NY Times – “A Market Is a Cultural Bouquet Garni”
Vous saviez que le New York Times avait fait en juillet un très bel article sur le marché de Saint-Denis ?
La classe ! 🙂
NY Times – “A Market Is a Cultural Bouquet Garni”
EVERY once in a while on Sunday morning, I find myself crowding into the No. 13 Metro with determined cart-wheeling shoppers, heading north to the end of the line.
Our destination is not a marché bio (an organic food market) like the one on the Boulevard Raspail close to the Luxembourg Gardens, where even the olives are sold as organic. Or a marché-cum-entertainment like the one on the Rue Mouffetard in the Fifth, where the same middle-aged performers come every Sunday, rain or shine, to lead the crowd in song-and-dance nostalgia.
No, we are in search of bargains and exotica in the ethnically and racially rich suburb of St.-Denis.
Few foreign tourists make the pilgrimage here. The suburb is part of Seine-St.-Denis, or Department “93,” which won notoriety as an area rocked by riots and car-burnings in 2005.
Tourists who do come generally arrive in tour buses and head straight to the most French of destinations, the St.-Denis Basilica. Given its historical and architectural importance, it has to be the least appreciated religious gem in the Paris area.
Legend has it that when St. Denis, the first bishop of Paris, was decapitated near Montmartre in the third century, he picked up his head, washed it off and carried it five miles to the north before he collapsed. A shrine was built, later replaced by a soaring basilica; 43 kings (from Dagobert I to Louis XVIII), 32 queens and 63 princes and princesses were buried here.
The basilica is undervisited, solemn and quiet, the ideal place for prayer and reflection on a Sunday morning.
But this spot has been a center for fairs and markets since the Middle Ages, when merchants throughout Europe came to trade their fabrics, timber, leathers and live animals. And just a few hundred yards away are the noise, disorder and exuberance of a gastronomical pleasure palace.
Getting there takes a bit of maneuvering. You are greeted at the Metro station exit by a Gypsy beggar or two and a sign for McDonald’s.
Then you navigate a warren of outdoor stalls with the feel of a North African souk. Here, vendors hawk the stuff of everyday life: bolts of cheap fabric, mountains of socks and underwear, clay cooking pots, shag rugs, men’s pajamas, Islamically correct head scarves, motor oil and mousetraps.
And then a 19th-century structure of metal and glass looms large in front of you. It houses a food market like no other.
Inside is a microcosm of French history and its successive waves of immigration. Parisian-born Frenchmen with tattoos on their arms mix with ethnic Portuguese and Italians whose families immigrated to France a century ago. French-Arab merchants who hold French identity cards in their pockets and Arabness in their voices serve shoppers from Cameroon and the Antilles islands who have moved to France.
Here the merchants and the customers (no matter what their religion, age, skin color or country of origin) seem to have two common goals: buying and selling food products and anticipating the pleasure that comes with cooking and eating a Sunday afternoon meal.
The majority of shoppers are women. They fall into three general categories: working-class Frenchwomen in jeans who look as if they remain attached to the town’s roots as a leftist industrial center; women from France’s former colonies in sub-Saharan Africa, dressed in bright print confections and matching headdresses, who carry their babies on their backs; and French-Arab women, some in head scarves, some not.
The merchandise appeals to the various constituencies. One Sunday I brought along Alain François, the owner of the nearby Coq de la Maison Blanche restaurant. He had never visited the market and was immediately drawn to a smiling pig’s head with upturned ears at a pork stall.
“Ahhhh, that’s a beautiful head,” Mr. François purred. We watched in wonderment as a female vendor lifted up long, white, slimy strings (pig’s intestines) that would be used as casings for West Indian blood sausages.
Then Mr. Francois identified for me the liver, heart, tongue, stomach, lungs and kidneys, lined up in neat rows. “This is like the old days, when every part of the animal would be eaten,” he said. “Nothing is left to waste.”
A few stalls away, three Algerian-born women were making savory galettes stuffed with vegetables and beef, a meal for 2.50 euros (about $3.15).
An Italian who runs his stall with his daughter offered samples of Sicilian pecorino Romano with red pimento and a soft Abruzzese version of an almond macaron. When I told him I had a hard time finding a Parisian source for Averna, a digestivo from the Sicilian city of Caltanisetta, the home of my paternal grandparents, they said they would order it for me.
Claude Lambert, the market’s lone horse butcher, doesn’t just sell horse meat for roasts and burgers. He also puts horse meat in his homemade mortadella. “The horse is a very healthy animal,” said Mr. Lambert, who owns Boucherie Chevaline (Horse Butcher) in Coudun, France. “Horse has less fat than other red meats.”
I wasn’t convinced. The only time I knowingly ate horse meat was on a tour of the former Soviet Union with Warren Christopher, who was secretary of state at the time. We arrived in Almaty in Kazakhstan after midnight, and it was either a horse meat paprika stew or hunger. Once was enough.
Then the fish! You won’t find much upscale central-Paris fish like tuna steaks or turbot here. But the giant octopuses, the fat carp, the mountains of eels are cheap. There is a fish called Atlantic vieille with such bizarre bright orange squiggles and spots that when our friend Valerie Sherman was visiting from New York, she photographed it.
Greengrocers offer root vegetables the size of melons with names like dasheen and igname. One grocer gave me a bunch of fresh green-gray leaves I didn’t recognize. He told me to smell. Licorice. The leaves turned out to be absinthe, used in Moroccan stuffings and stews and added to mint tea.
But more important than culinary discovery is price: 15 euros will buy 3 small guinea hens; 10 euros, 4 rabbits; 6 euros, 2 kilos (almost 4 1/2 pounds) of chopped chicken gizzards. During asparagus season, white asparagus were selling at St.-Denis for 10 euros a kilogram, compared with 32 euros in central Paris. (O.K., the asparagus here weren’t “calibrées” — matched according to size the way they would be on the Boulevard Raspail.)
As closing time approaches, 1:30 p.m., many merchants slash their prices and shout out the deals: “Leeks, leeks, leeks, one euro, one euro, one euro, and they are beautiful, too!” or “Five kilos of tomatoes, Madame, half price!”
Some of the old-timers, like Jacqueline Buridant, find the global ambience and disorder unsettling. Ms. Buridant still comes every week to sell her whole-grain breads, as she first did 50 years ago, but complains that in the old days, St.-Denis was “top.” Now, she said, “Maybe 15 or 20 of the merchants are good, the rest are zero.”
Others who have grown up in the market have made peace with its transformation. Pascale Guigardet, 48, runs a family-owned spice stall with her Antillean-born husband, Ali Benabbou. She came here as a child to help her mother, and took over the business eight years ago.
She remembers when the market was higher class, when the merchants outside sold French-made shoes of real leather and children did not dare touch the merchandise. But she still takes pleasure in blending curries for special customers and urging them to sniff deep into jars filled with culinary promise: star anise, chamomile flowers, vanilla beans, black sesame, hibiscus. And so much more.