Rue Cler: A Parisian Street Market
Walking down rue Cler makes me feel like I must have been a poodle in a previous life. It's a cobbled pedestrian street lined by six-story-tall apartment buildings. Windows stand in obedient rows, each flanked by peeling white shutters. Gardens are limited to tiny black flower boxes perched on black banisters outside each window. But the entire neighborhood shares the Champ de Mars, a park which sprawls royally from the foot of the Eiffel Tower five blocks away.
You could live well and never leave the rue Cler. The street is lined with all the necessary shops — wine, cheese, chocolate, bread, a bank, and a post office. And the shops of this community are run by people who've found their niche...boys who grew up on quiche, girls who know a good wine.
The crepe man makes crepes like he just invented them. A man with working-class hands cradles a bouquet and a baguette in his arms. Aproned fruit stall attendants coax doll-like girls into trying their cherries. Even bums drink a better wine on rue Cler.
Flower shops add a fragrance to the breeze and every shop is jammed, except the health-food store. Connoisseurs of good living keep rue Cler in business. If the traveler wishes to learn the fine art of living Parisian-style, rue Cler provides an excellent classroom.
Leaving my hotel, I pass the cheese shop. A man, thrilled he's found his favorite goat cheese, tells me, "Vieux Corse, it can only be found on rue Cler." Stepping past huge tables with colorful fruits and leafy vegetables balanced high, I see a friend.
Marie-Alice runs my favorite local restaurant. Each morning, she picks up the ingredients for the day's menu here on rue Cler.
|Marie-Alice painstakingly selects the ingredients for her rue Cler restaurant, La Serre.|
"Oh Rick", she says, noisily kissing the air an inch in front of each of my earlobes, "The strawberries are beautiful today." She buries her nose then mine in a basket of lush red strawberries. Ready to give a polite "Wow", I actually give an honest "Wow," having never quite enjoyed the smell of a strawberry so vividly.
She says, "You must shop with your nose. These Gariguette are French...a beautiful smell...better than the Spanish strawberries." Reaching back for a less expensive Spanish strawberry, she holds the stem to my nose and I smell nothing.
"Oh, and this basilic. It will be great on a salad."
Marie-Alice is short, barely reaching my shoulders. But she's a force in the market. With a dark dress, brightly-colored sash, and beautiful long black hair, she power-dresses to shop. Her lipstick is as fresh as the basilic and bright as the strawberries.
"May I join you?" I ask.
She knows I'm a TV-dinner kind of guy and welcomes this opportunity to give me a little cuisine culture.
"Yes, please, Rick," she says, paging through bundles of tarragon. Treating the brown herbs like a bouquet, she pouts, "No smell. If I want to make a chicken tarragon, I cannot do it today. It seems that the herb delivery has not arrived."
"Ah, these asparagus are also not good. I must take them off the menu tonight."
I flip at the tough leaves of an artichoke saying, "These are good with butter."
"Artichoke. We say it is the vegetable of the poor people. It takes a long time and much work to eat."
Holding a gnarled white ball at me, she says, "You know this?"
"It looks like a brain."
"No, Rick, this is the root of the celery. Stronger taste. We grate it for a salad. Delicious."
"It is not the season for melon. Oh la la, look at that price," she says, pointing to the sign with price, name and country of origin chalked onto it. "What is that, about $6 per kilo? You see, it came from Guadeloupe. There is an obligation to say where it comes from. Many people will buy only the French products. I try."
Across the street, ladies thick and crusty after a lifetime of baguette munching, debate the merits of the street's rival boulangeries. And a young girl, who looks chic in just-out-of-bed hair, walks quickly out the door munching a pain au chocolate.
I say, "Rue Cler has two boulangeries. Is one better?"
"Oh, yes. This one is good; that one," she points down the way and shudders, "it is horrible."
"Can you taste the difference?" I ask as we step in.
"Ouff! Absolutely. You see, there is the boulangerie problem: the man is either a good bread man or a good pastry man. The man down there, his heart is in his pastry. The bread suffers."
Pointing to a fancy mousse, Marie-Alice says, "The baker here is a good bread man but he has a special pastry man. A bread man could never do work like this. When you do good bread, you have no time to do good pastry."
A friend passes Marie-Alice. Greedily hurrying home with his tart, he giggles "Poire et chocolat." She says, "Jean Pierre loves his pear and chocolate tarte" and walks me to the most tempting storefront on rue Cler.
Tarte Julie's front windows are filled with various pies. The shop's classy old storefront is a work of art which survives from the previous occupant. The inset stones and glass advertise horsemeat. The sign still says Boucherie Chevaline. The decorated front, from the '30s and signed by the artist, would fit in a museum. But it belongs right here. And everyone knows this is a place for a fine tart, not horsemeat.
A long, narrow, canopied cheese table brings the fromagerie into the street. Marie-Alice bounces her finger over a long line of cheeses: wedges, cylinders, balls and mini hockey pucks all powdered white, grey and burnt marshmallow — it's a festival of mold.
Sounding blessed as can be, she says, "So many different cheeses. This is goat, and goat, and goat, and goat...all different kinds of goat cheese. Oh la la la la."
Picking up one misty with mold she holds it close to her nose, takes an orgasmic breath, and exhales, "Yes, it smells like zee feet of angels."
Just inside the door she points a happy pinky at a crumpled wad of cheese the size of a pocketwatch. "Ah, Rocamadour. To make this tiny piece, you need half a liter of milk."
The owner of the shop, seeing me peek past the heavy plastic curtain into the big, tiled and cold back room, proudly pulls back the drapes and invites me to see "la meule."
La meule is a huge round of cheese from which the "hard" cheeses are cut. He hefts out a wheel the size of a truck tire and declares, "80 kilos...made with 1,000 liters [250 gallons] of milk."
Marie-Alice translates his warning: "Don't eat the skin of these big ones...they roll them on the floor." Strolling with me past more cheeses, she continues, "On smaller cheese — the Brie, the Camembert — this skin is part of the taste, it completes the package."
"Do you assemble your cheese plates here?" I ask.
"Oui," she says, sorting through her options like a mother dressing her daughter, "on a good cheese plate you need a hard cheese, like this Emmental; a flowery cheese — maybe Brie or Camembert; a blue; and a goat."
Across the street we pause at a table of ducks, pigeons, quails and rabbits. Marie-Alice sorts through the dead. With none of the tenderness shown in the cheese shop, she hoists a duck. Rubbing a thumb toughly on its rough and calloused feet, she says, "So. You see this? This is very good. He lived on a farm, not in an industrial kennel. This meat will be tasty on my menu tonight...perhaps we will make the canard a l'orange."
We cross the street. Greeting the mom and pop of the butcher shop, Marie-Alice says, "They buy the veal only on the foot." Walking in, she points to the red and gold medals which hang like a necklace across the ceiling. Hitting one with her umbrella, she says, "Each of these hung around the neck of a prizewinning little cow. When we see these, we know we get the top quality."
The ruddy-faced butcher, dressed in a tiny plaid beret with a white apron over a fine shirt and silk tie, is busy chopping. A battalion of meathooks hang in orderly lines from the ceiling. The white walls bring out the red in the different cuts of meat.
I say, "He's the best dressed butcher I've seen."
Marie-Alice translates and shares his response, "His father dressed well. The customers expect this from him also. He changes his apron three times every day."
A man from the British Embassy picks up a steak. On his way out he assures me, "The meat here is more expensive, but the quality is always tops."
A bent little old lady follows him, clutching dinner wrapped in waxy paper. Marie-Alice notices and says, "She gets a fine cut of meat with the same service as the man from the embassy."
The butcher's wife tells Marie-Alice their anniversary is this weekend — 35 years together. And Marie-Alice shares the story. "In this case, 35 years ago, the son of the rue Cler butcher married the daughter of the rue Cler fish man." Relaying the story from the woman behind the cash register, Marie-Alice says, "She shopped here with her mother. She saw the butcher's son chopping on that same table," pointing to a well-worn but finely carved old work table. "She made an arrangement to see him and...well, she left the fish shop."
Today she takes the money and he chops the meat. And the father — 87, and still living upstairs — still comes down, cleans the knives, and makes sure his son maintains the shop's tradition of quality.
As the postman flops a small pile of mail on the counter, the butcher's wife flips through it and says, "But we have nobody to take the shop. Our children are not interested. I think we are the end of an age."