The Crowd that Wasn't

This Isn't the Story It Started Out To Be

Paris:- Friday, 22. November 1996:- Normally after 'doing' a street last week on the Right Bank, I would do one on the Left Bank this week. But this is not only Beaujolais Nouveau week, the street concerned today is the one I was headed for last week when I found myself in the rue Saint Roch instead.

This must sound as if I've been at the stuff already, and part of the reason for taking a look at the rue du Marché-Saint-Honoré is because Le Parisien said there were thousands of drinkers celebrating Beaujolais Nouveau here yesterday - in the street - and I know these two bars here, and I know their customers do not necessarily wait for the excuse of some promo-plonk to be numerous or stand in the street, smoking cigarettes and pipes and cigars and swilling great large glasses of the old vino.

And it is a great day for it too. The sky is clear and at the right moment the sun will pour up the street from the Tuleries - but it is cold, nearly freezing. I have hope as I come up from the métro: wine drinkers are hardy types.

game deal

The cafés the Bistro and the Rubis are full and their doors are closed. The barrels, used for sidewalk tables, are solitary. The wild pig and duck dealer across the street is taking in his ducks before closing for lunch. Everybody is being as inside as they can get.

The paper said the 'Marché,' not just 'rue,' so I do a tour of the place du Marché Saint Honoré and there are a lot of restaurants around two sides of it, but it is the same story - everybody is inside. What a flop! The new marché here, a monumental glass brick, is still being constructed - and I imagine when it is finished this will be a local centre of great activity.

As this is a new building, there must have been an old one. Surrounding streets have a lot of restaurants and these indicate a marché, as do the butcher shops, as well as several of the shops in the rue du Marché Saint Honoré that I've just come up.

For the rue itself, my history book is disappointing as it merely says the street was opened in 1807 and was called Robbespierre for a sort time, fairly recently. My 1808-dated map says it was simply called rue du Marché, and shows that it led to the Marché-des-Jacobins.

I expect there will be a mighty fanfare when the new marché building opens and several of the buildings in the surrounding place will be quickly transformed from the semi-desolation they are now in, to become spiffy emporiums that rely of the traffic that the marché will generate - and so Paris rebuilds itself as new versions of the old.

But what to do? I have no Beaujolais Nouveau story here, and I should save the history of the marché for its gala opening feature - although I have the book open to the reference and I could knock it off in no time flat right now. But you have paid your Internet Service Provider and the phone company to read this far and my sole typing finger is hot - even if my feet are blue with cold - so let's do 'remember.'

cochon/pig

Ah yes, back then - in the '70's - we mostly did our Friday night stuff in Montparnasse or in the Latin Quarter. But some of the Friday night drink-eat-and-drink-more club came all the way from the Rond Point in the 8th arrondissement and somebody had heard about the Rubis in the rue du Marché Saint Honoré so we decided to switch river banks and give it a tryout.

It is hard now to remember details from that long ago - especially of a place I don't recall leaving - but I will say I got out of the métro at Tuleries - like today - and crossed Rivoli into the rue du 29. Juillet and went up it one block to the rue Saint Honoré crossing - now this is a street with history! 1,840 metres of it, without the Faubourg part which is another 2,070 metres long - this is the corner where the hôtel de Noailles, built in 1687, used to be. It too, is another story.

I crossed Saint Honoré and continued straight ahead towards the marché, until just a block before, I saw the café on the right-hand corner, with its barrels in front and some customers using them as stand-up tables. It must have been spring and warmer than now.

It is not a big bar and if it is warm it is more comfortable outside and in the evening most of the local commerce is over and there is not much traffic. I was first there and worried that we would not fit in, as we were five or six, but wine drinkers are a friendly lot and a whole table cleared out all at once and I grabbed it and the others showed up before the waitress tried to place new friends at it.

The lists of wines on offer were on smoke-colored posters and also written on blackboard tablets, and we all ordered our own choices and were happy to see that the glasses were sized for drinkers and not the usual bar-café thimble-size. But after a couple of glasses, and even though the waitress was nimble, it was clear that bottles were a more practical idea, sort of to reduce gaps in consumption.

I think that first time we settled on bordeaux and we were quite happy with that and only learned after a few other visits that there were other, more interesting wines. The cellar was under the floor and there was a lad that kept popping down there to bring up full crates, and the waitress would go down too to get a bottle and bring a crate back to save a trip next time.

Rough sandwiches and good cheese, limited in variety but large in portions, were also specialties and after a couple of bottles, plates would compete with new bottles and old glasses for table space. The few - booths - would be full, they would be three deep at the zinc bar, and another dozen were in the street - and the waitresses and the crate-lad wove through it all, carrying plates, glasses and bottles and empties - and it was loud, and there was much laughter, as there should be in places where lots of people are consuming natural products such as really rich paté and huge slabs of country bread with a few drinks of grape.

fromager/cheese shop

This was not a place for tweedle-types doing nose-jobs over reds and whites and saying 'fruity this or that,' no - this was local commercials from the street and lawyers and doctors and secretaries from all over town, yakking to their neighbors, who they'd never seen before in their lives, except maybe in some of the other couple of dozen similar establishments around town.

This goes on in ordinary local bars, but it is usually regulars who do it. But even then, it is the grape that really sets things going, and ordinary litre-bottle-five-stars-around-the-neck bar stuff won't do it - not even with a lot of good will towards swill. If you haven't drunk any serious wine seriously, you won't know what I mean here.

It is like this fraternity that has wine in common and not much else is necessary. Jerry Lee Lewis had a song about it once and you might think he was singing about T-Bird or some other total plonk, but old Jerry Lee had a bit of bread between the times the tax man collared him, so he might have been in this fraternity too - except I never thought his eyes were laid-back enough to indicate it was wine he was on - it probably something else homemade.

After all this time the Rubis is certainly still in the rue du Marché Saint Honoré and Jacques Mélac is over east someplace in the same place with the vines still on the front of his bar and the Negociants are still going strong - or steadily at least - on the other side of Montmartre, and when you come out of these places you are in Paris, and it is an absolutely great place to be.

Despite the great variety of water available all over town, they all have one single thing in common: they are dead boring to drink. I know, I've tried them all, and I miss the Rubis and am sorry I am too lazy to think harder to tell you how great it was. Maybe I am lacking a bit of stimulus?

(See this week's Au Bistro column for the rest of the Beaujolais Nouveau story.)

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