Sightseeing, shopping, and dining around the rue Mouffetard
I wrote this story in 1993 about the Rue Mouffetard as a travel piece of advice for people visiting Paris, but I cannot remember who I wrote it for, although I know it was commissioned. I took a lot of photographs to publish with it. It was rejected. Again, no idea why. I can see lots of weak spots in the story, but it could easily have been edited, and was full of information, even if the style was not the very greatest in the world. It will be of only historic interest today – nearly 19 years later – as I believe most of the stores and restaurants will have changed since then. But it is interesting to see how things have changed:
“The Cafe des Amateurs was the cesspool of the rue Mouffetard, that wonderful narrow crowded market street which led into the Place Contrescarpe.” – Ernest Hemingway, “A Moveable Feast.”PARIS On my first day in Paris ten years ago I had not yet read Hemingway’s memoir but I soon ended up in his wonderful narrow crowded market street. The fish stands overflowed onto the cobblestones and the butcheries and fruit stalls and cheese shops were all opened and filled with people shopping, discovering, and living as they had for hundreds of years. And I knew there would be very little to pull me away from the Paris of the rue Mouffetard.
For eight years I have lived 20 minutes walk from it and frequently instead of using the market closer to home I go to the Mouffe–as it is affectionately known to its denizens–to do my shopping. Because not only is it as wonderful as it was in Hemingway’s day to look at, but as a market it has its attractions. And for tourists there is enough to do on and around the Mouffe to occupy an afternoon and an evening.
It begins at the end of the Rue Descartes, where Hemingway rented a room on the top floor of a building to do his daily writing. (The building is better known to the French for being the place where the poet Paul Verlaine died in 1896.)
While the Cafe des Amateurs is no longer in the Place de la Contrescarpe, there are still three cafes for sitting over a cup of espresso for hours on end. And here, in the 16th century, the circle of poets known as the Pleiade–among them Rabelais and Ronsard–used to meet on the corner of the rue Blainville in the cabaret called the “Pomme de Pin.”
Looking down Mouffetard from the place, the numerous storefronts extending from the buildings and the narrowness of the street gives the impression that it is one long winding country road. But there is a new public library building, a student residence and technical college through an arcade leading off the street at about the halfway point. And from there down a couple flights of stairs is the place you might start your afternoon’s relaxation with in an eight lane bowling alley with pool tables and a bar and pinball machines. But that’s only if you’re not into sightseeing and you want to forget that you are under an ancient road, once the highway that led from Paris to Rome by way of Lyon.
After the underground amusement you might want to take a detour off the rue Mouffetard along the rue Daubenton where, five minutes walk away, is Paris’s central Mosque. This 1920s building is easily spotted since it looks like it is sitting in Morocco, complete with its white walls and minaret, and not in the center of the Latin Quarter. But what makes it an agreeable place for tourists is that you can take afternoon tea there while waiting for the Mouffe’s market stores to open after the siesta.
If you’re staying where you can cook your own meal, you’ll want to buy everything in the Mouffe’s market shops that open at 4:00 in the afternoon after having closed for nearly three hours. Or you may want to eat in one of the street’s many restaurants.
Most of the Mouffe’s restaurants serve Greek food, but there are a few French ones. The best is “Au Vieux Chene,” at #69, serving traditional dishes for decent prices. It’s a good place to go for atmosphere and intimacy among stone walls. The building dates from before the Revolution when it was owned by monks of the convent of Notre-Dame de la Misericorde. It became for a time a bal populaire, and today it continues this tradition with jazz played one or two nights a week in the cellar.
Another French restaurant, but of an everyday quality, is the Brasier, at #88, specializing in a cook-it-yourself plate of beef sliced paper thin, carpaccio-like, and baked potatoes. Each table has a small gas barbecue where you cook the meat to taste. The bottled wine is not very good, so it’s better to stick to a carafe.
The cheese restaurant, L’Assiette aux Fromages, at #25, serves exclusively cheese as a several course meal. But while that can be an interesting experience, the place to buy cheese is in one of the three specialist cheese shops. The best is the second one, La Maison du Fromage, about three quarters the way down the street. There’s always a deal for those who like their camemberts soft to the core: on the glass counter the ripest are sold at cut-rate prices (about 11 francs).
The best butcher is also the second one down, on the corner of the Square St. Medard, church-side, at #139, and called simply: Boucherie Mouffetard. Buy anything from a lamb, or for the grill, like the prepared shish kebabs, the spicy sausage, or the grillade of pork. The prepared roasts are excellent too, especially the veal Orloff (veal with ham, bacon, and gruyere). The best time to visit the butcher is in the fall and winter when they also have the wild boars and other venison hanging exotically in the entrance.
Fall and winter is the best time for visiting most of the street’s food stores. It’s the time of shellfish, and the overflowing trays of a seemingly infinite variety of mussels and oysters and crabs and shrimps. After the recent closing of the legendary Le Flahec fish store–another has taken up its quarters–the relay has been taken up by the Poissonerie at #107. With its daily arrival from the Rungis wholesale market outside Paris each fish has been chosen with care by Jean Quoniam, who has been in the business on the street for 30 years.
Fall is also the time of mushrooms, and the best supplier of those is at the bottom of the street across from the Square St. Medard and the 17th century church of the same name (that may be visited every day except Monday, when the rest of the market is closed too). Buying the mushrooms is not an easy matter, since each of the numerous stalls seems to specialize in something: girolles, boulots, trompettes de la mort. The best vegetable stand in general is at the narrow end of the rue Daubenton, where it meets Mouffetard.
Choosing a bakery is no easier. The country baguette, which is thicker and tastier than the regular one, is best at Panetons on the corner of the rue de l’Arbalete at 113 rue Mouffetard. The myriad types of bread are in shelves suspended from the ceiling where they may be admired and chosen while you wait in the long line-ups that invariable develop here.
But if the line-up is too discouraging, next door in the Moule a Gateau is the place to buy desert while you wait for the bread line to thin out. Or to buy cake by the slice to keep the empty stomach occupied. It is part of a chain of bakeries, but in France that does not mean lack of quality. All their cakes are made with only the purest ingredients, with loads of butter, fresh eggs, and milk. The swiss tart is my favourite: a rich sugary crust of cake with an apple filling that melts on the tongue. They also have a fairly good chocolate brownie.
Fachetti, the Italian caterer at #134, facing the church, has an excellent selection of hams, pastas, salads, and several kinds of olive oils and vinegars. Not to mention the various homemade terrines and pates. A full ready-made meal may be bought here to take back to a hotel room or apartment. All made in the kitchens behind the shop, and directed by the owner Monsieur Guerin. Here he watches over the confection of his specialty ‘carnaseca’, a beef that he salts and dries for a month. From behind the cash table Madame Guerin watches the several employees dressed in white smocks who serve customers with impeccable politeness.
But ultimately, one of the greatest pleasures of the Rue Mouffetard is the little detours to see parts of Paris that look as if they have not been touched for centuries. The Passage des Postes is a narrow sloping cobblestone path leading to the Rue Lhomond that runs parallel to the Mouffe. And which in turn leads into the rue Tournefort where sits at #32 the Bistro Chez Lena et Mimile, which is really the place for you to spend your evening with a reasonably priced French meal with piano music in a private home-like setting.
Opened in 1937, it was the hang out of Piaf and other stars of the French cinema, and its terrace overlooking the Place Lucien-Herr has been used frequently as a film set. Because many a film director has had the same eye for picturesque detail that Hemingway had when he chose to open the scene of his memoir of Paris in the area of the rue Mouffetard.