It’s the heart of Apokries, the Greek carnival, which lasts three weeks and ends next week with “Clean Monday.” Every year, costume stores for kids and adults sprout up like mushrooms; here you can go to put the final touches on your costume: your feather boa, Asterix helmet, magic wand, rubber breasts, Devil’s pitchfork, Gothic vampire wig….Carnival time is so much more though than just dressing up– throughout the country, many unique local celebrations endure, carrying on traditions from ancient times. And Athens is featuring no less than 50 musical events to celebrate. More on Carnival customs — crazy and not — in the next blog.
I’m thinking of a year ago though, when we spent a month in Paris, where there weren’t any Carnival activities like here (except for a meager parade with a few percussionists that lost itself in a political demonstration). But every day from our apartment near Jardin des Plantes, we set out for parts known and not-so-known, mostly on foot, we took language classes, and we sampled eating places, some of them Greek…
One drizzly summer evening in Paris in the early 1980’s I stopped to buy a sandwich grec at one of the many Greek places on the Left Bank on Rue de la Huchette. The rain got steadily harder and my sandwich grec got steadily soggier as I stepped away into the damp night. Many years later this area of narrow winding streets near the church of St. Severin is still known as “little Athens” but now most of the sandwich grecs have been replaced by “maisons de gyros.” On Rue de la Huchette, the principal street of this area, the gyros are served by waiters wearing white T-shirts with “Hellas” imprinted on the front with a Greek flag. The portions are generous; we bought a gyro that weighed at least a kilo with all the tzatziki and the pommes frites tucked inside the pita.
The saying Voici la Rue Huchette, mais prends bien garde a ta pochette (Here’s Rue Huchette, but guard well your pocket or wallet) describes well this street of constant movement and noise. Barkers stand in doorways sizing tourists up and calling out either ‘bonsoir’ or ‘good evening’ and gesturing to their menu. This quarter off of Boulevard Saint Michel around the Seine has much the same
labyrinthine streets that it had in the 12th century, although the buildings date from around the 17th. These streets near the Seine kept their medieval design, somehow managing to escape the radical transformation of Paris by Baron de Haussmann in the mid to late 19th century. of Paris walking tours from 30 years ago, left behind in the house where we were staying, gives us a little history of the street. Apparently, the area has a long history of eating meat; in the 14th and 15th century, the street appropriately was called “Rue des Rotisseurs,” (street of roasters) where whole sheep and oxen were turned on spits over open wood fires and beggars held up pieces of bread to soak up the smoke and smell. While today you won’t find an entire animal being roasted, the meat nature of the street remains along with the noise and chaos that existed then. Still, it does take a bit of imagination to recreate how the streets were in medieval times, with all the neon lights and tourist shops today with magnets, change purses, aprons and little Paris trays in all sorts of colors and scenes.
Follow Rue de la Huchette out to the end at the Seine and there on Rue de la Bucherie (map) with the green and yellow awnings is Shakespeare & Company, named for the historic bookstore which during the 1920’s, under the ownership of Sylvia Beach, was a hangout for such writers as Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce. Both a bookstore and lending library, it closed in 1941 during the German Occupation and never reopened. In 1951, a bookstore was opened here across from Notre Dame, originally called “Le Mistral” but the owner, George Whitman, changed the title in 1964 to honor both Shakespeare’s Birthday and Sylvia Beach’s historic store. Before getting too excited (as I did) that the ghost of Hemingway haunts the store, you need to know that the original store was at another location, on Rue de l’Odeon.
If you want an English language book on Paris, this is surely the place for you. But not only. On the shelves you can find books on penguin mating habits or the history of cinema or the French-English 100 year war. And that’s just the downstairs. Upstairs it looks like entering the world of a creative but deranged mind. This is the lending library, true to Sylvia Beach’s original store. The area is full of nooks and crannies with couches here and there and cats slinking around. Pull down a book from the shelf — many very old and rare — on let’s say a late19th century study of French Gothic cathedrals, and curl up on one of the sofas with the cat in your lap. One of the amazing things about the store is the hospitality given to aspiring writers, that they can stay there in one of the beds between the nooks & crannies (!) In exchange, they have to do some cleaning in the store and add to the archive by writing a biography, some of which you can see outside. It’s estimated that over 30,000 have stayed here! So, if we’re talking about food, Shakespeare & Company book store indeed nourishes the mind and the soul.
Coming out of Shakespeare & Company one night after a book talk, there it was, the full moon, rising near Notre Dame, in all its splendor — this is one month before the catastrophic fire.
But let’s go back to our Greek eats. Rue de la Huchette might be fun, but of course there is more to Greek street food than gyros and the frenzied atmosphere in “little Athens.” Still in the 5th arrondissement, if you head over to Rue Mouffetard (map) a historic street south of the Pantheon, you’ll find a number of Greek restaurants where the gyros give way to more classically French street food: crepes and galettes, but still with a Greek flavor. The street has a long and colourful history. In Roman times, it could take you southeast to Lyon, even to Italy. The river Bievre flowed at the bottom of the hill where the street ends today, near l’eglise Saint Medard.
In the 12th century, wealthy Parisians had farms and country houses here in this area. The upper class dominated here until the 16th and 17th centuries when it was discovered that the river had useful properties in skinning and tanning hides, and the population changed to working class: tanners, slaughterers, skinners and dyers. The famous Gobelins’ tapestry factory, which still survives down the road on the Avenue des Gobelins, dates from that era. As was inevitable, growing industry, together with rotting animal wastes, polluted the Bievre. A colourful explanation for the name “Mouffetard” comes from the sewerlike qualities of the river, as French for “skunk” or “bad smell” is “mouffete.” A more prosaic but more likely theory for the name is that the hill was originally called ‘mons cetardus’ which became ‘mont cetard,’ ‘montfetard,’ and finally ‘mouffetard.’ As for the river, attempts to save it in the 19th century failed and finally it became part of the underground sewer system.
Today, Rue Mouffetard is a busy shopping street with a market near the bottom with flower shops, boulangeries, boucheries, poisonneries with their beautifully displayed fish and shellfish, a rotisserie with chickens slowly turning above a bed of small round potatoes, and exquisite sandwiches for emporter (carry out). Shoppers are probably not too interested in the historic nature of the street, in some old 17th century fountains, or in a rare 17th century wood sculpture of an oak tree from a sunken ship’s masthead, with the restaurant name appropriately Le Vieux Chene (the old oak tree) or that the street was famous for its cabarets in the early 20th century. The bars, brasseries and sushi places are all popular. But for crepes, the most favoured creperie by far is Au P’tit Grec.
With a line literally every hour of the day and night, only a little less so when it rains, Au P’tit Grec never disappoints its fans. I was hooked on the eponymous mouth-watering specialty: “Galette (heavier batter, usually used for savory fillings) au p’tit grec” with feta, onions, grilled aubergine, tomato and lettuce. Heavenly. One of the servers at Au P’tit Grec told us that the place is known “all over the planet,” which might be the truth!
A few other Greek creperies further up the street, including Nikos as well as other solely French ones, must watch sadly every day as au p’tit grec takes all the business. There’s also a more traditional Greek food place L’ile de Crete up the street near Place Contrescarpe, a large lively square with cafeteries and hordes of people just hanging out on warm evenings. L’ile de Crete has delicious gyros, along with cooked food like the classic moussaka, yiouvetsi and dolmades. Despite the name and despite the fact that Greek music was playing in the store, the waiters looked blank when we spoke to them in Greek; they are actually from Turkestan, which perhaps shows Paris’ multicultural blending.
In back of Place Contrescarpe as you get close to the Pantheon, besides all the ethnic restaurants — Japanese, Indian, Spanish, there are many inviting cafes, for example, the one below with its very satisfied customers.
Far and away though the best Greek food on Rue Mouffetard is La Crete, in a whole different category of course from the creperies and other fast food. As a restaurant, La Crete is a wonderful dining experience. One night while we were eating there, a steady stream of diners kept entering.
The restaurant is decorated with motifs from Crete, mostly from Knossos: the double ax, the Minoan goddess holding her serpents, also the famous Phaistos disk. There was a buzz of diners eating happily. The restaurant offers a “formule” (fixed menu) including an entrée (appetizer), plat (main dish) and dessert. You could see that the most popular entrée was the ‘pikilia,’ an assortment of tarama, hummous, tzatziki, olives, dolmadakia and pita bread) In case you’re not so hungry, this is what you need to whet your appetite. I had the very tender fish of the day. The cooking is light and delicious. Even the baklava is light (how did they do that I wondered). The wine too will make anyone happy. The waiters were courteous, speaking to the diners in both French and Greek. The owner, k. Giorgos, threw a towel over his shoulder and served too, mixing with the customers and seeming to take a real delight in talking with everyone.
We talked with Giorgos Gregoriou several days later in the restaurant. He told us he had bought La Crete in 1986 from the owners, who had established it back in 1974. K. Giorgos had first worked there as a waiter to get some pocket money after going to study in Paris in 1980. Although he is from Cyprus, not Crete, he decided to keep the name out of respect to the Cretans, who he felt had helped the Cypriot struggle during the 1974 Turkish invasion. Working under k. Giorgos and his co-owner brother, is a crew of very dedicated waiters, some of whom have been working there for 20 years or more. A chef from Crete continued the Cretan tradition of cooking, while Cypriot food, like haloumi and tseftalia, can also be found on the menu.
The clientele, k. Giorgos estimates, is about 5 to 10% Greek and the rest French. Once customers discover La Crete, they usually return. What’s the main secret of its success? One is the music, guitar and bouzouki on Friday and Saturday nights, so popular that you need a reservation. But more than that, is the philosophy of three ideals unchanged in its over 40 years of operation. As k. Giorgos explains, “we have politeness, personality and respect to our customers.” Not to mention the delicious food, a far cry from my sandwich grec of years gone by.
Admittedly, falafel is not Greek street food though it’s become popular in Athens. Here, Elias is caught by surprise waiting for his falafel at the famous L’As du Falafel on Rue de Rosiers in the Marais.
Disclosure: some of these photos were taken on a previous visit to Paris in the springtime. However, last year was such a warm sunny February, with its very-unusual-for-Paris “halcyon days” that the cafes and parks filled with sun worshippers.
But here in the Luxembourg Gardens, you weren’t allowed to just plop down on the grass, and what kind of picnic can you have then — we saw that many Parisians took their picnics very seriously, with a basket of goodies, a bottle of wine and a blanket to spread on the grass.
So, where to go — so many parks. One of the best for sitting on the grass must be the Place des Vosges in the Marais, incidentally part of the oldest square in Paris (and you can visit Victor Hugo’s house here too)
There are many who picnic along the Seine. Or, you can forget the picnic completely and sit down at a table next to the river and enjoy your cafe and sandwich (grec or non grec) along with the sunshine. Bon appetit! Kali orexi! And stay healthy…
What’s up next: March moods: Carnival customs, springtime, Independence day