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Archive for the ‘food and drink’ Category

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Many ate poorly in a city that was famous for its fancy food. Wages for the unskilled were low and even the skilled workers had to turn every coin twice before spending it. Men could make anywhere from 50 centimes to 4 francs a day. Unskilled women would earn as low as 25 centimes and children even less.

A previous post A Camel Steak Anyone? Shopping for Food in Paris mentioned that the poorest inhabitants of the French capital saw meat only on major holidays – if ever. Their basic diet consisted of bread, potatoes, pork fat, and milk. An average restaurant meal would begin at two francs, and such a price would turn away most of the working-class people. Fuel was costly, too, so they did not do much cooking at home. Cheap hot meals could be purchased from street vendors and men of gambling nature would try their luck with meat at the most bizarre establishments ever: the potluck kitchens.

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Potluck Eateries

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In his book Paris with Pen and Pencil (published in 1858) American David W. Bartlett left us a vivid description of a meal at a fortune du pot restaurant:

“Pot-luck, or the fortune du pot, is on the whole the most curious feeding spectacle in Europe. There are more than a dozen shops in Paris where this mode of procuring a dinner is practiced, chiefly in the back streets abutting on the Pantheon. About two o’clock, a parcel of men in dirty blouses, with sallow faces, and an indescribable mixture of recklessness, jollity, and misery—strange as the juxtaposition of terms may seem—lurking about their eyes and the corners of their mouths, take their seats in a room where there is not the slightest appearance of any preparation for food, nothing but half-a-dozen old deal-tables, with forms beside them, on the side of the room, and one large table in the middle. They pass away the time in vehement gesticulation, and talking in a loud tone; so much of what they say is in argot, that the stranger will not find it easy to comprehend them. He would think they were talking crime or politics—not a bit of it; their talk is altogether about their mistresses. Love and feeding make up the existence of these beings; and we may judge of the quality of the former by what we are about to see of the latter.

A huge bowl is at last introduced, and placed on the table in the middle of the room. At the same time a set of basins, corresponding to the number of the guests, are placed on the side-tables. A woman, with her nose on one side, good eyes, and the thinnest of all possible lips, opening every now and then to disclose the white teeth which garnish an enormous mouth, takes her place before it. She is the presiding deity of the temple; and there is not a man present to whom it would not be the crowning felicity of the moment to obtain a smile from features so little used to the business of smiling, that one wonders how they would set about it if the necessity should ever arise.

Every cap is doffed with a grim politeness peculiar to that class of humanity, and a series of compliments fly into the face of Madame Michel, part leveled at her eyes, and part at the laced cap, in perfect taste, by which those eyes are shrouded. Mère Michel, however, says nothing in return, but proceeds to stir with a thick ladle, looking much larger than it really is, the contents of the bowl before her. These contents are an enormous quantity of thick brown liquid, in the midst of which swim numerous islands of vegetable matter and a few pieces of meat.

Meanwhile, a damsel, hideously ugly—but whose ugliness is in part concealed by a neat, trim cap—makes the tour of the room with a box of tickets, grown black by use, and numbered from one to whatever number may be that of the company. Each of them gives four sous to this Hebe of the place, accompanying the action with an amorous look, which is both the habit and the duty of every Frenchman when he has anything to do with the opposite sex, and which is not always a matter of course, for Marie has her admirers, and has been the cause of more than one rixe in the Rue des Anglais.

The tickets distributed, up rises number one—with a joke got ready for the occasion, and a look of earnest anxiety, as if he were going to throw for a kingdom—takes the ladle, plunges it into the bowl, and transfers whatever it brings up to his basin. It is contrary to the rules for any man to hesitate when he has once made his plunge, though he has a perfect right to take his time in a previous survey of the ocean—a privilege of which he always avails himself. If he brings up one of the pieces of meat, the glisten of his eye and the applauding murmur which goes round the assembly give him a momentary exultation, which it is difficult to conceive by those who have not witnessed it. In this the spirit of successful gambling is, beyond all doubt, the uppermost feeling; it mixes itself up with everything done by that class of society, and is the main reason of the popularity of these places with their habitués; for when the customers have once acquired the habit, they rarely go anywhere else.”

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Harlequin Food

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The poor had an opportunity to eat above their means and taste second-hand luxury food by making a purchase at the harlequin merchant’s food stand. The harlequin merchants sold at low prices leftover food they had collected in the kitchens of wealthy Parisian houses from cooks who were happy to make extra money.  The merchants were called “harlequins” because they dished out food as composite as the dress of the Harlequin character from the Commedia Dell’Arte: an ever surprising medley of poultry, fish, and roast beef bits mixed with various side dishes, and sweet desserts, all sharing a single plate.

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Related posts:

A Camel Steak, Anyone? Shopping for Food in Paris

Extreme Food Recycling Caution! Do not read during or immediately after a meal.

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halles

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Les Halles were the commercial heart of Paris, a place of exchange and supply to the abundant life that had developed over the centuries. An entire chapter in Paris history was closed in 1971 with the destruction of this central market. Author Emile Zola closely described this anthill of human activity in his 1873 realistic novel Le Ventre de Paris (The Belly of Paris). It is a must read for researchers of this period, as are all Zola’s novels. (All twenty of them in one e-volume are available on Amazon for the ridiculous price of US 2.99).

A close look at the famous marketplace before it disappeared forever is provided by the 1950s documentary Twelve Hours in Halles posted below. No English translation is available, so here is what we see:

At midnight, when the Halles open, the first delivery trucks arrive. The merchandise is displayed, awaiting auctions. Around 4:00 AM, the Paris elite drops in for the famous onion soup, to rub shoulders with the market workers after having drunk champagne at some glitterati party. At 9:00 AM the market opens for shoppers. Old people from the neighborhood rummage through the organic garbage to gather ingredients for their soup. At noon, following a feverish trading, the market closes for cleaning, to be reopened again at midnight.  In the twelve hours of the never-changing routine, thirty thousand tonnes of merchandise have changed hands. Let the pictures talk and enjoy the forever-gone local color:

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Since the first video is no longer available, here is a replacement:

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The History

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halles pilori.

The marketplace supplied Paris for 800 years before it closed down. In medieval times, it housed a pillory. Convicts, mostly crooked traders using false weights, pimps, and blasphemers, were exposed there, and passers-by could throw all kinds of garbage at them. The executioner had his accommodation on the ground floor.

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hallesold

Les Halles at the beginning of the 1800s

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Around 1850, the cramped conditions and lack of hygiene forced the city council to vote for a reconstruction. At the same time, Napoleon’s ambitious nephew, Louis-Napoleon, seized power and crowned himself an emperor. With Napoleon III came the forceful “hausmanization” of Paris described in this post.The emperor had a look at the building plans and halted the project of heavy stone pavilions. Inspired by the Crystal Palace in London, and enthusiastic about the recently built spacious Gare de l’Est, he said to Prefect Haussmann: “I need large umbrellas, nothing more!”

halles design

Architect Victor Baltard’s light-weight pavilions won the emperor’s approval. The construction started in 1854, and took 15 years to complete. The market covered an area of 135 thousand square feet

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halles interior

The airy cast iron and glass interior

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Each pavilion had its specialty: number 3 for meat, number 9 for fish, and so on. Fruits and vegetables were also sold in the covered alleys and on the surrounding streets. The volume of the merchandise was enormous. As an example, each day, the butter, egg, and cheese pavilion took in a delivery of one hundred wagonloads of eggs, each wagon carrying seventy crates. Each of these cases contained 1,440 eggs.

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halles eggs

Inspecting eggs with the help of candlelight in the Dairy Pavillion cellar. The City of Paris employed one hundred egg inspectors to guarantee freshness. They were sworn in and placed directly under the supervision of the Prefecture de Police. 

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A postcard shows the feverish morning activity at Les Halles

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Someone had to move all this merchandise, and not just anyone. The task was performed by the Forts. These strongmen were easily identifiable thanks to their large hat, the coltin, with a built-in lead disc helping to support heavy loads carried on the head. The Forts formed a famous brotherhood, created under the reign of Louis IX during the 13th century.

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halles forts

Two Forts wearing their coltin hats 

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The organization was hierarchical. The chiefs were recognized by their silver medal, while the simple Forts wore a copper one. Their motto was Strength and Honor. Not everyone could become a Fort. The hiring conditions were strict and the applicant had to fulfill all five of them:

  • To be of French nationality
  • To have done military service
  • To have a clean criminal record
  • To measure at least 1.67 meters (5,5″)
  • To be able to carry a load of 200 kg (circa 450 pounds) over a distance of 60 meters (65 yards)

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halles forts 2

The Forts at work

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With the constantly growing population, Paris suffered circulation problems. Around 1960, it became clear that the current food distribution had to be changed to ease the cramped conditions. It no longer made sense to bring all the food into the city to be redistributed afterwards. The decision to transfer the market to two suburban locations, Rungis and La Vilette, became official in 1962.

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halles end

This photo by Pierre Doisneau, taken after the destruction of Les Halles, fits the mood of the place at the end of an era in the city’s history

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Related posts:

Camel Steak, Anyone? Shopping for Food in Paris

Extreme Food Recycling Caution: Not for weak stomachs!

Paris Markets in Victor Gilbert’s Paintings

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When butchers inspired artists: Calf in a Butcher’s Shop Window by Gustav Caillebotte (1882)

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Food in 19th century Paris was a serious matter requiring perfection at all levels including an artful display.

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The Government of Paris kept an attentive eye on the cleanliness of food retailer's shops, particularly the butchers. This poultry shop obtained several awards
The Government of Paris kept an attentive eye on the cleanliness of food retailers’ shops, particularly the butchers. This poultry shop obtained multiple awards

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These cones with sticky surface helped to keep food free from flies.

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Not the usual fare, a camel’s carcass is prominently displayed in this fancy wild game shop

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Seafood was delivered from this shop to your address

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Potato market on the Seine. Meat was for the well-to-do bourgeois. Poorer people made do with bread and potatoes. A piece of salted pork was added on Sundays. Other meat was reserved only for special celebrations

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A mother-and-daughter sidewalk produce shop

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A grocery store, such as this one, was a relative novelty. Until the second half of the 19th century, the Parisian grocery trade had very few fixed premises. Merchandise was sold in bulk from the central market or retailed from pushcarts. The imported and gourmet items sold in the brick-and-mortar shops remained out of reach for the poorest, who mostly subsisted on a monotonous diet of milk, bread, potatoes, and pork fat.

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While today you go shopping to the store, in the past the store came to you in small pieces. Here comes the produce section

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Loaded pushcarts, ready to go

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The street was a noisy place with merchants on wheels shouting their wares

Related posts:

Les Halles: The Belly of Paris

Les Halles were the commercial heart of Paris, a place of exchange and supply to the abundant life that had developed over the centuries. An entire chapter in Paris history was closed in 1971 with the destruction of this central market.

If you like these posts, support the author by purchasing her books:

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bistro.

Today, we’ll talk about a 19th-century Parisian institution of social importance: the bistrot. Not to be confused with a café—which is a frequent occurrence today—the bistrot/bistro was a waiter-less establishment where you ordered your refreshment from the “patron” who ran the place from behind a zinc-covered counter. The birth of Parisian bistros, as the legend would have it, goes back to the defeat of Napoleon in the battle of Waterloo (1814). As a consequence, Paris was overrun by various victorious armies, including the always-thirsting Russian Cossacks. They wanted a drink and they wanted it fast: Bistro! Bistro! The legend is embraced by all, except for the etymologists who still discuss the origin of the world as it does not appear in literature before 1884.

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bistrot

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While they take various forms today, Parisian bistros were small unpretentious joints run by so-called “bougnats” – the immigrants from Auvergne who left their poor lands during the Industrial Revolution to settle in Paris. These establishments were recognized for their very popular atmosphere. Designed for the poorer classes, bistros offered a drink and a quick bite. It was in the bistro that the neighborhood problems were discussed. It was a place for the morning coffee and croissant, for an apéritif before lunch and, again, for one before dinner; the bistro was also a haven for working-class lovers to meet during inclement weather and a recreation room for the local prostitute.

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lovers

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Related posts:

Absinthe: The Rise and Death of the Green Fairy

Drink and Prostitution: The Belle Epoque Hooters

The Guide to Gay Paree (1869) – Part 4: Restaurants and Cafés

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Very few liquors deserved so much attention in literature, painting, and poetry as did the absinthe, the favorite drink of the Parisian artistic community. Absinthe drinking involved an ever-fascinating ritual, best described in one of Marcel Pagnol’s novels (Le Temps des Secrets):

“The poet’s eye shone suddenly, and then, in a deep silence, began a kind of ceremony. He installed before him a glass, which was very big, after checking its cleanliness. He then took the bottle, uncorked it, smelled it, and poured an amber liquid with green reflections, whose dose he seemed to measure with suspicious attention, for, after examination and reflection, he added a few drops. He then took from the tray a kind of small silver shovel, which was narrow and long, and pierced with cut-outs in the shape of arabesques. He put this device, like a bridge, on the edges of the glass, and charged it with two lumps of sugar.


With a hand resting on her hip at the end of her gracefully rounded arm, the Infanta lifted the pitcher high enough, then with an infallible address, she dropped a very thin stream of fresh water on the sugar cubes, which began to fall apart slowly.


The poet, whose chin was almost touching the table, between his two hands laid flat, watched closely the operation. The Infanta’s jug was as motionless as a fountain, and Isabelle was no longer breathing. In the liquid, whose level was rising slowly, I saw forming a kind of milky haze, in twisted twists that eventually joined, while a penetrating scent of anise was refreshing my nostrils. “

 

 

 

Absinthe was also called the Green Fairy as it was believed that it opened the door to a fairyland


The effect of absinthe varies from person to person but it can be described as mind and eye-sharpening.  Some consumers mention impressive dreams. The active ingredient in absinthe is a plant called wormwood.  The most persistent misunderstanding about wormwood is that it is a drug. Although not true, this vision of absinthe as a dangerous intoxicant and hallucinogen grew until the liquor got banned.

 

 

 

 

 

The Green Muse by Albert Maignan (1895)


Paintings of absinthe drinkers usually depict melancholy and resigned individuals:

 

 

 

The Absinthe Drinkers Au Café By Edgar Degas, 1876





The Absinthe Drinker by Pablo Picasso, 1901





Absinth Drinkers by Jean Béraud, 1908

Absinthe got popular under the Second Empire (1852-1870).  At the beginning, it was a fashionable drink for the wealthy. Around this time, it became normal to start the meal with an aperitif, and between the 1500 liquors available, absinthe accounted for 90% of aperitifs consumed.

 

 

 

A cozy middle-class moment with absinthe


The consumption of absinthe crested in the years 1880-1910, when its price fell and it became accessible to all, rivaling in popularity with wine. During this time, everyone drank absinthe, from  society ladies to workers. In 1874, France consumed 700,000 liters of wormwood, but in 1910 this figure reached 36,000,000 liters a year. By that time, absinthe was already a major French export. The French colonies were important markets, followed by South American countries like Argentina and Chile.

 

 

Posters condemning the consumption of absinthe began to appear. Even the dog shows his disrespect for this working class loser


Absinthe contained 75% alcohol and was not always sufficiently diluted with water. When it began replacing wine, the problems with drunkenness grew and so did the backlash against the liquor. Absinthe was blamed for a syndrome, called absinthism, characterized by hyper-nervosity, epileptic seizures, and hallucinations. According to the anti-absinthe activists, the drink even caused the painter van Gogh’s madness and his ear amputation. (Not true.)

 

 

 

The Green Hour
What we know as the Happy Hour was called the Green Hour because absinthe was the drink of choice. This poster shows the effects of absinthe on the working class (left) and on the better class (right)


 

Discussions followed discussions. Petitions were signed. The vise slowly tightened around absinthe. The straw that broke the camel’s back was a series of particularly brutal family murders for which absinthe was blamed – largely unjustly. Preceding the crime, the murderer drank not only two glasses of absinthe but also a mint cream, a cognac, six glasses of wine to water his lunch, another glass of wine after work, a cup of coffee with brandy, a liter of wine on the way back, then another coffee with brandy. Only absinthe was blamed for his murderous dementia.

 

Absinthe was banned in Belgium in 1905, in Switzerland in 1910, in the United States in 1912, and finally in France in 1915. It was resurrected in 1987 in former Czechoslovakia and is now available in other countries as well


There are two ways of serving absinthe: the meditative and the flamboyant. Both are depicted in this video:

 

 

 




Related posts:

Drink and Prostitution: The Belle Epoque Hooters

The Scarcity of Water

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french watching

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The French culinary lifestyle—such as a family eating in a restaurant—surprised many mid-century travelers. In their home countries, eating in a public place made sense only when a person was away from her home and its safe food. This was a habit in France as well until the 1789 revolution. With the aristocrats guillotined or gone to exile, many skilled and creative cooks became unemployed. The only solution was to open public eateries. The well-to-do bourgeois tasted aristocratic cuisine and they liked it.  More than half a century later, when the following text was written, there were hundreds of restaurants in Paris. Eating out made more sense than staying at home. One saved on kitchen fuel, which was a considerable expense at the time, and one could choose from a variety of expertly cooked dishes.

James Jackson Jarves (1818-1888), the author of the text, visited Paris in the early 1850s and published his impressions in Parisian Sights and French Principles, seen through American spectacles (1852). His wit and the clarity of his style vividly portray the living condition in the mid-century Paris.

To see the French eat one should visit the restaurants of lesser magnitude and fame, particularly of a Sunday, where the rush to dinner, as no one dines that day under his own roof, is absolutely fearful to a lover of a quiet meal. Infants, dogs, and nurses, all have a seat that day, and the amount consumed would indicate considerable preparatory fasting. Eating and drinking, for the moment, become the only business of life. The preparations bespeak the seriousness of the operation.

A family enters, consisting of father, mother, maiden sister, two children under five years of age, and a dog. All the tables are filled. They turn to go out. The restaurateur rushes forward, intercepts their retreat, and promises a table toutsuite. He sees one party have called for their bills, hands them their change, and plumps the newcomers into their warm seats., with an array of broken bread, dirty glasses, and all the debris of the previous meal before them.

Once seated, with bonnets and hats hung up, they are considered as secure as fish fairly hooked. The garçon, with the dexterity and rapidity peculiarly his own, whisks away the soiled tablecloth and dishes, and in an instant has replaced them with snow-white linen and porcelain.

Now commences the tug of eating. Each member of the party, except for the dog who gravely occupies the chair, too well-bred to manifest impatience, plants a napkin under his or her chin, of the dimensions of a moderate-sized tablecloth. The females pin the extremities to each shoulder so that in front they have much the appearance of being in their shrouds. The menu card is studied, orders given, and content and pleasure reign. At these family feasts, children are literally crammed, indulged with wines and the delicacies called for by adult taste, their parents delighted in proportion to the quantity they consume.

Eating, under almost any circumstances, is to a looker-on a vulgar operation. In one of these restaurants, it is certainly an amusing one to a veteran traveler. whose sensibilities had long since their edges blunted. The French from early habit frequently make themselves very much at home at restaurants and cafes, spending their evenings at the latter, reading the journals, and playing chess and dominoes, paying the same by calling for a bottle of beer or a glass of brandy. I have myself seen a woman who had come in by herself, after finishing her repast, coolly throw herself back in a chair and proceed to take a comfortable digestive nap, apparently wholly oblivious to the existence and manifold trials of the race denominated unprotected females.

Related post:

Extreme Good Recycling  Warning: Do not read during or immediately after a meal!

Traveler’s Bonus:

The Cheapest Gourmet Restaurants in Paris

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The colorful Belle Epoque posters make the joy of collectors. Not only are they highly decorative and amusing in their occasional naïveté but they also inform us about the changing lifestyle. New alimentary products appear, such as chemical taste enhancers and food substitutes. Maggi, powdered milk, and margarine became regular ingredients of people’s diet. Chocolat, previously only served as drink, acquired the solid form of tablets as we know them today. Biscuits were produced industrially.

 

sardine

“The French Sardine Says Hello!” Food talked to people before the advertising industry discovered that humanizing animals we eat was not a good idea.

 

prase

Sausages that “One Eats with Pleasure and Without Fatigue”. A prodigious pig (cochon prodigue) indeed! An animal that happily slices itself for the consumer’s delight would probably turn off today’s viewers. The Belle Epoque folk were made of a tougher stock.

 

HI100036.tif

Seen only in greasy spoons today, a bottle of Maggi was a novelty worthy of a bourgeois table.

 

magi

A bowlful of chemically enhanced soup before the bedtime was a sign of good parenting

 

 

margarine

This margarine obtained gold medals in Amsterdam {1883) and Le Havre (1887)

 

camembert

Be it cheese, beer, champagne or herb liquor, monks were trusted to produce quality food and drink

 

chocolat

In this boy’s mind, solid chocolate is better than solid gold

 

mucha 1896

Biscuits to be served with champagne. A beautiful poster by Alphonse Mucha, 1896

 

lulu

A boy in a typical school uniform is enjoying sweet biscuits

cookies

Cookies could start a romance (1896)

no bras

 

“No arms, no chocolate”. This bizarre advertising depicts a well-known French saying. One could think that this cruelty hides a wisdom of some sort; that it can be interpreted as “no effort, no reward.” That is not so. This replica is passed on in popular language and is serving to highlight the absurdity of a ban or to make fun of someone faced with a physical impossibility:

“Mom, can I have chocolate?”
“There’s some in the closet. Go serve yourself.”
“But Mom, I can’t, you know I don’t have arms.”
“No arms, no chocolate!”
Obviously, it makes some sense to the French.

 

Related post:

The Belle Epoque Lifestyle: Personal Hygiene

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etrennes

In France, Christmas is called Noël. Noël means la bonne nouvelle or “the good news”. Of the visible signs of Christmas in the 19th century Paris, the Christmas tree was not a common sight, but no home was without a crèche, the Nativity scene.
On Christmas Eve, children left their shoes by the fireplace to be filled with gifts from Pere Noel. Adults received no gifts until the New Year’s Étrennes.

The Christmas log is now symbolized by “la bûche de Noël”, the unavoidable festive dessert

The Christmas log is now symbolized by “la bûche de Noël”, the unavoidable festive dessert

Evergreens, such as ivy and mistletoe, decorated the mantel piece and the dinner table readied for Le Réveillon, the after Midnight Mass feast. That’s right: the French have to wait until after midnight to celebrate Christmas with food. What food and how much of it (lots!) is described in The Réveillon: Christmas the French Way.

A Joyeux Noël to all!

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Banquet des Maires 1900

Banquet des Maires

Who do you call when you need to throw a party for the Queen of England or the G7 summit? There is only one caterer that will do. The firm has a list of experiences reaching as far as 1856 on the occasion of the Prince Imperial’s baptism celebration. Potel et Chabot satisfied the demands of Napoleon III and since then they have been firmly established as the best in the world. In 1900, Potel et Chabot reached a culinary record that remains unsurpassed to this day. The legendary feast is known as the Banquet des Maires. Twenty-one thousand French mayors, including those from the colonies, responded to President Émile Loubet’s invitation to celebrate the success of the Exposition Universelle.

banquet cuisine

The area of the banquet in the Jardin des Tuileries covered 10,000 acres. 24,000 meals were served by the staff of 3,600. One car and six bicycles circulated between the tables to transmit orders. Over 6 miles of table-cloth was needed as well as 125,000 plates, 55,000 forks, 55,000 spoons and 60,000 knives. The nine-part menu was washed down with 39,000 bottles of quality wine including champagne. 3,000 bottles of gros-rouge were allotted to the perspiring staff.

Departure of guests

Departure of guests

I don’t know who paid the bill, but I bet that in today’s economic situation the question would be on every taxpayer’s lips.

A satisfied mayor

A satisfied mayor

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The Scarcity of Water

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LeRéveillon by Edmund Morin (1824-1882)

Le Réveillon by Edmund Morin (1824-1882)

The Réveillon is a night-long feast that celebrates the birth of Christ. It starts after the midnight mass in the early morning hours of Christmas Day. Thankfully, I experienced the French Réveillon only once. When children are involved – hungry, tired, over-excited and cranky children – the celebration may not be all that joyous. In my humble opinion, the cultures East of the Rhine manage far better by celebrating the Christmas Eve with both dinner and gifts dispatched before midnight. When the little angels fall asleep, replete and hugging their new toys, the adults can enjoy merrymaking on a new level.

This personal experience served me to a degree when I wrote the Christmas chapter in my novel Fame and Infamy, set in the 1870`s Paris. In the following short excerpt cultures clash over the Réveillon:

Dissent was brewing in the kitchen where Julie sat in a corner with a goose between her knees, plucking the feathers, while Célestine chopped onion with more vigour than the task required.

“Some people I could name have no respect for tradition,” the cook said provocatively as Nelly wheeled Géraldine through the door.

“Listen Célestine,” Nelly said, while parking the wheelchair by the kitchen table, “as far as traditions go, I had to give up mine as well. In America, there’s no midnight feast. If I can adjust, then you can too. It’s unhealthy to eat a heavy dinner past midnight. By the time you’d get back from church, we’d be half-asleep. We’ll eat at nine. That’s late enough.”

“Have it your way,” Célestine grumbled. “As for me and Julie, we’ll wait until after the midnight mass. Won’t we, Julie?”

Julie ripped off the last fistful of feathers and closely studied the goose for any she might have overlooked. She would not be drawn into the dispute.

“I don’t know why you are making such a case of the Réveillon,” Nelly said. “It will be just us and Monsieur Goubert. Thirteen desserts for five people is excess. I must’ve been brain-damaged when I allowed such an expense.”

“That’s for Jesus and his twelve apostles. They must not be denied. Nuts, raisins, almonds,” Célestine counted on her fingers, “figs, dates, nougat, apples, pears, prunes, oranges, and three different tarts.”

Nelly fanned herself. “I feel already stuffed just from listening to you. So what do you want us to do?”

Célestine distributed the tasks and they settled down to work. Potato peels dropped into the waste bucket, chestnut shells cracked, a knife rhythmically stroked the chopping board, accompanied with dull thumps from underneath the table, where Schnitzel wagged his tail, repeatedly hitting a chair leg.

Later on, in the same chapter, Célestine—a former courtesan fallen on hard times— has the last word on what a Réveillon should be like:

The aperitif finished, they entered the dining room. The first bottle of wine was uncorked and Julie served a plate of oysters on a bed of ice, accompanied with lemons and vinaigrette. The company had worked their way through a series of canapés and hors d’oeuvres before the stuffed goose made its appearance, surrounded by a multitude of garnishes. Her back bent under the weight of the giant platter, Julie put it on the table, and a second bottle of wine was opened in its honour. Tongues loosened by degrees and faces glowed with the kind of well-being only a good meal can generate. At the end of the meal, Célestine was coaxed out of the kitchen to hear a well-deserved praise for her culinary art.“It was only a modest dinner,” she said, reaching for a glass of wine. “You should see the réveillons I used to give! Up to eighteen courses. Guests would eat and drink all night long. Those were the times! Ah, life was good under the Empire.”

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 Fame and Infamy is available in print and in all digital formats (see the side bar).

More posts about local customs:

Feared and Despised: The Parisian Concierge

The Dead of Paris

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