Mar 3, 2017

The Shiny Belly of Paris: Peralous


This is what Les Halles used to be: a market with every food of the season brought into the heart of Paris sold to a seething mass of humanity. Emile Zola famously described is as the belly of Paris, because it was know for all the dirt and vermin that come with a huge old market, and all the vice and crime that come with seething masses of humanity. Zola did not, evidently, have high regard for bellies.

Les Halles was already the traditional marketplace of Paris in the 12th century, when King Philippe Auguste enlarged it and made it more permanent. The last vestiges of the outdoor market at Les Halles were demolished in 1971, and since then the space has been used for an ugly underground mall and a little bit of uninspired open space. Until now. Les Halles is undergoing a 6+ year renovation and build out, with both an enormous shopping and recreation area and a ton of park space.

It's a very modern choice, architecturally for the heart of Paris. And with everything so clean, shiny, and sterile (and I mean that more literally than figuratively), it's not much of a belly any more. It's more like Paris' well-toned shoulder.

Though the new green steel canopy definitely steals focus, the old architectural highlight of the square is still quite prominent: the 16th century church of St. Eustache.


You also see clear to the old Bourse, the stock exchange. This started off at the Hall of Wheat (Hall aux Blés) in the 18th century and was covered with the dome you see and converted to the Bourse in 1889.

As you can see, construction on the Nelson Mandela garden is still ongoing. The projected end date is 2018. So I expect to enjoy these lovely gardens around 2020 or so, when they're actually finished.

This is, eventually, what the space will look like. From the air, at least, and what it looks like now from halfway in the air (top of an old tower).

I'm torn about what I think. On the one hand, I would have loved to see the old market. Possibly the tuberculosis, butchered blood running in the streets, and destitute prostitutes a little less so. And what is under that canopy is pretty much ..... a mall. It's got many of the typical mall residents -- clothing, make-up, shoes, book store, sporting goods, an entire store devoted to Lego. There are also some other draws like a huge movie theater and live theater and rehearsal/education spaces.

I get that it's sanitary, that it's commercially viable, and that it's a good use for a huge amount of space in central Paris, especially since the managed to keep a lot of open space for common use and bury the shopping compactly in level, yet still manage to make the shops feel open and sunny. But I love the color of a big market, and the frustrated time-traveler in me wishes I could experience the underbelly Zola described. But the only way I can do that is to visit the museum at the Petit Palais which has one of my very favorite paintings in the world, partly for the subject matter: Les Halles by Léon Lhermitte, 1895.

It's a massive work, with so much detail to look at. It's a good thing there's a bench there, because it's the kind of painting where you can spend a lot of time, looking at the goods for sale, the clothing, the interaction of the people, the buildings in the background (with the hazy edge of the St. Eustache church). Get closer, and you can see the level of detail: wicker baskets, birth feathers, reflections in each metal container.

Closer still and the painter in me finds it delightful how just a few strokes and some bold splotches, so messy-looking at close-range can look exactly like a stack of shiny spoons from further away. I find it all genius.

Whether the new Les Halles will stand the test of time and be seen as a piece of art in its own right remains to be seen. But it certainly is interesting to see them working such a vast canvas right in the heart of Paris.

THE CHEESE: Peralous

Peralous is a big wheel of a cheese from the Pyrenees made from a combination of pasteurized goat and sheep milk. Technically, the brand is called "Peralous Tome Chevre/Brebis Gout et Tradition de France" and has been in existence just since January 2015.

It's officially a hard cheese, but don't let that fool you. The texture is delightfully creamy and silky. And there's a gorgeous sweet nuttiness in the flavor, with an explosion of flowers.


Much like my feelings about the new Les Halles (modern and practical, but too sterile?) Peralous is a mixed cheese, with both sheep and goats' milk.

More to the point of the connection, however; I actually buy this at a temporary market set up at Les Halles -- not in the new mall, but rather just outside at the edge of Les Halles in the Place Joachim du Bellay.

A propos of nothing, Peralous would make a great super-hero -- or better yet, super-villain -- name.

I taste this Peralous at a temporary cheese stall at an outdoor market in Paris at Les Halles. Not the huge old market of Les Halles, of course, since I can't go back in time to do my shopping there. But oh, how I wish I could!


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