Return to PARIS FOOD HISTORY

A History of the Food of Paris
From Roast Mammoth to Steak Frites
JIM CHEVALLIER

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Material Resources

Today, one of Paris' loveliest neighborhoods is called "the Swamp" - le Marais. The area is so called because the beautiful stone townhouses there were built, starting in the seventeenth century, on what had once had been swampland. But the same could be said of most of Paris.

What became Paris was, after the last Ice Age, largely swamp, with intermittent projections of stone known today as buttes. Unlike the dry, flat-topped buttes of North America, the Parisian buttes — the Butte Montmartre, the Buttes Chaumont, the Butte Aux Cailles — are, geologically, what French geologists call buttes-temoins - "witness buttes". The buttes of Paris, once surrounded by silt and other landfill, are remnants of earlier stone plateaus; they are, in this sense, "witnesses" to a former time.

For centuries, these projections of stone, then green with vegetation, ringed Paris, making its generally flat space like a valley. Now the heights that once surrounded Paris are part of it. But in envisioning Paris as it was for most of history, it is best to view it as a flat area surrounded by heights — with one exception: the "mountain" St. Genevieve, the comparatively low hill which has always been near the center of Paris....

Paris' destiny

Paris has been blessed: blessed by geology, blessed by climate, blessed by location. In retrospect, it seems inevitable that a city should have grown up on its site and that it should have been important. Yet the city's fortunes have faded more than once and even in prosperity its destiny was never certain. What might have been a modest city at the heart of farmland has become a national capital. Its enviable fertility has ultimately proved irrelevant to its modern role; even its location has counted for less as railroads and planes have transformed transportation.

The fact that this same city became a gastronomic capital, that fundamental ideas of not only food's preparation, but of its service and consumption, have developed here — not in London, nor in Rome, not in Brussels or Madrid — was no more inevitable than anything else in the future of a small Gaulish settlement. Yet so it has come to pass; and the history of the food of Paris is a history which has influenced, however indirectly, that of much of the world.

Neanderthals

...Both mammoths and Neanderthals roamed the Paris region before the end of the last Ice Age. In Europe overall, ample information exists about both. Certainly, Neanderthals ate mammoths, as well as other large animals; was that mainly what they ate? Geoff Smith presents a useful overview of this issue: "The recurrent presence at Middle Paleolithic sites of megafaunal remains, such as mammoth, elephant and rhinoceros, together with isotope analyses signaling meat as a prominent protein source, have been used to argue that these species played a central role in Neanderthal diet." But the idea of Neanderthals living mainly on megafauna has also been challenged by more recent research suggesting they more often ate animals of modest size: "Neanderthals successfully hunted and butchered a wide range of large ungulates including bovids, equids and cervids"; that is, ancestors or close relations of bison and cattle, horses and deer. Exceptionally, they also ate small game, such as hare ("leporids", to be precise) and tortoise. Like later groups they broke bones to get to the marrow....

Gallo-Romans

...Today, the Boulevard St. Michel runs south from the Seine. Strolling from the river, a visitor might not notice the hill rising at left. But soon they will come to the rue Soufflot, a broad street which slants at left up to a domed building. This is the Pantheon and it sits at the top of the Montagne St. Geneviève. When the Romans arrived, the latter was a bare hill looking out over swampland. They built a grid of streets which centered on this hill. The first buildings were of daub, but stone construction began in the first century. They probably built the Forum, the heart of any Roman city, in the second. As in other Roman cities, it was perpendicular to the cardo; that is, directly in front of today's Pantheon and covering what today is the Rue Soufflot. The Forum itself included a temple (to Jupiter) but soon they built others around the city, as well as baths (and the aqueduct which brought them water), a theater and, outside the city itself, an amphitheater. They called their city Lutetia and the hill at its center Mons (mount) Lutetius. Today, the cardo has become the rue St. Jacques (which runs parallel to the Boulevard St. Michel) and what remains of the amphitheater is known as the "Arenas of Lutetia". On the Île de la Cité, the remains of Roman baths and the original Roman port can still be seen beneath the square in front of Notre Dame....

Les Halles

...In the eleventh century, a market grew up by a cemetery just outside Paris, in a place called the "Little Fields" — the Champeaux. Soon a bishop enclosed the space, laying claim to the revenues from the mercers and money-changers who met there. In 1137, he shared this right with Louis VI, who then transferred a "new market" to this site. In 1141, Louis VII sold the Grève "where the old market existed" (ubi vetus forum extitit) to the local burghers.ii In 1181, Philip August transferred the Foire de Saint-Ladre to the Champeaux. The St. Germain fair too slowly surrendered its privileges to the new market, before disappearing and being revived in a different form in 1482. Older fairs would persist, but playing far different roles; in 1816, the venerable St. Denis fair included "sellers of toys, gingerbread, sweets, but also merry-go-rounds, swings, trained monkeys, theater, magic lanterns, magic mirrors..."...

The Vallée de Misère

Sometime in the sixteenth century, the bird market, which had been on the rue de la Cossonerie (by the Halles), was transferred to a site along the Seine with the evocative name of the Vallée de Misère ("Valley of Misery"). Later the site itself either became part of the Quai de la Mégisserie or (per another source) became the Quai des Grands-Augustins. In 1672, it was briefly transferred to a space in Les Halles, but in 1679 it was moved (or returned) to a covered building on the Quai des Grands-Augustins; it continued however to be referred to as the Vallée. Various types of birds and game were sold there; from at least the Revolution on younger animals — kids, lambs, suckling pigs — and the finer sheep "of the salted field" (pré salé) were as well. Later boars, squirrels, seagulls, curlews and swans were added — as well as cock crests (used in many recipes).

Inns and taverns

...By the late medieval period, when history again comes into focus, both inns and taverns existed. In theory, an inn offered lodging and a tavern drink. In fact, the first statutes for taverners, from 1258, only speak of them selling wine retail, with no mention of hospitality or food.i Well into the nineteenth century, the terms "tavern" and "wine shop" were often used interchangeably. But in practice inns sold drinks and taverns often offered lodgings, and both also sold food. In a poem from around 1200, a tavern keep says: "there is hot bread and hot herring, and wine of Auxerre by the barrel"; in another from slightly later, the speaker outlines the pleasures of a tavern, including verjuice (presumably for seasoning), a roast turning on the spit and (in quantity) the wines of Orléans, Rochelle and Auxerre;iii in one from 1387, an innkeeper says, "I will have you served roasts and pies". The latter two options would be the top ones for a long time, especially pies (or "pasties"; that is, foods served in pastry crusts).

Sometimes, one place advertised itself as both, as when, in 1392, Jehannin Le Doyan robbed the "inn and tavern of Guiot Le Breton" and the "inn and tavern of Grant Doget".v Le Doyan's haul from these and other places provides a useful inventory of their equipment: numerous tin bowls, a tin chopine (a measure equal to one English pint and half a Parisian one), tin plates, a tin salt cellar, a brass frying pan, several wooden and silver hanaps (a kind of goblet) and (from one of the rooms) two silver cups. Writing in 1851, Michel and Fournier gave a similar list for medieval taverns (though without citing a source): "Pots and goblets of tin or wrought iron, more or less well polished. several earthenware dishes and some plates, more often still, instead of plates and dishes, simple trenchers, round and flat boards or small braids of rushes on which were put dry or runny cheeses, all put helter-skelter on a greasy, shaky table."

Cooks, roasters and pastry-chefs

Public cooks began far more simply, but branched out over time into varied and often lucrative professions. In St. Louis' own time, they were identical with roasters; John of Garland wrote that they sold roasted meats, such as goose, pigeon and fattened fowl, often undercooked, with sauces and garlic. Boileau's original statutes include none for cooks and those added sometime later are again specifically for the oyers; that is, the goose roasters. These refer to goose (then briefly popular), but also veal, lamb, kid and pork, as well as beef and mutton. The goose-roasters also made pork sausages (only), but were forbidden to make blood sausage. As simple as these functions were, they would later become separate professions. The goose-roasters simply became roasters; sausage would later be made by charcutiers (pig butchers).

John also mentioned pastry-cooks, who would play an important role in Parisian food for centuries. ("Pastry" at this point referred to any food served in dough, not the finer sweet preparations it implies today.) He showed them selling pork, chicken and eel pies, as well as more dessert-like offerings of tarts and flans, filled with cheese and eggs.

By the end of the century, when tax rolls were established, food was prepared by a number of trades: blood sausage makers, cooks, fryers, goose-roasters, "spit-turners" or roasters, poulterers, pastry-cooks and sauce-makers. In 1300 or 1301, the provost listed foods which cooks had to discard; these included reheated meat, pottage, broad beans, peas, salted meat, sausage and cooked fish. This gives an idea of what they sold. Even cooks hired for weddings, etc., may not have made very ornate food. The Menagier de Paris, from around 1393, lists menus from great households with a rich variety of dishes, probably made by the cooks of these households. But it provides more details for two weddings, with looks at the personnel and costs, and the menus for these are far simpler, largely consisting of roasts, jellies, and pasties. While several spices were bought for one, the main sauces (bought from sauce makers) were mustard, verjuice and cameline (a cinnamon-based sauce). A cook is listed with his aides and may have acted as a kind of executive, helping with the shopping, etc. He probably made the blanc-mange (then a chicken and almond dish) and the jellies, and possibly the pasties (though these and two flans more likely came from a pastry-cook). But little of the food is comparable to what is listed in the earlier menus.