Monsieur Hervé Paulin begins his day, walking down from the second-story apartment where he lives to his boulangerie on the corner. He lights the ovens and begins to prepare the dough. Breads, specifically the light crispy baguettes that M. Paulin prepares in the early hours of the morning, are an essential part of France's "culture de la table." It's not uncommon for members of a household to make three trips to the boulangerie in a single day. During the great strikes of 1936, the French government pronounced the boulangerie an essential service, dispatching armed soldiers to ensure that the city's bakers completed their work. M. Paulin's grandfather was one of the bakers who lit his ovens at gunpoint.
The Gallic appreciation for food extends into every aspect of life. Meals are served in courses that stretch out interminably. Political arguments start over the apéritif, continue through the gratin dauphinois, transform into a discussion of which local bakery is best, and eventually fade out over ripe hunks of morbier. In Paris, it's common for friends to never see the inside of one another's apartments; all their time together is spent in cafés and brasseries.
Good food takes time to prepare, as well as time to appreciate. This perhaps explains the French people's general mistrust of shortcuts and timesaving strategies. In business and diplomacy, they take the long view, preferring to forge lasting relationships. "It's the commerçants--the boulanger, the brasserie owner, and so on, who engage with the life of a neighborhood," M. Paulin explains to me as we enter the brasserie across the street from his establishment. As if to illustrate his point, the owners greet him warmly and offer us coffees.
He tells me that the bakeries in the neighborhood help each other out if they are overstocked; they also arrange their vacations to ensure that the neighborhood is never stranded without a bakery. This spirit of cooperation is only logical, Paulin insists. "If [business owners] had an antagonistic relationship, it would affect the feeling here. People would leave, and the neighborhood would suffer."
It's still dark when the taxi drops me off at the Bar Central in the Rungis market, the 575-acre wholesale food market located about seven miles from the center of Paris. The bar clientele look like they've stepped out of a Cartier-Bresson photo. They're gathered in a line along the bar, unconsciously mimicking one another: one leg up on the brass step-rail, backs straight, sipping at espressos. Truckers, butchers, fisherman, farmers, restaurant buyers--they're all here for the market.
The marché Rungis supplies the restaurants, brasseries, and bistros of Paris with fish, meats, cheeses and other dairy products, fruits and vegetables, flowers, and dry goods. Special trains bring fish in from the coast during the night. Trucks bring in produce from all over France and Europe--everything from exotic fruits to locally grown watercress.
My contact at the market, Natasha Kilcoyne, is a buyer. A foreigner (Kilcoyne is Irish) and a woman, she's something of a rarity in this male-dominated, traditionally French milieu. She makes her living by knowing the market--the people as well as the produce--inside out. On any given market day she knows what's in season, what's available out of season, which vendor specializes in what, and a thousand other details. She's never had a client send an order back. On market days she'll work 15 hours--buying, consolidating shipments, and sending everything on its way.
I follow Natasha on her rounds, and we pass suppliers artfully displaying their produce. Even to a former Skagit Valley farm boy like myself, the variety and quality here is incredible: velvety fava beans; Gariguette, fern, Douglas, and wild strawberries; young vegetables like carrots, white onions, and sorrel leaves; tiny poivrade artichokes (eaten raw with a little sea salt), Turkish morels (it's still too early for the French season), Alenois watercress, sweet wet garlic, fresh almonds still in their fuzzy green husks, figs, and asparagus from the Pyrenees. I'm transfixed by a load of what looks like celery's prehistoric ancestor--all thick stalks and wicked-looking serrated fronds.
All around us, suppliers talk into their phones and banter good-naturedly with the buyers: "You want the death of me! Tu veux ma morte!" Natasha approaches one of them. He sees Natasha and puts down his phone. They exchange kisses on the cheek before discussing business. Later, over coffee, Natasha looks thoughtful. "If it wasn't for the market, I don't know if I could live in Paris. Paris can be cold, but the people here at the market are so friendly." Then she excuses herself and heads to her office. The buying is done, but the orders must be consolidated for shipping at noon.
The Café Léopard is experiencing a rare lull in the normally steady flow of customers. For people who work in the area, the Léopard is a popular lunch spot. For people who live in the area, the Léopard serves multiple functions: café, bar, and special-occasion restaurant. The carte du soir (evening menu) is a little more refined, a little more expensive.
A night out at the Léopard is a night devoted to the pleasure of dining. "It's the people that make the difference. This is a microcosm. What happens here mirrors what happens outside on a larger scale," explains Virginie "Vivi" Gelernt. The head serveuse is relaxing in the lounge with her dog, Vanille. "The part of my job I love is relating to people. And knowing who's sleeping with whom."
Chef Teo Paul is having a drink in the SoMo bar. His crew is downstairs in the kitchen, finishing up prep work for this evening. Originally from Toronto, Paul came to Paris to help start a restaurant with friends.
"In a way, the French are conservative," he says. "They don't like lots of spices. You don't have lemongrass sticking out all over the place. But at the same time, bleu is fucking blue. You get into it. In Toronto, I would never get to base a lunch menu around endives."
The quality of the available ingredients continues to inspire the young chef. He speaks of poulet Bresse (the prestigious milk- and corn-fed chickens from the village of Bresse) in reverent terms: "These birds are catered to their whole lives. French laws stipulate the amount of rangeland they get, how they're treated. If you just hack them up in the kitchen, you have no reason to be here."
Back on the corner of Boulevard Voltaire and Rue de Charonne, M. Paulin finishes up his day handing out baguettes to his evening customers. "It's not necessary for me to do this, but I like it. It's the only direct contact I have with my clients.
"Also," he adds with a grin, "it's my only opportunity to be around beautiful women." He starts work again in six hours, but he shrugs off the suggestion that his work schedule is punishing. "I do this for love."
Leigh Gable is a freelance writer from Bellingham, Washington who lived in Paris, France for two years. Samples of his writing can be found at www.planbboy.com. Gable is currently on tour in Europe as a musician for Plan B.