Carrefour, Which Means Crossroads; The Covered Market; An Intersection of Geography, Geology, And Cheese
By now you may know that I have a mania for maps. I think that maps are one of humankind's best inventions. It's such a strange concept, really: this idea of a bird's-eye view as being useful for human beings, although, unlike birds, we do not fly. And yet there's no better tool for understanding places.
There are about a thousand different ways you can use a map to build up your ideas about the world. For example, one afternoon in late August, I was riding a local train through the green and gold summer rain on my way to visit a friend on a farm. The train was bound for Calais, but I was only going as far as Hazebrouck. As I sat gnawing an apple and looking out the window, I overhead a couple behind me, older and better-groomed than I ever am, talking together in English. "This map is the best we could have," said the man, rustling it out over their knees, "because it shows you all the places that are important to see in France." I thought, What a useful map that must be! I eavesdropped shamelessly as the couple planned out their visits to Mont-Saint-Michel, Versailles, the Loire Valley, the Côte d'Azur—all kinds of wonderful and pricey places that I have not yet been able to visit—and kept thinking about how nice it would be always to have a map that shows you what is important.
Another example: in my miniature Atlas Gisserot de France, on Page Six—right after the departmental divisions and before the overseas territories—there is a map, called "Géologie et Risques Naturels," showing you what kind of rock underlies every different region of France and how dangerous it is to live on top of it. From this I learned that my apartment building in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais is built on tertiary Eocene or secondary Cretaceous stone deposits; that the topsoil in this region is composed of loess, a fine, yellowish-brown loam usually deposited by the wind; and also that you are at risk from floods if you live in Marseille, but forest fires in Corsica. I like this map very much. The five kinds of natural risks it shows are floods, avalanches, earthquakes (big and little), and forest fires; as you might expect, mostly people who live along riverways seem to be at risk of floods, and people who live in the mountains risk avalanches. But it does turn out that one tiny corner of the country—between Provence and the Alps—is subject to avalanches, forest fires, earthquakes, and floods, which makes me wonder if this part of the map was included to make everyone who doesn't get to live between Provence and the Alps feel better about their lives.
Here's something else about maps, something which translates, obliquely, to food. In Lille, sometimes on a grey evening I would find myself in the Carrefour. This is not as romantic as it may sound. The word "carrefour" means crossroads in French, which conjures images of misty meeting points or grim stone circles, but Carrefour is actually a chain of supermarkets—or, to be accurate, of stores so big they are referred to, not as supermarchés, but as hypermarchés: "hyper-markets." The Carrefour in Lille anchors the Euralille shopping center, which stands between the city's two train stations in a giant blue-and-black glass complex that is meant to signal Lille's urban revival, but, viewed from the right angle, in fact resembles a beached cruise ship from outer space. The Carrefour occupies the entire western end of the mall, with groceries sold on the ground floor and household goods upstairs, and huge inclined moving walkways that carry shoppers between the floors with their carts. To cover ground more efficiently, store assistants zip around on Rollerblades.
At 8:15 PM on any weeknight, the Carrefour is jammed with people shopping for groceries. This is not only because it has a huge selection, and because the French tend to eat dinner later than Americans do, but is also because it is almost the only game in town: all the other Euralille shops close at 8:00, but the Carrefour stays open until 10:00. In order to buy anything practical in Lille much after 8:00 PM, and certainly after 9:00 PM, when the other grandes surfaces in town close, you would have to drive out into the shopping complexes in the suburbs, and you might not have luck even then. So the aisles of Carrefour are crowded with all kinds of people, shopping for all kinds of things: harried businesspeople who just left work, working-class families who don't have cars and couldn't reach the suburbs if they wanted to, night owls, mothers with children who have been kept busy all day, people who suddenly realized they needed a light bulb and couldn't wait for tomorrow, university students picking up late-night supplies to lubricate a long nuit blanche of essay-writing. The linoleum floor is shiny as polished clay, and the fluorescents flood everything in light, so you can clearly see the bright labels of the goods stacked on the shelves. You can also see the worn-down evening faces of the shoppers as they approach you down the aisle. The fluorescents make bags beneath the eyes of a sleekly groomed bourgeois woman, buying salad greens and ham and crème fraîche; they put a halo in the blond dreadlocks of a college student, loaded down with a an industrial-size sack of croissants, a bottle of wine, and a frozen goat-cheese pizza; they shine off the tartan-sided pushcart of an elderly lady standing in high-heeled black shoes thumping the melons; they illuminate the incurious stare, from its wagon seat, of a cocoa-colored baby.
Here, I believe, we are most definitely in the heart of urban civilization. The people in the aisles are city people. Only life in a city can put that particular weight of tiredness into a businesswoman's eyes or that flavor of insouciance into a student's late-evening stride. After all, France has been urbanizing for more than a thousand years, which is part of its curiously textured and paradoxical cultural history. This is a country that retains deep agricultural roots, where the national iconic repertory still includes—for the native as well as the foreigner—images of rolling green fields, pastures and healthy herds, hills and high mountains, the tiny village of cobbled streets, and the church's clock steeple ringing out the hours. But, for all that, possibly even more important in the iconic repertoire are the rose window and cathedral, city and stock market, meeting square and university and ancient burghers' hall. The town of Lille is built of brick that has been there for a thousand years, ever since Lydéric established a settlement by the banks of the Deûle. I say all of this to underline the fact that these are all city people, shopping in a city market on this average French evening. Even if, somewhere in the popular imagination, the sun on the green fields and the village steeple still rolls on its slow rounds.
There's something I find fascinating, this evening, about the way these people shop. There are a thousand major and minor differences between supermarkets in France and those in the United States, and you could write a good-sized essay on any one of them; but it is not just any one of them that interests me today. It's not the fact of the goat-cheese pizza, or of the industrial-bagged croissants, although to be honest I can't always help snickering behind my wrist. Nor is it the way the wines-and-liquors aisle stretches into the invisible distance; nor the way that coffee and chocolate are always presented together, as if in an obvious synergy; nor is it the almost complete absence of plastic-wrapped bread. Nor is it even the fact that the U.S.-standard dairy aisle has grown threefold—because in France, you need one for the milk and butter, one for yogurts and desserts, and one, of course, for the cheese.
No, what I'm interested in tonight is the aisle labeled Specialités des régions, or "Regional Specialities." The products in this aisle carry labels that look hand-drawn on yellowed paper, though they really aren't, and carry brand names like "Nos regions ont du talent" (Our Regions Have Talent), or, better still, "Produits de Terroir" (Territorial Products). The word terroir is difficult to translate. It can be rendered as "territory," or as "terrain," but it has connotations that no single English word can express. It means a piece of land or a region, but suggests something more concrete than a border drawn on a map: it also implies the texture of soil underfoot, the trees in the distance, the smell of the wind. Furthermore, terroir also suggests the people who live in the land—the sound of old men speaking regional patois, or the particular flavor of dishes cooked with butter from the cows that graze in the local fields. It strikes me as peculiarly French, although the French might say, on the contrary, that it is American language and culture that is bizarre, because it lacks such a word.
The kind of products you find here, or in fact, scattered throughout the store, constitute in their way a voyage through the six corners of France. I imagine you could, for instance, put together a respectable meal from the following:
1. Beurre d'Isigny de baratte, A.O.C. (Churned butter from Isigny-sur-Mer, a region full of small towns on the northern coast of Normandy. Everyone knows that the best butter comes from Normandy, whose cool, rainy climate is considered excellent for cows and apples. As the packaging explains, the butter of Isigny has been famous since the seventeenth century, when "its buttercup-yellow color was vaunted by edict." It reportedly possesses a mild hazelnut flavor, and you are counseled to spread it on toast or meat. Sold at 1,35 per slab, which is 8,86 francs, or 5,40 per kilo.)
2. Tapenade de Provence. (Tapenade from Provence, in southeastern France. This untranslatable delicacy involves black olives, anchovies, capers, lemon, olive oil, and herbs—also, depending on who you ask, possibly cognac. As the ingredient list suggests, it is about as Mediterranean as anything the world has ever seen. Sold at 1,21 per jar, which is 7,94 francs, or 13,44 per kilo.)
3. Lentilles vertes du Puy, A.O.C. (Green lentils from the Puy area, which lies along and atop the Massif Central mountain range in south central France. An Appellation d'origine controllée assures the buyer that the lentils come from Puy and nowhere else. They are, after all, the best lentils in France, and indeed the package assures us that "at each harvest, the community of Puy-en-Velay holds a feast in celebration of 'La Lentille Nouvelle,' the 'New Lentil.'" 1,99 or 13,05 francs per box, or 3,98 /kilo.)
4. Gésiers confits de canard I.G.P. du Sud-Ouest. (Confit of duck gizzard. A delicacy not be missed. It is certified by an indication géographique protégée as having been produced in the French Southwest, between the Atlantic and the Pyrenees, probably somewhere between Bordeaux with its vineyards and Toulouse, "the city of pink stone.")
5. Riz long blanc de Camargue, C.Q.C. (Long-grain white rice from the Camargue, the marshy wetlands that lie on the Mediterranean coast between Marseille and Montpellier. According to the packaging, "rice came to Provence from Asia in the thirteenth century, but production burgeoned with technological advancements in the 1940s." The Camargue, which conjures images of a sort of French Wild West with its black bulls, marshland cowboys, flamingoes, and wild white horses, is apparently also great for raising rice due to its "permanent water cover, constant temperature, sunlight and winter Mistral wind, which prevent pathogens from growing in the rice fields." The C.Q.C. certification (Critères Qualifiés Certifiés, or Certified Quality Criteria) assures buyers that the rice really comes from the Camargue, and not from somewhere else, where, presumably, it might have picked up pathogens.)
6. Palets bretons recette de Pont-Aven pur beurre. (Pure-butter Palets Bretons (that is, a sort of flat cookie) from Pont-Aven, Brittany. I had never before heard of the town of Pont-Aven (pop. 2,960), which lies on the southern coast of the Brittany peninsula—reputed for Celtic music, windswept cliffs, and shivery weather—that juts out into the Atlantic. However, I am assured by the cookies' package that Pont-Aven "is renowned for at as well as for cuisine," and that its palets are made with "simple and noble ingredients" that will "please gourmands, as well as amateurs, of the cookie.")
I am fascinated by these foods—by the ambience, geographic and exotic, that their packaging evokes. I am also fascinated by how often the packages have little maps on them. They are usually maps of France, with a little colored spot or a whole region highlighted to show where the product comes from. If you took a bagful of these foods together, you would have a jigsaw map of France: the whole country, regions and climates and all, all represented through canned or boxed food. It's like a little wind from the fields blowing through the Carrefour. And thinking about that, when I look at those smartly dressed, tired, extremely urban people rolling their carts of food under the fluorescent lights, I can't do otherwise than ask myself whether I maybe am actually standing in a crossroads: all these city shoppers, of many ethnicities and numerous professions, swinging in their plastic baskets or shoving before them in their carts these little chunks of Provence and Brittany and the mountains, delicious metonymic fragments of France.
The map that has been most on my mind in recent weeks also has to do with food, but I did not get it at the Carrefour. It came into my possession quite otherwise, free and coincidental, and it is not, I think, sanctioned by any cartographers' union. I got it in a roundabout way, the way people in stories get magic bottles or leather-bound grimoires, and this is how it happened:
One overcast grey morning last winter, I went to the Marché Couvert de Wazemmes. You reach it by following rue Gambetta down toward its southern end until you see the reddish-grey brick spire of St-Pierre-St-Paul spike up on your left and, if you're on the street, the tarmac turns into cobblestones under your bicycle's wheels. These stones mark the limits of the outdoor marketplace, which is crowded with shouting vendors' stalls and jostling shoppers on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. It's even better on Sundays, when half the city's population turns up along with its children to buy vegetables and fresh flowers, fruit and nuts in bulk, cut-rate clothing, electronics of dubious provenance, personal-hygiene products labeled in mysterious Eastern languages, and all the other things that make open markets in Europe so great: candy bars and bulk spices and sacks of Moroccan pastries and whole rotisserie chickens and enough fresh-brine olives to last out the week. But if you look over the heads of the crowd toward the steeple of the church and, keeping it in view, manage to shoulder your way into the square's center, you will reach the big old glass-and-iron structure where vendors mind permanent stalls and counters all through the week. This is the Marché Couvert, which means the Covered Market, of Wazemmes.
The Covered Market is a good place to go if you are drawn by the noisy challenge of the market, but are timid about not having mastered the arts of shopping—if you don't really know what kind of cheese you want, for instance, or even how to say "leek." Inside the Covered Market things are quieter, and because there's more space between the stalls you don't have to constantly keep your hand inside your pocket to make sure nothing disappears. And sometimes, though not always, you will come across a friendly old person behind the counter who has no other customers to attend to and will be happy to pass the time of day with you, explaining the names and provenance of his wares or warning you to keep a close eye on your wheeled caddy to protect against the roaming bands of caddy-thieves.
On this winter day, I found myself before the long glass counter of "La Cave Aux Fromages." (This can be translated as something like "The Cheese Basement." One should remember, however, that a basement—or a cellar—is a positive thing in France; cheese-makers keep their cheese, like wine, in the cellar to age.)
Because the Marché de Wazemmes still frightened me, I had established the habit of buying my cheese at the supermarket. However, over the year and a half I had been in France, a change had been overtaking me; my cheese habits were altering. I could feel it as it happened. During the whole first year, I had handled the issue of cheese by buying Mimolette from the discount supermarket, to keep things simple and also cheap. When "young," or unaged, Mimolette is a medium-hard cheese, friendly and orange, produced here in the North and across the borders in Holland and Belgium. Its color and its salty sharpish flavor reminded me of the orange cheddar eaten in New England. I bought it in pre-sliced packages and melted it on toast.
And then one day, when I was eating in the company of friends, someone said, "Have you tried Mimolette Vieille?" He offered me the cheese, which was clearly something different from what I was used to: harder, denser, and more intensely orange. When I put it in my mouth I realized that the pre-sliced cheese I had been eating up until that moment was, quite simply, nothing—flabby, tasteless, a mere echo of what cheese could be.
That was the start of my slide into cheese fussiness. I still shopped at the discount supermarket, being poor, but as time went by I developed a long list of foodstuffs for which I had to make a special trip to the more upscale brand-name supermarket: locally made cloudy apple juice, cream-rich yogurt, mint-infused Swiss dark chocolate bars—the kind of thing of which you can console yourself for the expense by thinking, as I did, about how much more fulfilling it is to consume a little of the good stuff than to eat loads of the crap.
And now I added cheese to the list. It was a slippery slope: I started out buying "young" Mimolette, Mimolette Jeune, which was what my cut-rate slices had been made from, then shifted to Demi-Vieille or Half-Aged cheese and then, finally, caved to Mimolette Vieille, the real thing. Mimolette Vieille! That's an adventure. Aged Mimolette has a wholly different texture from the young stuff; it's so much harder that you have to saw at it with a knife instead of cutting it smoothly, like butter. It has stripes and layers, like wood, or like shale. It's best eaten in little chunks —fragments that you can scatter in your soup or, if you're like the French, buy in transparent containers marked "Fromage—Pour Cock-Tail," or, if you're like me, scatter it over chili just like you would Monterey jack or cheddar because you're an unquenchable American. (In southern France on a tourist trip this past August, I found such a plastic box of cocktail-sized fragments in a Monoprix supermarket. I spent days carting it about Arles and Avignon in ninety-eight-degree heat—because, like stone, Mimolette Vieille is unmeltable—nibbling it in sweating train seats and thinking longingly of the North. It reminds me, in a curious way, of the great black wax-coated wheels of Vermont cheddar that my family and classmates used to order through catalogues every winter around Christmas, and consume, with great ceremony, when the holidays came, even though, being Jewish, I often had a vague feeling that maybe this had some sort of ritual meaning I shouldn't think too much about.)
At any rate, on this grey winter morning in Lille, with the grey clouds and drizzle hitting the grey stones outside and the red-grey spire of St Peter's And Saint Paul's, it felt good to be inside the warm, well-lighted Covered Market. And it felt good to look at the rows and rows of cheese wheels and slices, orange and yellow and white, like bells or little suns. The fromager, the cheese-seller who stood behind the counter, was a big man with a mustache and a beret; the sort of person who seems impossibly quaint and local when you first see him, with the large reddish walrus mustache that some men of Flanders still like to wear, and wearing an actual beret and a cheesemonger's apron to boot. But eventually you get used to it.
On this morning I said to the man behind the counter: "Do you have any Vieux Gouda?" Vieux Gouda is a version of the popular Gouda cheese produced in the Netherlands, not far away. But whereas ordinary young Gouda, Gouda Jeune, comes in big yellow balls that look just like the sort of thing you imagine being sold in Amsterdam's cheese markets, wholesome and friendly like wooden clogs or flowers or some healthy beaming Dutch girl in braids about to plow you over on a bicycle, Vieux Gouda is an entirely different game. Vieux Gouda, at least as it is sold at the Covered Market of Lille, comes in boules the size of paving stones. Like old Mimolette, old Gouda does not cut like butter. This is because Vieux Gouda is not only the size of a paving stone, but approximately the same texture. The fromager cannot stand over it with his huge knife and slice it, mustache twitching as he presses down, as he might with a softer cheese; instead he or his baby-skinned yellow-haired wife must carry it over to the cheese-slicer and put it under the cutting wire. Even the wire goes down slowly through Vieux Gouda.
Vieux Gouda is usually aged for about ten to eighteen months, but something about it feels as old as the hills. If you look at a boule of it that's half cut open, you'll see the edges of the sliced-out chunk as neat as the edge of a polished stone, and its dark orange interior, like the flesh of a fruit, in stark contrast with the grey rind. When the fromager has cut off a thin slice of it and given it to you to bring home—because Vieux Gouda, at fifteen euros per kilo, is something that on a teacher's salary one eats only in thin slices—holding it up to the light will reveal nuances of orange and yellow, tones and shadows that crisscross in wide and narrow lattices. There are also petrified crystals scattered throughout, translucent like nacre and salty when you bite into them. The play of color and light, curious, complex, and so obviously the result of natural process, reminds me slightly of the fish in a carp pond I saw once, as their gold and brass backs moved slowly through the complex shadow patterns formed by water and indirect light. But what Vieux Gouda really evokes, to my mind, is stone. There's something about the way layers form under pressure through time, the way you find, when you slice through the shell, that there are crystals shining in the depths. In my parents' house there are agate slices that reveal similar patterns when you hold them up to light. The only difference, really, is that the agate is blue and green, and the Gouda is brown and gold. But nature makes other gold things as well, both under and above ground; one has only to think about the carp.
It has occurred to me, now and again, that some people might find it silly to be coming up with comparisons of such profundity while contemplating what is, after all, only cheese. This hesitation never came to me in France, however. This may be part of the point about cheese in France: in that part of the world, and that cultural universe, you give it as much respect as you do other natural forces or constructs shaped by time, like agricultural patterns, or the history of the monarchy, or a map of natural catastrophes.
[To Be Continued in Part 2.]