Food in French Romanticism; Émile Zola, The Belly of Paris (Part 1)

Today, I’d like to share with you a taste of yesterday but in a perhaps, unconventional way; to highlight the mentioned foodstuffs in one of Zola’s most popular works, The Belly of Paris. If you love to eat and love a bit of gluttony (literary and otherwise), follow me as a make a brief interlude between the heat of the kitchen to the comfort of an armchair:

Les Halles, Paris 1880 by Victor Gilbert

Les Halles, Paris 1880 by Victor Gilbert

The first strong presence of food comes to you right from the beginning. The protagonist is riding atop  a vegetable wagons bounty, on a pile of cabbages; Winding along a darkened way in a caravan of nine that snaked behind and in-front. “…With their mountains of cabbages and peas, their piles of artichokes, lettuces, celery and leaks seamed to be rolling over him as if to bury him beneath an avalanche of food.

Our protagonist has been sorely abused by the Emperors might and has just returned from 8 years of harsh exile. He is starved to delirium. As he arrives and the carts are unloaded, he finds himself in the legendary Les Halles open air market of Paris. 

But, he finds himself, with a stolen carrot in his belly, and a cup of hot wine, but also at arrival managed to find, out of coincidence, his now fortune-favored step brother and wife. They own an exquisite charcuterie, that, Florent is brought to. It is named Quenu-Gradelle. (Simply by the joining of their families name) Now, Zola begins an almost intimate description of the contents of this savory eat-house. I’ll tell you a bit of a summary, highlighting the picturesqueness of hanging sausages and smoked meats.

This is the first sight, Zola describes about the Charcuterie; it’s sign. Let this give you an idea of what lay in store for you: “…chubby little cupids in the midst of boars’, heads, pork chops and string of sausages;…” Then, as if Zola was incredibly hungry when he came to this point, “There were vast quantities of rich, succulent things, things that melted in the mouth.” Personally, I can’t find a fault in the man; have you tasted the delicate, savory taste of a proscuitto or a great bunch of sage-seasoned pork sausages? In the viewing window we are taken to paradise.

At the first tier, there are jars of rilletes; potted meats of goose or pork, matched with sweet and mild pots of mustard. The viewers eyes are brought to the next tier which holds Sundays-best dressed hams with golden crust and ribbons about the knuckles. Here is a bit of the old Parisian, the next delicacy described are the stuffed  Strasbourg tongues, pigs’ trotters; specially seasoned pigs feet, and the house specialty, Black pudding seasoned with lard, pepper salt and onions.  I get the impression that the eye of this starving wretched man is absolutely crushed by the sight, like a man drowning in the sea, a sweet, sweet sea.

Lets talk about sausage then Zola, and he does,”…andouilles piled up in twos and bursting with health…”  “Saucissons in little silver copes that made them look like choristers.” (Saucissons are typical french dry sausages then come in many varieties.) But look on and past the display!

There are hot meat-pies, great cuts of veal and ham, pots of fois gras, snails stuffed with butter and parsley, hanging saveloys; like a modern equivalent of the Coney Island hotdog, red with saltpeter, and sometimes fried, “…like cords and tassels of an opulent tapestry.” The viewers eyes digest one thing after another, “…large tureens in which the meats and minces lay asleep in lakes of solidified fat.”

Zola, what a large appetite you have!

Zola, what a large appetite you have!

Between the truffled Dishes, lardons, Petit Salé; Salted and brined pork slices, I am wanting a Quenu-Gradelle Charcuterie on my block. If you like all things smoked, salted, cured and stuffed, here’s my shout-out; Visit for all your gluttonous delights and fancies.