National Geographic : 1950 Jul
The National Geographic Magazine an ounce, and kippers on tables of cracked, silvery ice. At the dairy, eggs in glass bowls were priced at 5 to 7 cents apiece, depending on their size and how recently they had left the nest. Pasteurized milk-about 122 cents a quart -wa s very difficult to find in the land of Pasteur. Most shoppers brought their tin pitchers, with the chain-attached covers, or their jars, and had their supply of "natural" milk-11 cents a quart-ladled out to them from zinc vats. I could buy cubed and wrapped butter at 96 cents a half pound, but the most popular, and slightly cheaper, butter squatted in water melon-sized yellow mounds on marble slabs. The proprietor filled customers' orders by deftly slicing off a portion with a taut wire held stretched between both thumbs and fore fingers. It was such a simple and effective operation that I complimented him on it once. "Thank you," he replied, "but we do not think it extraordinary. In France we have the expression for someone who is not very smart -'He could not invent the thread to cut the butter.' " Terraces of round and creamy Camemberts were stacked between protective layers of golden, clean, sun-fresh straw. Chevre, recog nizable immediately as being made of goat's milk, was 19 cents. Port du Salut, made by the Trappist monks; Roquefort; Gruyere; * and demi-Swiss-snowy morsels from the French Alps-all found their way to our cheese platters. We learned to honor the custom of cutting a Camembert in triangles radiating from the center of the "pie." We found out that a Camembert was improved by carefully scrap ing the crust, buttering it lightly, and sprin kling it with toasted crumbs or almonds. Brie we cut always in wedges, down to the last guest. A gentle rain of caraway seeds added zest to it. Cheese was always served at our table with individual crisp rolls six inches long. I re member childhood struggles in California over who would get the crusty heel of the French bread. Here were no table tussles-the rolls were all heel! Pastry Shop Fantasies Fabulous fantasies held us spellbound be fore the windows of the pastry shops. A few cents would buy a fat baba au rhum, topped with a perky stem of green citron. Blushing red with strawberry syrup, they always looked to me like happy peaches that had had too much to drink. Spiraled pastries imitated ice- cream cones, custard-filled and cherry-deco rated. Crisp meringue boats sported sails of triangular sheets of chocolate. Bossier's pastry chef created a caramel coated cream puff no bigger than a glistening walnut. He could make a fluted pie the size of a 50-cent piece-just big enough to accom modate three gay-looking cherries. Tea-party cookies bore names as charming as the sweets themselves-"cat's tongue," slender slivers of bittersweet chocolate, and "tiles," cooled over a rolling pin to make them look exactly like feather-light, curved roofing sheets. Rice, a very scarce item, I found at the granary. There, bulging from finely woven burlap bags which took up so much of the sidewalk that passers-by had to step into the street, green split peas, rich brown-red kidney beans, amber chick-peas, marble-white rice, and some yellow and black grains merged their tones in a color symphony. Above all, as if to drive any passing bird to final distraction, hung golden millet sprays bursting with plump kernels. Artistry in Lard Had I shopped blindfolded, the aromatic casks of wine-cured green, and wrinkled black, olives mixed with the pungent odor of hanging bunches of rich sausages, including salami, would have told me I was at the pork butch er's. His excellent bacon, in chunky slabs ready to be cubed for soup, sold for 50 cents a pound. His special pride, a pure-white mound of lard, he renewed daily and decorated with a different design each morning and after noon. His knife-drawn masterpiece was a rose, its petals scooped out, its center dots of cloves, its stems and leaves the greenery of thyme. One of my marketing streets, Rue St. Do minique, where the Eiffel Tower superin tended my selections, was just around the corner from our apartment. I soon learned never to enter unequipped with a string shop ping bag. And how it could expand! Magi cally, there always was room for one more item, whether it was a tiny, toylike waxed barrel of fresh cream or an oversized melon. Few merchants "bag" their wares, although items such as grapes, as a special concession, were frequently put in fragile, cornucopialike containers. Certain pastries, too, were en veloped in thin and crackling paper, whirled, and handed out with two "rabbit ears" where the ends were twisted together. * See "August First in Gruyeres," by Melville Bell Grosvenor, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, August, 1936.