Cris de Paris: The Street Criers of Paris in Bygone Days

Pleurottes in Paris market, October 2011 (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

Mushrooms abound in the markets of France in October and early November. And since I found stalls bursting with all sorts of mushrooms, I began to wonder if there were any “street cries” or market songs or whatever you might wish  to call them peculiar to mushrooms.

Associated with various métiers (or trades) dating back to the Middle Ages, these cries/songs provide some hints about foods sold and the way people like ambulatory vendors advertised their wares in days before newspapers and other such media sold ad space to merchants.

The Museum of the City of Paris (Musée Carnvalet) hosted an exhibit of the various métiers/trades of the people of Paris of the nineteenth century. In the background, recordings of the piercing and persistent cris of the vendors throbbed. In Paris, where quiet doesn’t really exist thanks to the hordes of tourists and the incessant traffic, has always experienced a high noise level. It could only have been equally as loud in the past as human voices – some shrill, some deep and gruff – chanted continuously, in attempts to grab the attentions of buyers and wheedle out of them the  few sous they could spare.

A number of artists like François Gerard and Edmé Bouchardon drew representations of these market people.

In the illustration below, the champignon seller stands in the second row from the bottom, huge baskets  (usually used for grape harvests) dwarfing him as he walks along the crowded, reeking streets. (I still have not found cris specifically for mushroom sellers.) The figures tend to be more stylized than realistic, stereotyped as it were. As a matter of point, take the mushroom baskets the vendor apparently carries versus the mushroom baskets generally used, because the idea is not to jumble up the mushrooms all together.

Street criers of Paris (Art credit: François Guérard, 1700)
The best baskets will keep mushrooms apart and not touching each other, at least not too much.

French wire mushroom baskets

The rhymes, sounds, and word play reflect much about the culture of the times. The following written music comes from the nineteenth century:

Cries of fruit and vegetable sellers, 19th C.

Special words, many no longer commonly used, cropped up to describe the whole process of mushrooming. Take cercayrès, a word from Perigord, applied to mushroom harvesting. Another word, currently in use, is cueillette, which really refers to foraging or harvesting just about anything.

For more on the cris, see Les cris de Paris: types et physionomies d’autrefois, by Victor Fournal (1887).  Also take a look at Paris Street cries by Bouchardon (1737 – 1742). Note that every country and city seems to have their own cris, including London. You might enjoy cooking some of the recipes from The French Market: More Recipes from a French Kitchen, by Joanne Harris and Fran Warde (2006). And a couple of great books on Paris markets will get you in the mood: Markets of Paris: Food, Antiques, Artisanal Crafts, Books & More, with Restaurant Recommendations by Dixon Long, Ruthanne Long, and Alison Harris (2007) and Paris in a Basket: Markets: The Food and the People, by Nicolle Aimee Meyer, Amanda Pilar Smith, and Paul Bocuse (2000).

© 2011 C. Bertelsen

3 thoughts on “Cris de Paris: The Street Criers of Paris in Bygone Days

  1. There are still street criers in Morocco: Zabbeeeeeeyeh! (“vieux habits” [old cllothes] rings in the ears long after you hear it!

    Great post, merci!

  2. This was a wonderful treat. I live in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where we still have a few criers–for knife sharpening, chair seat weaving, and special foods still have special calls. Magic.

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