Let’s go for a (vicarious) walk together along Paris’ finest market street: Rue Cler.
Europe is effectively off-limits to American travelers for the time being. But travel dreams are immune to any virus. And, while many of us are stuck at home, I believe a daily dose of travel dreaming can actually be good medicine. Here’s another one of my favorite travel memories — a reminder of what’s waiting for you in Europe at the other end of this crisis.
I grew up thinking cheese was no big deal. It was orange and the shape of the bread: slap, fwomp…cheese sandwich. Even though I’m still far from a gourmet eater, my time in Paris — specifically shopping at the Rue Cler street market with my restaurateur friend Marie — has substantially bumped up my appreciation of good cuisine.
In the skinny shadow of the Eiffel Tower, Rue Cler still feels like village Paris. Lined with shops that spill out into the street, it’s also bustling with shoppers. Marie explains that Parisians shop almost daily for three good reasons: their tiny kitchens have tiny refrigerators, fresh produce makes for a good meal, and they like shopping. It’s an important social event: a chance to hear about the butcher’s vacation, see photos of the florist’s new grandchild, relax over un café, and kiss the cheeks of friends. Demonstrating back and forth on my cheeks, Marie says, “The Parisian standard is twice for acquaintances (kiss, kiss) and three times for friends you haven’t seen in a while — like you (kiss, kiss, kiss).”
Observing Parisian shoppers, I quickly recognize the cardinal rule: Whenever popping in and out of French shops, it’s polite to greet the proprietor (“Bonjour, Madame”) and say “Merci” and “Au revoir” as you leave. This simple practice can make the difference between being treated as an ignorant tourist and being treated as a temporary local.
The neighborhood produce shop wraps around the corner with an enticing rainbow of fruits and vegetables on display. Marie, using it as a classroom in smart grocery shopping, explains, “We Parisians demand the freshest fruits and vegetables and we shop with our noses.” As if to demonstrate how exacting she is when shopping for her restaurant, Marie flips into gear: “Smell the cheap foreign strawberries. Then smell the torpedo-shaped French ones (gariguettes). Find the herbs. Is today’s delivery in? Look at the price of those melons! What’s the country of origin? It must be posted. If they’re out of season, they come from Guadeloupe. Many Parisians buy only French products and don’t compromise on flavor because they eat with the season.”
Next door, the fishmonger sells the freshest fish, which is brought in daily from ports on the English Channel, 100 miles away. In fact, seafood in Paris is likely fresher than in many towns closer to the coast because Paris is a commerce hub and from here it’s shipped out to outlying towns. Anything wiggling?
At the boucherie, Marie shows me things I might have otherwise avoided on her menu: rognons (kidneys), foie (liver), coeur de boeuf (heart of beef). She hoists a duck to check the feet; they should be rough and calloused, an indication that they weren’t stuck in an industrial kennel but ran free on a farm. She explains, “While Americans prefer beef, pork, and chicken, we French eat just as much rabbit (lapin), quail (caille), lamb (agneau), and duck (canard). The head of a calf is a delight for its many tasty bits.” The meat is seasonal. In the winter, game swings from the ceiling.
Farther down Rue Cler, the picnic-friendly charcuterie (or traiteur) sells mouthwatering deli food to go. Because apartment kitchens are so small, these handy gourmet delis make it easy for Parisians to supplement their dinners in style.
At the cave à vin (wine shop), the clerk is a counselor who works with customers’ needs and budgets. He will even uncork a bottle for picnickers. While drinking wine outdoors is taboo in the US, it’s pas de problème in France.
The smell of cheese heralds the fromagerie. It’s a festival of mold, with wedges, cylinders, balls, and miniature hockey pucks all powdered white, gray, and burnt marshmallow. Browsing with me through a world of different types of cheese, Marie explains, “Ooh la la means you’re impressed. If you like cheese, show greater excitement with more las. Ooh la la la la.”
She leads me to the goat-cheese corner, holds the stinkiest glob close to her nose, takes a deep, orgasmic breath, and exhales, saying, “Yes, this smells like zee feet of angels.”
The white-smocked cheesemonger knows Marie well. Sensing I’m impressed by his shop, he points out the old photo on the wall from when his father ran the shop. It was labeled BOF for beurre, oeuf, fromage. For generations, this has been the place where people go for butter, eggs, and cheese. As if I’m about to become a convert to the church of stinky cheese, he takes us into the back room for a peek at les meules — the big, 170-pound wheels (250 gallons of milk go into each). Explaining that the “hard” cheeses are cut from these, he warns me, “Don’t eat the skin of these big ones…they roll them on the floor. But the skin on most smaller cheeses — the Brie, the Camembert — that is part of the taste.” Marie chimes in, “It completes the package.”
And what’s cheese without bread? The bakery is our final stop. Locals debate the merits of rival boulangeries. It’s said that a baker cannot be good at both bread and pastry. At cooking school, they major in one or the other. But here on Rue Cler, the baker bucks the trend. Marie explains that this baker makes good bread (I get a baguette for my sandwich) and delicious pastries. Voilà, dessert!
By now, I’ve assembled the ingredients for the perfect picnic. Marie heads off to her restaurant, while I head for a park bench with a view of the Eiffel Tower, settle in, and enjoy my Rue Cler feast. A passerby smiles and wishes me a cheery “Bon appétit!”
(These daily stories are excerpted from my upcoming book, For the Love of Europe — collecting 100 of my favorite memories from a lifetime of European travel, coming out in July. It’s available for pre-order. And you can also watch a video clip related to this story: Just visit Rick Steves Classroom Europe and search for Paris.)