The Old and the New Halles

International Herald Tribune

Tuesday, December 30, 1969

Everyone who loves Paris and what it stands for mourned the disappearance of Les Halles from the center of the city. What died last February was the Middle Ages, for with the exception of electricity and trucks, life went on there about as it had since the first market was established in the 12th century.

But has Les Halles really died? Perhaps not, because while the setting has changed to ultra-modern, steel-and-cement Rungis near Orly airport, some of the ambiance has already been resurrected.

And why not? When Napoleon III tore up the quartier of the old-fashioned Halles of his day and built great iron and brick pavilions to house the expanded market, there were no doubt cries of anguish from the nostalgic, mourning the destruction of a way of life.

The differences and similarities between the old and new Halles can be seen in the way Jules Perrin, in his late 60s, did the buying for his restaurant Le Récamier in 1968, and how Martin Cantegrit, his under-30 successor, does it today.

Mr. Perrin ran an inexpensive little bistro with good old-fashioned cuisine and simple wines for 30 years, and every morning at 6 or 7 he drove into Les Halles to buy the day's food. Pinning on the badge that gave him entry into the pavilions and pushing his folding diable (hand cart), he strode at unbelievable speed between the moving trucks and stacks of crated produce.

He had certain favorite furnishers and knew many more, so that everywhere he went he was greeted not as "Jules" or "Perrin" but as "Le Récamier." He looked intently at everything that he might buy, felt it and smelled it for freshness and tastiness.

If it appealed to him, he asked the price, grimaced and offered less. Sometimes he had to plead with the wholesaler to give him a special price, but he never bought anything without bringing down the price by a considerable margin.

The buying over, Mr. Perrin always stopped at the same café for Beaujolais, bred and salami, and banter with the other habitués. He could relax and was in a good humor, for he was inevitably satisfied with the day's bargaining.

To go out to Rungis, the new patron of Le Récamier has to leave at 4:30 a.m. Furthermore, he is often accompanied by his relatives, Armand and Robert Monassier, of Chez les Anges and La Bourgogne, respectively. At other times, to save time, one of them buys for all three.

Outside, everything is orderly, but within the pavilions, the great stacks of produce reappear and diables, some motorized, create the same bustle and confusion as in the old Halles. Overhead television screens announce where work is available and electronic machines whiz through the billing, but the human element is anything but lost.

As Mr. Cantegrit pokes his finger at a live crab, the seller asks, "Alors, t'en veux, Le Récamier?" Mr. Cantegrit declines, and goes on to some attractive colinots (small coalfish). How much? – Six francs. – Too much. – Four-fifty. – No. – Four." Mr. Cantegrit starts to walk away. "Three-eighty!" He turns back and says, "OK, give me six kilos."

Later, at Le Grand Pavillon, the first good, Les Halles-type restaurant at Rungis, Mr. Cantegrit gloats at Armand Monassier: "What did you pay for your colinots? – Four-fifty. – I paid three-eighty." There is a crush at the bar for the excellent Muscadet and Beaujolais, while beef salad and raie au beurre noir go down at the tables. No, Les Halles is not dead.