A Bastille Day Look at the Street Markets of Paris

by Robert Lauriston

Bastille Day is France's national day, a patriotic holiday that celebrates the French Revolution and Gallic culture in general. The holiday honors the events of July 14, 1789, when a mob of lower-class Parisians impulsively stormed a royal prison in the mistaken belief it held a cache of ammunition. (Quite a contrast with our own national day, which commemorates a committee of upper-class landowners signing a document whose wording they'd been haggling over for a week.)

In contemporary Paris, Bastille Day is celebrated by parades, public balls sponsored by the fire department, and lots of fireworks. There's no particular culinary connection--just the usual fixation on quality and style that characterizes the world's most food-obsessed city and makes every day there a cause for celebration.

The center of daily Parisian culinary life is the family meal, and the pillars of la cuisine bonne femme (home cooking) are, as they have been for centuries, Paris's traditional markets. Almost every apartment in the city is within walking distance of a rue commerçiante (street with market stalls) or a marché volante (an itinerant group of vendors that rotate between two or three different locations).

In The Food Lover's Guide to Paris (Workman Publishing, $14.95), Patricia Wells describes the market street where she does her daily shopping. It includes a dozen produce shops and stalls; six butchers, one specializing in horsemeat; four poultry shops; two triperies selling tripe, kidneys, sweetbreads, and liver; several fishmongers; half a dozen bakeries and pâtisseries; three cheese shops; four charcuteries selling cold cuts and pâtes; a coffee, tea, and spice shop; a health-food store; and two supermarkets. In case the sight of so much food makes shoppers hungry, there are also over half a dozen cafes and restaurants. The scene is an object lesson in basic economics: as potential (and extremely picky) customers browse, vendors clamor for their attention, competing to offer the freshest products, the lowest prices, the greatest variety.

Though most Parisian supermarkets now take advantage of international airfreight and cold storage to provide a relatively unchanging assortment of produce throughout the year, for the most part the street vendors still follow the passage of the seasons. This is largely thanks to the traditional maraîchers, Paris-area farmers who set standards for quality and price by growing their own produce and selling it direct to consumers. Other vendors now buy their goods at the huge Rungis wholesale market, the 440-acre suburban successor to Paris's much-missed central market, the famous Les Halles (now a tacky underground shopping mall).

Paris's cheese shops also follow the seasonal round. Fall's the best time for pungent Munster, winter is the only time you'll find the aromatic Vacherin Mont d'Or, and though you can get Camembert all year, the finest arrive in the spring. The best Parisian cheese shops go to great lengths to ensure that their cheeses are in top condition when sold, buying them young and aging them in special underground aging rooms. According to Wells, who has toured most of these cellars, each merchant uses a different method for aging each variety of cheese: the temperature and humidity of the cellar; whether and when to move the cheese between cellars; to bed the cheese on new straw, old straw, or paper; to turn the cheese often or seldom; and so on. The end result is that a particular cheese will taste radically different depending on which shop you buy it from.

Here in the Bay Area, many Francophiles celebrate Bastille Day in a distinctly local manner. In the 70s, Chez Panisse started celebrating the holiday with an all-garlic menu, and in the years since the celebration has grown to a week- long festival involving restaurants all over Berkeley. If you want to get in on the fun, you'd best make reservations right away.