QUICK TAKES | The Last True Neighborhood Market in Paris
Swing through the Marché d'Aligre on a gray weekend morning.
February 23, 2018 ● 3 min read
By Olivia Ware Terenzio | Photo via iStock
To reach the Marché d’Aligre, head east from the center of Paris, almost to the city’s edge. You’ll know you’re close when you hear the hubbub of vendors trumpeting their avocado prices from the sidewalk.
Fruit and vegetable stalls and booths selling antiques line both sides of the Rue d’Aligre, the aisle between them in constant motion, forbidding stillness. A man steering a palette stacked with thick wheels of cheese parts the crowd; Shoppers dragging produce-stuffed canvas bags on wheels swerve around him. The street clogs as people stop to inspect ingredients.
Behind the outdoor stalls on Rue d’Aligre is the Beauvau market, which is indoors and dedicated to food. Smoked haddock shines rosy through the glass case of a poissonnerie, beside stacks of scallops still in their shells. A charcutier displays duck and foie gras terrines, and livers of rabbits stretched out on their backs. Conversation hums: shop talk between employees and counsel from vendor to customer, accompanied by the jingle of coins exchanging hands.
The Aligre market has long been the nucleus of this neighborhood – even before the neighborhood was part of Paris. In the 15th century, the region became a hub for woodworkers, and bakers, butchers, and gardeners traveled here from surrounding villages to sell products. Second-hand goods became commonplace, especially furniture and clothes that sold at a low cost to the needy.
When the French revolution unfolded in the nearby Bastille prison, the neighborhood remained densely populated with people from the working class and it soon gained a sticky reputation for rebellion. Many 19th-century residents were North African immigrants, some whose grandchildren and great-grandchildren still sell at Aligre today.
Even now, the market is synonymous with populism, and famed for rock-bottom prices. Despite recent decades of gentrification in the neighborhood, the market remains one of the cheapest, busiest, and most colorful in Paris. Pears and apples come from France: Comice, Pink Crisp, Reine des Reinette. So too do the potatoes the size of your thumbnail. Tropical fruits from afar hang from awnings. There are Italian tomatoes, Florida-grown grapefruits, and dates from Algeria, still on the palm.
A man peels an orange to offer as a sample. Citrus rinds and flower stems litter the pavement and perfume the air. Vendors yell over each other. One repeats “Miam-miam!” (“Yum-yum!”) every few minutes, and others holler out promotions on their lettuces. Another proffers bunches of asparagus to passers-by with a brisk little shake. As the hours pass, their voices escalate. Weekends hold special urgency: the market is closed on Mondays, so everything must go.
Shopping, especially for ingredients, is a sacred ritual for the French: as they pass each stall, they absorb the community’s energy, allowing it to swirl and coalesce as they sip coffee at a local café. But plenty still come to feed their families, too, and Aligre hasn’t forgotten about them.
A block from the market, an apron-clad woman arranges boxes of oysters outside the Baron Rouge, a habitual stop for market-goers, thanks to three-euro wines by the glass and an easygoing crew behind the bar. Her thick wooden cutting board and shucker are ready to go; the Baron’s doors open at 10 a.m., just when the market begins to swell.
Like the market, the bar hosts a mix of people on a gray Saturday. Many are regulars who banter with the staff, but there are English-speaking tourists and French hipsters, too. Three elderly men in raincoats post up around a wine barrel table, while a woman wearing a fur hat washes down a dozen oysters with a bottle of white.
Olivier, a bartender at the Baron Rouge, has lived in this neighborhood all his life. His reflections on its evolution are bittersweet, wrestling pride with worry over gentrification. He remembers when the chic Table d’Aligre restaurant up the street was a one-man escargot shop. Today, this neighborhood means different things to different people—but the market is still its soul.
Outside, an old man in a fur coat asks pedestrians for change. Women cozy up at bistro tables under the Chez Charlette heaters, drinking coffee and smoking as they eye the shoppers. Servers drop off tickets, pausing to linger outside.
In the distance, beyond the produce stalls, lies the section of the market reserved for selling books, shower curtains, iPhone cases, and vintage coats. The tradition of second-hand trade still thrives at Aligre: wooden chairs are wrapped in plastic, relics of that storied furniture industry from centuries past. Shoppers pick through bras, neckties, and sweaters strewn sloppily across folding tables and study their reflections in a mirror tacked to a tree.
Young men perch on a bench, where they jab and tease in spirited slang, but mostly they watch. This is part of the ritual, too: observing the spectacle of the everyday.