On a brisk Sunday morning last autumn, the fruit and vegetable stand at the corner of the Rue de Lévis and the Rue de la Terrasse, near the Villiers Métro in the 17th arrondissement, proved a boisterous spectacle.
“Regardez la merveille, sensationnelle!” cried a vendor, as the throngs shuffled down the narrow, cobble-stoned thoroughfare, past displays overflowing with clementines, prunes and ripe bunches of muscat grapes. “Goûtez-la, goûtez-la, goûtez-la! Une merveille, la grappe de muscat!”
Supposedly, a law passed years ago in Paris forbids soliciting customers with such rowdy poetics, but the produce vendors of the Rue de Lévis apparently didn’t get the memo.
“Cèpes, cèpes, tellement beaux! La barquette, dix Euros!” chanted another seller, from behind a small mountain of the cream-coloured mushrooms.
Paris has several historic commercial streets, but the Rue de Lévis, which dates back to at least the 1600s, is one of the most colourful. The identity of this bustling and tenaciously independent street was forged during the 1800s, when butchers, bakers and produce vendors first conglomerated there, transforming the Rue de Lévis into the primary market street for the burgeoning expanse of western Paris.
According to historian Lucien Maillard, the merchants developed a famously stubborn sense of sovereignty. during the 19th century, while entire neighbourhoods were being cleared to make way for train stations and grands boulevards, no politician or railroad baron could lay a finger on their street. “Even [financiers] the Péreire brothers were not able to expropriate them,” says Maillard, “when they tried to lay their train tracks through here.”
Today, the Rue de Lévis’ shop owners remain as territorial as ever.
“It’s a street with real strength,” affirms Michel Bouvet, the president of the street’s business owners’ association. “We fight for the independence of the street, we take no subsidies from the town hall, we won’t be beholden to any mayor. When we want holiday lights put up, we pay for it. If there are any problems in the street, it’s the association that pays to resolve them.”
That fiscal autonomy comes as the result of a large, considerably diverse clientele, drawn from both the opulent Parc Monceau quartier to the south, and the ‘bobo’ chic Batignolles neighbourhood to the north.
“The CEO and his cleaning lady both shop here,” says Bouvet. “The concierge and her bourgeois residents all come here.”
Alexis de Galembert, longtime resident and founder of the original French cookie shop, La Fabrique Cookies (25 rue de Lévis), agrees: “Everyone around here knows the Rue de Lévis. It’s where we shop for our fruit and baguettes for brunch. It’s where we buy our rotisserie chicken and potatoes for Sunday dinner with the in-laws.”
Yet although the Rue de Lévis has long been known for its gastronomic bent and independent spirit, in recent years numerous ‘big brand’ clothing and perfume retailers have begun encroaching on the street. “Chain stores attack a historic Paris market,” ran a 2010 headline in the weekly Le Point.
Suzanne Benamar, of the splendid fish shop La Fine Marée (7 rue de Lévis), is among many who regret the evolution: “This street’s food tradition runs deep and there’s a will among the shopkeepers to see that continues – that it not be taken over by insurance peddlers, opticians and perfume shops, like so many other streets in Paris.”
Fortunately, a new wave of artisanal food shops has brought a reason to hope that it won’t. Lise Laye was new to the wine business when she opened Cave en Terrasse (21 rue de la Terrasse), just off the Rue de Lévis, in 2012. At first, she thought must be a common practice for the vendors on the corner to offer to keep an eye on her boutique, or when the chocolatier down the street referred clients.
“There’s a dynamic about this neighbourhood, which I’ve since realized isn’t so common,” she says. “There’s a kind of spirit of goodwill that reigns over Lévis-Terrasse. We all have different professions but look out for one another… we stand together.”
Call it a respect between fellow artisans, says François, who works with Alys of the nearby confectionery shop, Les Douceurs d’Alys (18 rue de la Terrasse): “Lise is a true artisan wine seller, in that she’s made her own selection, unearthing small producers and showing there are still marvels to be discovered”. François, an étalagist (window dresser), scours flea markets in search of antique chocolate moulds for Alys’s marvellous displays, which he conceives several times a year.
A third-generation chocolatier, Alys utilises her large collection of century-old equipment and recipes for divine pralines and ganaches au chocolat which would have made her grandfather proud. “I try to attain a level of quality which is disappearing in my profession, especially in terms of freshness,” says Alys, who only prepares small batches for sale the same day. “There’s no need to make mass quantities of chocolates, what’s important is that those you do have to be very good – people will cross the city for those…”
Camille Baudoin, who leads gastronomic tours for the Guide du Goût, says that the Rue de Lévis draws gourmets from across Paris and far beyond. “It allows tourists, or even Parisians, to discover neighbourhoods in a new way, by associating a place with real people, with real artisans.”
Baudoin leads groups throughout the 17th, from coffee roaster to chocolate maker, ending with a visit to the Rue de Lévis. The tour includes a wine tasting at Cave en Terrasse, and a sampling of myriad French delicacies at the épicerie fine Macis (46 rue de Lévis).
Opened in 2014 by the food-loving, Breton-Corsican publisher Claire Giudicenti, the coming of Macis was celebrated by the street’s food businesses, as it followed a period which saw several independent shops bought out by clothing chains. Baudoin calls the highly original Macis “a reflection of the Rue de Lévis… a delicatessen / tearoom / bookstore, it mixes spices from the Orient with products from Corsica and Brittany. It seems chaotic at first, but actually there’s a coherence about it. It’s Claire affirming her identity and marking her territory: that’s what this street is about.”
In fact, merchants take up so much territory on the Rue de Lévis that there’s hardly any room left for the shoppers! Decades ago, the street’s produce sellers obtained authorisation to erect market stalls on the pavement outside their boutiques. Today, bakeries still set up booths out front to sell baguettes and croissants, butchers have their chicken roasters and charcuteries boast steaming pans of choucroute. Some vendors don’t have a boutique at all, just a spot on the road where they peddle flowers, offer fresh oysters or advertise a furniture-mending service.
“There’s a magic about each commercial street in Paris – an ambience that you won’t find just one street over,” says José-Luis Bilbao, the founder of Les Grands d’Espagne (21 rue de Lévis), which specialises in premium Pata Negra ham. “The way people on the Rue de Lévis present their products outside of their boutique is very unique.”
Bilbao launched his company in Paris two years ago, and opened his third boutique, in a former flower shop on the Rue de Lévis, last year. In keeping with local tradition, he designed a wheeled display, which is rolled onto the street each morning, to present his wares out front.
A Spanish ham shop helping to safeguard the authenticity of a historic French market street? Apparently so.
“I think what’s important are the traditions and the balance of a place – that there always be a diversity of shops,” says Bilbao. “Once a street is taken over entirely by chains, that’s when the magic disappears.”
Today, happily, that seems less likely. With 2014 came the opening not only of Macis and Les Grands d’Espagne, but also the launch of the unique farm-to-table bakery shop Emile & Jules (18 rue de la Terrasse), as well as the arrival of Alexis de Galembert’s third La Fabrique Cookies boutique.
“You can find just about everything on this street today, in terms of food,” says Galembert. “And I think that there is still a lot of potential for setting up new concepts here.”
Most recently, Marie Stoclet Bardon, a former sales director for Fauchon and Maison du Chocolat, partnered with an ex-Plaza Athénée pastry chef to open La Meringaie (21 rue de Lévis), which is dedicated to resurrecting the much-maligned meringue as a gorgeous pastry, one covered with whipped cream and fresh fruit.
“We’d like to help the Rue de Lévis become one of the great pastry ‘hot spots’ in Paris,” says Stoclet Bardon. And perhaps it will. What’s for sure, as Stoclet Bardon says, is that “today, it’s a street that’s becoming very gourmand once again”.
BOUTIQUES AND GOURMET SHOPS
La Fine Marée: 7 rue de Lévis, Tel: +33 1 43 87 79 20
For Suzanne and Malik Benamara, “a fish in season tastes better and costs less – it’s better for your client, and better for the ocean”. This pair of premium fishmongers offer noble species, such as turbot, John Dory and sea bass, which are only fished at their finest and most bountiful, along with live lobster, oysters and other marine delicacies.
La Fabrique Cookies: 25 rue de Lévis, Tel: +33 9 83 54 69 91
What does ‘cookie’ sound like with a French accent? Using utterly ambrosial French ingredients, founder Alexis de Galembert has created the first cookie à la Française, which boasts such flavours as Guérande salted butter caramel, Provençal almond calissons, Montélimar nougat and Valence praline.
Macis: 46 rue de Lévis, Tel: +33 1 42 67 54 88
What happens when a French woman with Breton-Corsican roots, a publishing background and a passion for gastronomy goes into business for herself? Welcome to Macis, an épicerie fine, tearoom and culinary bookshop offering gourmet preserves, sweets and spices from across France and the Mediterranean.
Cave en Terrasse: 21 rue de la Terrasse, Tel: +33 1 47 64 03 07
Paris is littered with the major wine chains’ outlets – Cave en Terrasse reminds us why independence matters. Hand-picked wines from small French producers confirm the taste of la patronne, Lise Laye. Her penchant for fine yet affordable Champagne and talent for unearthing little known Burgundies has attracted a dedicated clientele.
Les Douceurs d’Alys: 18 rue de la Terrasse, Tel: +33 1 46 22 14 10
Some 32 years after Alys came to Paris, to became a third-generation chocolatier, the kitsch 1950s décor of her phenomenal sweet shop hasn’t changed. Nor has the taste of her divine chocolats à l’ancien, her assortment of old-fashioned sweets from around France, or her flair for assembling mouth-watering window displays.
Emile & Jules: 18 rue de la Terrasse, Tel: +33 1 73 75 67 44
More than just a bakery, Emile & Jules is a way to save the family farm. When a Parisian wheat farmer and his sons realised that they couldn’t compete with industrial grain producers, they decided to cut out the middleman. Milling their own grain into flour, they now bake their own breads, brioches and seasonal tarts.
From France Today magazine