If you’ve ever been to the rue de Lappe, you might have noticed the unmistakably Parisian incongruities there: water-worn paving stones wobble under Vespas as they buzz down the street, former scrap-metal workshop windows now display contemporary art, and the low thud of dance music emanates from a Corsican restaurant.
“Evil box” and dance halls
Located just behind the Bastille, the rue de Lappe was named for Gérard de Lappe, a maraîcher, or market gardener, who cultivated his gardens here in the 17th century. Long before the street became well-known as the party destination for le tout Paris, it housed workshops specializing in scrap metal, zinc for bistrot bars, and copper. In the 1800s, migrants from the Auvergne region set up shop there, running cafés-charbon, places where they sold coffee, wine, and coal. (Not to be confused with the current Café Charbon in the rue Oberkampf, where hip people crowd the bar and listen to DJs spin vinyls.)
Those Auvergnats played the cabrette (a sort of bagpipe) alongside Italian immigrants who introduced the accordion, the “evil box” whose sound tended to drown out the cabrette and therefore created massive jealousy among the Auvergnats. Together though these immigrants formed the first bal-musettes in Paris, informal dance halls which featured music mixing Auvergnat and Italian sounds, and where people danced a variety of steps like the bourrée (a traditional Auvergnat dance), the waltz, the java, and even the tango.
Life of the party and local thugs
When I moved to the rue de Lappe in 1998, I admit I was impressed by the last remaining dance hall, Le Balajo. After a few weeks, I still hadn’t been there to dance, but I had started recognizing some of the street’s most charismatic figures: that tall wide-eyed guy with the stand-up shock of gray Don King hair, who gave a wordless salut to a comrade simply by lifting one huge palm high into the air above him, or the little moustached rose vendor who would sit on his cement cylinder in front of Le Balajo hawking Dix francs la rose! with such precise cadence.
Like those charismatic figures, Le Balajo was the life of the street party in the 1930s, when the rue de Lappe counted no fewer than 17 bal-musettes. But things heated up thanks to prowling bands of Apaches, the local thugs. These malfrats, or small-time gangsters, roamed the streets around the Bastille dressed in their particular gang’s get-up: they sometimes wore a special brightly-colored scarf, or even had tattooed on the corner of the eye an oeil de biche, or "doe eye" – nowadays this refers to the style of wearing black eyeliner that flicks out and up at the corner.
Low boots and first hipsters
But the one thing these Apaches really obsessed about were their shoes. Yes! I think I would have made fast friends with these guys if they’d lived in the rue de Lappe in 1998. Apparently, the rest of their clothing could look like rags, but their shoes had to be brilliantly shined. The height of Apache style were yellow low boots, with a pointy toe, adorned with gold buttons. Tattooed eyeliner and low boots? Really? Maybe these guys were the first hipsters in Paris.
But the Apaches weren’t interested in dancing at Le Balajo, unlike the major personalities of the time who frequented the place: people like Rita Hayworth, or Maurice Chevalier and Edith Piaf (whose birthplaces you can visit on one of my Walking tours). They all came to see Jo Privat, the accordion-playing soul of Le Balajo. Confusingly, Le Balajo was not named after the famous accordionist Jo Privat, but for the owner of the club, Jo France: Le Bal à Jo, or Jo’s Ball.
X-box and DJ sets at a “destination” hair salon
The Balajo is still a fixture in the rue de Lappe, but music halls like the vintage furniture-filled Mécanique ondulatoire in the neighboring passage Thiéré have taken precedence in popularity. In 1998, one of the most popular places in the street wasn’t a dance hall, but a hair salon: La Chambre à Hair. Andrea and Pierrick, the owners, opened their first shop in a former broom closet, but quickly expanded to a larger space further down the rue de Lappe, where Andrea, who trained at the famous Ecole Boulle, could apply her talents in interior design.
Their model of hair salon was surprising back then: it offered a place to play the latest model of X-box, listen to a DJ’s funky mix, or check out local artistic talent in the form of modish tableaux or hand-made clothes and shoes. Pierrick used the informal tu with every client who opened the door, and his relaxed style meant that the appointment book was non-existent. The “destination salon” was born!
Garlic-fire Gaperon cheese
For the first few months I lived in the rue de Lappe, I was dying to meet (and possibly flirt with) Pierrick, that soft-curled, sad-eyed hairdresser who wore a wrinkled leather biker’s jacket. But the only person I knew in the rue de Lappe was Yvette, the stooped and sour little concierge who swept our buildings’ narrow staircase. She warned me away from the street’s shop-owners, but they were as aloof as the partying bar patrons were lively.
I did manage to chat up the owner of the last remaining Auvergnat shop (Aux Produits d’Auvergne, 6 rue de Lappe), while she gave me samples of her delicious cheeses: a cube of soft, ripe Saint Nectaire, or hazelnutty cantal, or a bit of that superlative Gaperon that held my mouth hostage with garlic-fire for hours afterward. Apparently you can also find this amazing cheese by mail order.
But I would have even settled for a light conversation with the paunchy tapas-bar owner who leaned seductively out the door until business picked up around eleven. I’d walk past and take in the tempting warm odor of everything fried wafting out of his orange and red shop, but I couldn’t seem to manage the kind of bonsoir that led to a casual chat.
When guys in the street would yell out Salut, ma belle! it wasn’t exactly the sincere invitation of friendship I was looking for, rather more like running a cobblestoned gauntlet of seedy pick-up lines. My upstairs neighbour, an English woman, had introduced me to the building by telling me to watch out for the rapist who was working the area. Thanks for the warm welcome, lady! With all these warnings, how in the world was I going to infiltrate the rue de Lappe’s secret society of locals?
One night, returning home late with a friend, a frizzy-haired café-owner I’d seen a couple of times stopped me and asked for a cigarette. Immediately I handed one over, a few offhand remarks were exchanged, and in the subsequent days, I noticed a nearly-imperceptible shift in attitude among the immediately surrounding rue de Lappe elite. Where once I had received languid or distant nods from those few nearby bouncers and barmaids, I was now greeted with a proper bonsoir.
Yvette began giving me unsolicited warnings about who to avoid in our street, proclaiming these characters infecte! (revolting) in her shrill voice, raising one gnarled finger into the air above her broomstick. I was hardly looking for validation from the shrivelled concierge, but her warnings were a kind of proof that I had set foot into the first of an endless number of the rue de Lappe’s concentric social circles.
The sauce’s secret
I did end up spending some time with hairdresser Pierrick, at least long enough to find out what he eats. (You’ll find the recipe for his Bolognaise sauce - or Sauce bolo’ for short - below.) Although Pierrick told me he loves to cook on weekends, he doesn’t have time to stand over his stove stirring an elaborate sauce for hours. But being enamored of the well-developed flavor of those long-cooking sauces means finding an easy way to cheat.
So instead of stirring and cooking for hours, the secret to a good sauce is to let it mature, which is a fancy way of saying that you let it sit in the fridge for a day or two before partaking. Pierrick said he lets his sauce confire, or preserve in its own juices for at least two nights - we all know that a saucy dish tastes better the next day anyway, right?
As the rue de Lappe continues to evolve, I found out that la Chambre à Hair closed down a few years ago. After I changed areas to move (back) to far-eastern Paris, I returned to the rue de Lappe less and less often, and didn’t keep up with the street’s news. So Pierrick, wherever you are, your haircuts are missed, but your spirit lives on in your Sauce bolo’!
Eat carrots, become friendly?
When he gave me this recipe, I remember thinking how fussy it was to have to buy three kinds of meat from the butcher’s. But it’s precisely the different flavors and textures that give this sauce its depth. Right now, fresh tomatoes are delicious, but you can definitely use canned tomatoes if you’re making the Sauce bolo’ in the depths of winter. But with all these late-summer tomatoes, why not make an extra couple of batches of the fresh tomato coulis and freeze them?
To help cut the acidity of a tomato-based sauce, most Parisians I’ve met tend to add one of their tiny white sugarcubes into the sauce. But here, the inherent sweetness in the recipe comes from the carrots. There’s a saying in French about carrots making a person aimable, or friendly. I might just return to the rue de Lappe one of these days and give some carrots to that sourpuss concierge Yvette. Or, I’ll let my memory of Pierrick take over her role: according to toothy-grinned Fernandel’s character Mario in Coiffeur pour Dames, “A hairdresser is one part confidant, one part concierge, and one part confessor.”