Emile Zola’s Portrait of Les Halles | Alexandra Leaf

from Gastronomica 1:2

Les légumes

Le pavillon des gros légumes est très encombré. A 10 heures, les allées encore pleines de détritus. Des montagnes de choux.

Autour de deux pavillons des légumes et des fruits se trouvent les marchandes en plein vent; tables posées sur des tréteaux, garnies la plupart d’étoffes noires. Le gros marché se tient sur le large trottoir du côté de la rue Rambuteau. Les marchandes y sont sur trois rangées avec passage pour aller aux grilles: deux rangées dans la rue du Pont Neuf. Ce qui frappe, ce sont les chicorées épanouies, montrant leur cœur blanc dans le vert tendre de leurs grosses feuilles. Carottes rouges, navets blancs avec leur panache de feuilles vertes. Hauts paniers d’artichauts. Tranches jaunes de potiron. Tas de julienne coupée. Tas de tomates, de pomme de terre, d’oignons blancs. Paquets de poireaux. Paquets pour le pot-au-feu. Paquets d’oseilles et d’épinards. Concombres. Choux épluchés blancs. Montagne de choux, les frisés, toutes les espèces. Romaines empilées. Paquets d’ail, de thym, de laurier, de ciboule. L’après midi, parapluies attachés à un baton, droit ou penché. Les parapluies sont surtout d’un bleu éteint. Le soleil tape obliquement sur les légumes, rougit les carottes, allume le cœur blanc des chicorées. Très pittoresque. Une marchande protégeant trois salades sous une vielle ombrelle de satin. Paris circule dans la large rue.

Les tas de tomates, bien rangées, d’un rouge vif.

Les bottes de mouron et les millets en branches, les échaudés.

Les scaroles au cœur blanc. Les choux violets. Les choux frisés. Les choux blancs épluchés. Artichauts cuits.

Les marchandes aux petits tas, surtout vieilles, ratatinées.

En bonnet, nu-tête, les jeunes en filet, les vielles surtout en marmotte, toutes avec des tabliers. Peu d’hommes.

Portrait of Emile Zola, ca. 1900. From Emile Zola, Carnets d’enquêtes: Une Ethnographie Inédite de la France; by permission of Librairie Plon, Paris

The Vegetables

The large vegetable pavilion is very congested. At 10 o’clock in the morning, the alleyways are still littered with refuse. Mountains of cabbage.

Surrounding the vegetable and fruit pavilions are the outdoor vendors; table tops placed on trestles, decorated mostly with black fabric. The big outdoor market is held on the wide sidewalk next to the rue Rambuteau. The vendors there are arranged in three rows with a passage leading to the gates of the halls: two rows in the rue du Pont Neuf. One is struck by the chicory in full bloom, white hearts showing through the tender green of their large leaves. Red carrots, white turnips with their plume of green leaves. Tall baskets of artichokes. Yellow slices of pumpkin. Piles of sliced vegetables. Piles of tomatoes, potatoes, and white onions. Bunches of leeks. Bunches for pot-au-feu. Bunches of sorrel and spinach. Cucumbers. Peeled white cabbages. Mountains of cabbage, kale, all varieties. Romaine lettuces. Bunches of garlic, thyme, bay leaves, scallion. In the afternoon, umbrellas attached to sticks, straight or slanted. The umbrellas are mainly a faded blue. The sun strikes the vegetables indirectly, reddening the carrots, illuminating the white hearts of the chicory. Very picturesque. A vendor protects three heads of lettuce beneath an old satin umbrella. Paris mills about in the large street.

Orderly piles of bright red tomatoes.

Bundles of chickweed and branches of millet, blanched items.

White-hearted escarole. Violet cabbage. Kale. Peeled white cabbage. Cooked artichokes.

Vendors selling small amounts, mostly old and wizened.

In bonnets, bare-headed, young girls in hair nets, older women mainly in Savoyard-style kerchiefs, all wearing aprons. Few men.


Nearly telegraphic, yet highly visual, Zola’s descriptions appear as snapshots taken from various angles in the market. Here he sees crescents of yellow in pumpkin slices; there, splashes of brilliant red as sunlight strikes some carrots. Cabbages form pale green heaps that contrast with the neatly-ordered rows of red tomatoes. Zola’s notes reflect a profound involvement with his subject. As a careful observer, he records what he sees, hears, and smells in the market, yet he is also emotionally engaged. He doesn’t merely see the chicory, he senses it, imagining the vegetable’s tender inner leaves as vulnerable hearts open to passersby. He views the lettuce with the same concerned gaze, seeing it as delicate and in need of special care. Each vegetable, no matter how humble, represents an important and distinctive part of the market, and all the foodstuffs—from the simplest bunch of aromatic thyme to the most elegant truffled and pistachioed terrine of foie gras—combine to form the complex, larger-than-life world that is Les Halles.

Zola made these notes for his 1872 novel, Le Ventre de Paris (The Belly of Paris). A friend and champion of the Impressionists, he modeled his character, the painter Claude Lantier, after Paul Cézanne, and in fact his preliminary notes resemble an artist’s sketchbook. Drawn to the ever-changing complexion of Les Halles, Zola recorded all that he saw with passion and precision. His character Lantier similarly spends hours wandering through the market’s pavilions, inspired by the intensity of his surroundings.

“Le Marché des Innocents” (Les Halles’ open-air market), by Durand. Open-air market: Musée Carnavalet, Paris; © Phototheque des musées de la ville de Paris/negative: Habouzit; by permission of Librairie Plon, Paris

Zola’s detailed descriptions of Les Halles make it clear why these vast central markets, which nourished Paris for over a century, loom so large in the imagination. Painters, poets, writers, and photographers were all drawn to Les Halles with its strikingly modern halls designed by the architect Victor Baltard. The pavilions comprising this “super” market, built in several phases during the mid-1800s, were constructed predominantly of cast iron, copper, and large expanses of glass. From before dawn until late afternoon, these imposing buildings furnished the city’s most sumptuously laid tables, as well as the rudimentary kitchens of the poor. They were filled with extraordinary life.

Zola showed an almost obsessive interest in Les Halles, spending days and nights in its stalls and storerooms, even venturing into the subterranean stock rooms, animal pens, and prep areas. He interviewed a wide range of market workers, from fishmongers, butchers, and tripe makers to vendors and inspectors, recording in meticulous detail the activities of each. His descriptions of the force-feeding, killing, and plucking of pigeons, of seafood auctions, of the arrival of market gardeners with produce from the provinces, represent only a small portion of his journals. He also comments on the daily operations of Les Halles, fiscal and otherwise.

Zola’s notes are organized into several sections, based upon both his own observations and information gleaned from two sets of official records, one kept by a police chief, the other by a high-ranking city official. From these records, we learn the daily wages of workers, auctioneers, wagon drivers, and vendors, as well as the rental fees for storerooms, counter space, stalls, and even sidewalk space outside of the pavilions. Very little escaped Zola’s attention. He even noted the larger design of Les Halles—the construction materials used, the layout of the streets and sidewalks, the placement and organization of gas lamps, the overall description of each pavilion’s location and goods. Zola sketched some of the halls to ensure that the locations of his future characters’ stores and stalls would be accurate; he also made sketches of the surrounding streets, noting street names, shop names, and what was located in each. These streets became the neighborhood frequented by his characters Florent, Lise, La Normande, and La Sarriette. Quite apart from being a compelling tale of adventure, politics, and betrayal, Le Ventre de Paris presents a gloriously rich portrait of France’s central markets under the Second Empire, and Zola’s preparatory notes make for fascinating reading.

A sketch of the Les Halles pavilions in Zola’s own hand. The vegetable pavilion is bottom row center. St. Eustache is indicated in the upper left corner. sketch: From Emile Zola, Carnets d’enquêtes: Une Ethnographie Inédite de la France; by permission of Librairie Plon, Paris

Unpublished in Zola’s lifetime, the notes were possibly never intended for public consumption. They were discovered among his papers at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris and appeared for the first time in 1986. Had the notes been published along with Le Ventre de Paris, or even at some point when Les Halles still stood, they might have been of less interest than they are today. Past readers may have seen little point in bothering with Zola’s eyewitness account—after all, he was writing about what they could experience for themselves on any given day. But with the demolition of Les Halles in the early 1970s, Zola’s notes have taken on poignant meaning. They offer a remarkable, and regrettably nostalgic, glimpse into a vanished, vibrant world.