The Belly of Paris

By Megan Wetherall

Published on August 1, 2009

At seven o'clock in the morning, eight butchers, who have been working all night preparing meat for scores of Parisian restaurants, are sitting—still in their overalls—around a table that bears all the signs of a heartily relished meal: the dregs of three bottles of brouilly, decanted straight from a barrel precariously perched on the bar; crusts of baguettes; smeared mustard pots; a plate with the remains of a half-dozen cheeses so pungent their rinds seem to smolder. One of the butchers pushes back his chair, disappears into the kitchen, and returns with a platter of golden pommes frites; another tucks into a plate of tete de veau—calf's head, brain, tongue, and skin, garnished with parsley and sauce ravigote. "On mange bien, eh, les gars?" one of them clucks approvingly—"We eat well, don't we, guys?"—as he mops up the last of his sauce and reaches for a cigarette.

Les Halles, the centuries-old central Parisian food market, was banished from the city to the suburb of Rungis in the late 1960s and early '70s, its beautiful old iron pavilions pulled down; a soulless modern shopping mall later took its place. But here at À la Tour de Montlhery—which regulars (like me) call Chez Denise, in honor of its proprietor, Denise Benariac—and at a handful of other genuine old-style bistros that remain, and thrive, in the old Les Halles quarter, something of the market's golden age lives on.

When the first half of Les Halles was shut down and relocated in the early 70s' (the rest following soon after), the bistros of the quarter were struck hard; their livelihood depended almost exclusively on the business generated by the market community. Located in the first arrondissement of Paris—its very heart—Les Halles was alive 20 hours a day, 365 days a year, for most of its existence. Until the market's dismantlement, the streets around Les Halles boasted what was undoubtedly the densest concentration of bistros in France—literally hundreds of them, catering to the hunger, thirst, and temperaments of the thousands of people involved in this sprawling marketplace. When Zola described Les Halles as le ventre—"the belly"—of Paris, he could have been talking about its bistros as much as its market stalls.

Of those hundreds of bistros, only a few survive today, and ever since I worked in my first basement kitchen in Paris at the age of 18, I have been irrepressibly curious about the myths and legends surrounding the old market. I've wondered at the outrage and nostalgia, the fierce pride, sentimentality, and melancholy that surround its memory—and I've always approached the heroic remnants of this quarter as an impressionable and slightly intimidated outsider. Revisiting some of the old surviving bistros of Les Halles recently, though, after having been away from Paris for a year, I found myself overwhelmed by the power of the stories locked within their walls, and decided to try to find the spirit (and the food) of the old Les Halles in the few bistros that have managed, against the odds, to hold on.

The bistro as an institution emerged in the 19th century as an eating and drinking place accessible to the working man—unlike more formal restaurants or even cafes, which tended to cater to the intellectual set. The cooking was simple but flavorful, the portions copious, the wine modest but abundant—and the customers and waiters were on a first-name basis.

The origins of Les Halles can be traced to the 12th century—but it was not until 1890, under Napoleon III, that Victor Baltard's extraordinary pavilions of steel and glass, which came to symbolize the market, were erected to group various foodstuffs under separate roofs: poultry and game, tripe and other offal, fish and shellfish, meat, B.O.F. (for beurre-oeuf-fromage—butter, eggs, and cheese), fruit and vegetables, and flowers. The employees of each pavilion tended to frequent the cluster of bistros nearest them, and thus a distinct fishiness would perfume one place, an astringent leekiness another. (This was often literally true: The poorer workers were paid partly in the raw materials they sold or prepared, and they'd bring them along to their bistros—where the chefs, in return for a portion of the goods, would cook them up; the workers paid only for their wine.)

The idea of moving Les Halles out of Paris had been under discussion since the early 1950s (among other things, there were questions of hygiene—the market had a daunting rat population— and of the fearful traffic that swirled around the place), but it was nevertheless a terrible shock to the quarter when the first pavilions were actually emptied early on the morning of March 1, 1969. At the time, Claude Cornut was a young man working in his father's bistro, Chez Clovis, on the rue Berger in the heart of the market area. "Les Halles was a village inside a city," he tells me, "and the ambience was extraordinary. When I was growing up, my friends were all from one of the three pavilions closest to us—poultry, tripe, and fish—and you'd see them anywhere from three to maybe 15 times a day, which meant that you ended up knowing them as if they were family."

Cornut remembers standing with his father in the middle of a deserted Les Halles at 3 a.m.—usually the busiest time of the day—two nights after the market move began, and looking around at the emptiness in disbelief. "We had 20 people working for us," he says, "and the next day we had to let all but one of them go. Without Les Halles, we had no customers. That was when the bistros started to close their doors, one by one. As for my father, he never recovered, and for months would come downstairs at midnight to turn on all the coffee percolators and throw open the doors. Then he would sit and wait in silence for the familiar noise and bustle to begin."

I'll never forget the first time I walked into Chez Clovis—and walked into the past. The bistro still glows, still looks the way it has for years: Its walls are covered with black-and-white photographs of life in the old Les Halles—portraits of legendary characters like Bebe the butcher (who, legend has it, froze to death in his own meat locker) and scenes of rollicking crowds pressed up against the bistro's bar. Charcuterie from the Clovis family's native Auvergne swings from the ceiling, and comforting smells waft up from the downstairs kitchen—slowly braising beef stews, browning shallots, reducing sauces.

The flavors of the food at Chez Clovis are earthy and satisfying, and the abundance of the servings indicates the generous bistro spirit that characterizes the place. This is authentic Les Halles fare: saucisson lyonnais gently cooked with lentils and served in a steaming, seemingly bottomless black cast-iron pot—or combined with meaty potatoes and greens into a hearty salad; beef slowly braised with carrots; heaps of the thick-cut french fries called pommes Pont Neuf; pot-au-feu. It was at Chez Clovis, in fact, that I was awakened to the ultimate pot-au-feu experience, spooning wobbly mounds of beef marrow onto a crust of baguette, sprinkling it with rough, gray sea salt, and then eating the results with eyes screwed tight to enjoy so delectable a moment undisturbed.

Two doors down from Chez Clovis is the aforementioned Chez Denise (À la Tour de Montlhery). Its proprietor, Denise Benariac, also lived through the death of Les Halles (she took over the place in 1966 with her late companion, Jack Paul). "To run a bistro," she says, her face trembling with all that she has seen and remembered, "you have to be in a good mood and agreeable to your customers every day, which…" She finishes the sentence with an utterly expressive French shrug and a purse of her rigorously painted lips. When Les Halles closed, À la Tour de Montlhery—named for the town just southwest of Paris which was traditionally the source of the first spring vegetables to reach the city each year—survived by staying open all night anyway, creating a niche for itself as a colorful remnant of the old times.

Some years ago, when I was working in a Parisian wine bar, my night-owl friends and I would sometimes head to the place at two or three in the morning for steak tartare—its onions, capers, and Tabasco dance a jig on your tongue—and homemade frites, liters of brouilly, and merriment all around, topped off eventually with plenty of vieille prune or poire (purely for medicinal purposes, of course). There was always a regular restaurant crowd here—waiters, yes, but chefs too, sometimes from grand places, men who felt at home here and seemed to need this kind of change of pace to unwind. Michel Anffray, the night chef, knows how each man likes his steak tartare—remembering that one prefers onions to shallots, that another likes his roughly chopped and with very little ketchup.

Lots of people felt at home here: Bernard Noel, who has relieved Anffray as day chef for 27 years, recalls that at 5 a.m. the late Jack Paul would offer garbage collectors a glass of white wine—with the same grace with which he welcomed the president of France, Jacques Chirac, who celebrated his birthday here three years ago.

There are three levels of wine cellars in the damp 16th-century foundations beneath Chez Denise, and once as I walked downstairs through cobwebs, feeling lost in time, I stumbled across a pile of mossy old skulls near the champagne racks. "Oh, those," Noel remarked casually when I jumped. "They're from the cemetery. Jack would invite his closest friends down to drink champagne from them." This bistro world, I was finding out, was a subculture unto itself—where people worked hard and lived their days to the fullest, with food, drink, and a Rabelaisian bawdiness.

The waiters at Chez Denise, many of whom have worked here for 30 years or more, are of the old school—real characters who pretend to be gruff and won't stand for any nonsense, like people ordering just a salad or refusing wine. One night I made the mistake of calling one of them "Monsieur"—to which he loudly retorted, "'Monsieur?' 'Monsieur?' I am Pascal!" I was eventually forgiven, but only after I had polished off every last bit of my haricot de mouton—a bread-crumb-topped casserole of tender lamb and succulent white beans (one of the regular plats du jour, along with tete de veau, blanquette de veau, and pot-au-feu, all served in the gargantuan portions emblematic of the bistros of Les Halles).

Claude Gousset has dinner at lunchtime every weekday at Aux Tonneaux des Halles, a bistro situated just behind the church of St-Eustache on the cobbled old market street of rue Montorgueil. Gousset, a meat cutter at Rungis who started his career in the butcher's trade at Les Halles, buys meat for the bistro every day. He has also lived next door to Aux Tonneaux since his Les Halles days, and has had his own table at the bistro for forty-odd years. "You know," he tells me one afternoon, nodding sagely, "it is only the most courageous and passionate bistro owners that have persevered through the really difficult years." He speaks highly and fondly of both Chez Clovis and Chez Denise in this regard, and then tells me about Aux Tonneaux: The original owners, he says, had let the place sink into sad decline, when Patrick Fabre—a 27-year veteran of other old bistros in the area—took it over in 1991. Fabre has revivified the place, keeping old customers like Gousset happy, but developing a new, younger clientele as well—by not only cooking bistro standards like entrecote bordelaise, served with its marrow; rump steak with a creamy roquefort sauce; and andouillette (tripe sausage) with a mustard sauce; but also dishes like a simple melon de Cavaillon in summer; a deliciously light filet of salmon with leeks; and a hearty cod steak with baby spinach.

Gousset speaks passionately about the differences between the modern wholesale markets at Rungis and the old Les Halles, too. "Even though my job at Les Halles, which lasted every morning from 1 a.m. till 11, was extremely physical and demanding," he tells me, "the atmosphere made it all worthwhile. When the meat came in, we would start prepping, then go for our first coffee at three. Then the big meal would be eaten at about five—usually the best-quality entrecotes or grillades, which we brought to the bistros to cook for us. At Rungis there have never been little bistros like that, so a lot of people are obliged to bring their own lunch already cooked. Another difference is in the customers. Our clients in the old meat pavilion were mostly butchers from all over Paris, with whom we got on famously, and they were always joining us for champagne or a meal. Nowadays, the butchers who come to Rungis are in a hurry and just want to get the business done. At Rungis there is none of the old camaraderie, the human warmth. When my generation retires, the last link is going to be cut."

It's a balmy June evening and I am sitting happily at a trestle table under the trees in the gardens of Les Halles, at a party put together by the Commune Libre des Halles—an organization created in 1992 to help keep the history of the community alive. After a parade led by the old forts des Halles—"strong men" who used to be the porters—we sit down to rillettes, assorted pates and terrines, cheese, and raspberry tarts, all prepared by Chez Denise and Chez Clovis and washed down with brouilly decanted from a Chez Denise barrel into plastic Volvic water bottles.

At dusk the dancing begins and I am mesmerized by the zest and sprightliness of a small woman in her eighties, a local character, who is positively leaping about; one year, I am told, she turned up in a red dress, brandishing maracas. There is something surreal about a celebration so rustic and old-fashioned in the very center of Paris, and the Parisian friends that I have dragged along are both incredulous and enchanted. At one point, Claude Cornut from Chez Clovis comes over and tells me that Michel Caldagues, the mayor of the 1st arrondissement, would like me to join him and madame le maire at their table to toast Les Halles over a glass of champagne. I am inordinately delighted and touched when the mayor stands to welcome me as I approach, and I return the smiles of all these now-familiar faces—realizing that, somehow, I have been accepted into this small merry band, here in the belly of Paris.

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