, to bid my odd new friend good-bye, I sought refuge from the winter’s cold inside the café.
The proprietor was all efficiency, scurrying back and forth between the counter and the tables to serve her customers coffee and perhaps one of her freshly baked hot apple turnovers.
I went over my notes over coffee, remembering the street philosopher’s own words – that here at the rue Mouffetard street market, one discovers “the spirit of the village” – the very spirit of Paris itself, with all of the warmth and surprises of human contact.