When I met author Christian Léourier at his home in the suburbs, I felt a long way from the author’s birthplace in eastern Paris’ Ménilmontant. But he described to me the foreign conditions of life in the 20th district in the 1950s. Even though Ménilmontant went from being its own village to becoming part of Paris in the 1860s, almost a hundred years later the area was still an agglomeration of neighborhoods, each with its own slang, and organized according to trade.
Small shoe manufacturers, tool makers, and other workshops filled the area, the vestiges of which I can find even in my own street. The anarchic construction style of Ménilmontant was a holdover from the hilly terrain and gypsum quarrying of the previous centuries. And even though most of the area’s main quarries were closed, and the most dangerous quarry accidents ended in the late 1770s, there were still occasional sinkhole collapses up until the 1950s.
For example, Christian remembers a horse butcher on the corner of the rue des Pyrénées and the rue de Ménilmontant whose entire shop became a sinkhole overnight. The hole was as wide as the shop itself, and so deep no one could see the bottom - the gypsum under the shop had dissolved in water. I’ve heard other people talk about the collapses in eastern Paris, and one thing I find curious is how these sinkholes always happened in butcher shops, restaurants, and other food-related venues.
For a long time, the quarries, emptied of the precious gypsum used to make plaster (ever heard of plaster of Paris?), served the eastern Parisian population as dépotoirs, or basically, gratuitous dumping grounds. I’ve read of entire animal carcasses being thrown into those bottomless holes. So I guess it makes sense to imagine that food purveyors might have taken the easy route by just digging a hole in their basement and throwing their trash into the depths of Paris, almost like a natural garbage chute. I wonder if I might not have done the same thing!
But Christian Léourier wasn’t inspired to write about rats in central Paris because of the sinkholes in his native area, but by another very real event in the city: the move of the central food market, Les Halles, to the suburbs. Around 1962, city officials finalized the decision to move the wholesale market out of Paris, but there was a problem: the population of nearly 300,000 rats living in Les Halles’ basements would be divested of their rodently night jobs, and city officials feared the worst.
I can speak with some experience when I say that a building demolition in Paris is nothing to sneeze at. When I lived in Paris’ 11th district, I suffered through the infernal blasting and invasive dust of a demolition. The aftermath of suddenly scattered rodents was fearsome. Those homeless rats have to go somewhere when their dwelling is destroyed, right? Likewise, take away a rat population’s usual quota of market leftovers, and they’ll soon be burrowing high and low looking for food in the surrounding areas, and spreading like....well, the plague.
The Road to Rungis
And general anarchy - if not the plague - was exactly what city officials dreaded in 1969. According to Christian’s book, The Road to Rungis, the rats would have invested surrounding buildings "with hunger in their stomachs and anger in their hearts." Yikes! What inspired Christian to write his book was an article in the local newspaper recounting the odd overnight disappearance of the entire rat population.
The move to Rungis proceeded full speed ahead in 1969, and strangely enough, as reported by journalists, the rat hordes disappeared without a trace. Officials are still perplexed as to where all those rats ended up. Christian Léourier’s novel presents one theory: those hungry rodents also hit the highway, or the low-way, as it were, and emigrated to Rungis along with the market.
Before the move, Christian’s aunt sold flowers at Les Halles market. But the rest of his family tended to stay put in the village of Ménilmontant: even Christian’s mother only went “into” Paris a few times a year for shopping.
The great snack exchange
Ménilmontant was most emphatically a working class village, and immigration during the 1920s maintained the industrious atmosphere up into the 1960s. Christian told me that he and his family lived in the same building as a Jewish tailor (fancy that!), and also had a neighbor from the West Indies, who received the occasional postal package from his homeland, containing then-exotic ingredients like avocadoes and pineapples.
Half of Ménilmontant’s population was made up of transplants at that time: Armenian, Jewish, Polish, German, Spanish, Portuguese, and Algerian immigrants lived in the neighborhoods before the later influx of Africans and Chinese. Christian’s favorite part of living with all these different populations was what happened during recess on most school days: the great snack exchange.
Not one boy seemed to want the 4 o’clock gâteau his own mother had provided, so they played a game similar to musical chairs in order to swap snacks. Christian told me the best cakes came from the Armenian kids, and all the boys tried to cheat at the game in order to get their little hands on those cakes.
More salty than sweet
Christian didn’t give me a recipe for those Armenian snacks - he enjoyed them after his hard-won game of musical cakes, but he didn’t actually make them. I like to imagine he might have sampled one of these delicious nutmeg cakes.
Now, I admit to not having a huge sweet-tooth - I am what the French call plutôt salée (more salty than sweet) meaning that I prefer savory foods. But I’ve tested this cake recipe on many a “salty” friend, and they all loved it. The crust is crunchy, the inside of the cake soft, and they make for a delicious, nutmeggy contrast.
I serve this cake during the nation’s official 4 o’clock snack hour, along with some steaming coffee. By the way, did you know that Paris’ very first café, Le Procope, was opened by an Armenian? And you can still have coffee there. So let me know how these cakes turn out, and if you’re interested in learning more about eastern Paris’ fascinating history, please join one of my Walking tours!