It was Julia Child‘s favorite outdoor market in Paris.
La Mouffe. Or rue Mouffetard, in the 5th arrondisement.
Ancient street, cobblestone-strewn. Romans trod there, and marched, too. In the third century, Legionnaires laid the first rock in the town they called Lutetia Parisiorum. And that thoroughfare stretched all the way to Rome via the modern metro stop of Porte d’Italie. Yes, all roads led to Rome in those those days.
Unfortunately only about 600 meters of the old byway still exist, thanks to Baron Haussmann. He left this artifact of history intact while he renovated the rest of Paris, beginning in 1854 with the blessing of Napoleon III.
But long before that, 10,000 years before, during Neolithic times, people walked that ground, going and coming and living and dying. The Bièvre River, flowing to the Seine, served as a major water route as well.
Joined on one end by the sacred hill of Sainte-Geneviève and on the other by the église Saint-Médard, the rue Mouffetard sometimes seems rather otherworldly. Some even suggest a sense of the spiritual imbues the street and its buildings.
But I feel that way about all of Paris, even the banlieues.
What of the name? Mouffette in French means “skunk.” Pundits believe this may well be the root of Mouffetard. Why dub a beautiful place with a derogatory name?
In the past, wealthy people built homes high on Montagne Sainte-Geneviève, enjoying breezes and views of the Bièvre River.
But then butchers, animal skinners, and tanners began to line the rue Mouffetard. The odors of rot and decomposition and death offended delicate noses, christening the street with its name. I imagined the name was spot-on when I recalled the tannery in Fez, Morocco, scraped animal skins soaking in urine, men knee-deep in offal, knives flashing in the warm sun. Carrying a perfumed handkerchief masked most of the smell. But not all.
What became known as the Gobelins section of Paris grew to dominate the area, due the dyeing of thread for tapestries. The tanners and butchers and skinners dumped refuse from their workshops into the Bièvre, its fresh, pure water containing elements conducive to tanning leather. Alas, the sweet river shrimp touted by Madame de Maintenon ceased to exist under that onslaught of filth. And today the river flows underground, much to the dismay of many Parisians, some who seek to remedy the situation.
In more modern days, Ernest Hemingway mentioned Rue Mouffetard where he lived at No. 74, in A Moveable Feast, although the odor he derides came instead from the the sour bodies and breath of drunks in the Café des Amateurs:
The Café des Amateurs was the cesspool of the rue Mouffetard, that wonderful narrow crowded market street which led into the Place Contrescarpe.
That part of the street – only 6 meters wide – is what I remember most. Toward the sloping end of the Montagne Sainte-Geneviève lies the morning market, frequented by locals and gawking tourists salivating over cheese and crustaceans.
Many mornings when in Paris I found myself at that market, also a favorite of mine as it was Julia’s. Dreaming of living a block or two away instead of in an airless hotel room, carrying my string bag, pointing at this bunch of pencil-thin asparagus or that Charentais melon, sniffing orange mimolette cheese in Androuet, and lugging all that bounty back to a miniscule kitchen with only enough room to twirl around in while wearing a tight skirt.
I cling to those memories and dreams now, buried as I am in the day-to-day ennui of this endless pandemic, longing to return to France once again, navigating through old familiar haunts like the rue Mouffetard, lifted by a lightness I only feel there. On my last visit, I came close to weeping. The sheer joy of being back in Paris unleashed deep emotions in me. Strolling along the Seine on the Left Bank just past the Orsay, happiness and contentment radiated in me such that I wondered if passersby could hear fireworks exploding in my heart.
As M.F.K. Fisher once wrote, “In Paris, I would be me, yes, I would be me.”
Books I am rereading, revisiting, and reading for the first time to satiate my yearning for Paris include:
- The Streets of Paris, by Susan Cahill
- The French Market: More Recipes from a French Kitchen, by Joanne Harris
- Seven Ages of Paris, by Alistair Horne
- Paris: The Biography of a City, by Colin Jones
- Hungry for Paris (second edition): The Ultimate Guide to the City’s 109 Best Restaurants, by Alexander Lobrano
- Markets of Paris, 2nd Edition: Food, Antiques, Crafts, Books, and More, Dixon Long and Marjorie R. Williams
- Paris: A Journey Through Time, by Leonard Pitt
- Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris, by Graham Robb