Then you navigate a warren of outdoor stalls with the feel of a North African souk. Here, vendors hawk the stuff of everyday life: bolts of cheap fabric, mountains of socks and underwear, clay cooking pots, shag rugs, men’s pajamas, Islamically correct head scarves, motor oil and mousetraps.
And then a 19th-century structure of metal and glass looms large in front of you. It houses a food market like no other.
Inside is a microcosm of French history and its successive waves of immigration. Parisian-born Frenchmen with tattoos on their arms mix with ethnic Portuguese and Italians whose families immigrated to France a century ago. French-Arab merchants who hold French identity cards in their pockets and Arabness in their voices serve shoppers from Cameroon and the Antilles islands who have moved to France.
Here the merchants and the customers (no matter what their religion, age, skin color or country of origin) seem to have two common goals: buying and selling food products and anticipating the pleasure that comes with cooking and eating a Sunday afternoon meal.
The majority of shoppers are women. They fall into three general categories: working-class Frenchwomen in jeans who look as if they remain attached to the town’s roots as a leftist industrial center; women from France’s former colonies in sub-Saharan Africa, dressed in bright print confections and matching headdresses, who carry their babies on their backs; and French-Arab women, some in head scarves, some not.
The merchandise appeals to the various constituencies. One Sunday I brought along Alain François, the owner of the nearby Coq de la Maison Blanche restaurant. He had never visited the market and was immediately drawn to a smiling pig’s head with upturned ears at a pork stall.
“Ahhhh, that’s a beautiful head,” Mr. François purred. We watched in wonderment as a female vendor lifted up long, white, slimy strings (pig’s intestines) that would be used as casings for West Indian blood sausages.
Then Mr. Francois identified for me the liver, heart, tongue, stomach, lungs and kidneys, lined up in neat rows. “This is like the old days, when every part of the animal would be eaten,” he said. “Nothing is left to waste.”
A few stalls away, three Algerian-born women were making savory galettes stuffed with vegetables and beef, a meal for 2.50 euros (about $3.15).
Then the fish! You won’t find much upscale central-Paris fish like tuna steaks or turbot here. But the giant octopuses, the fat carp, the mountains of eels are cheap. There is a fish called Atlantic vieille with such bizarre bright orange squiggles and spots that when our friend Valerie Sherman was visiting from New York, she photographed it.
Greengrocers offer root vegetables the size of melons with names like dasheen and igname. One grocer gave me a bunch of fresh green-gray leaves I didn’t recognize. He told me to smell. Licorice. The leaves turned out to be absinthe, used in Moroccan stuffings and stews and added to mint tea.
But more important than culinary discovery is price: 15 euros will buy 3 small guinea hens; 10 euros, 4 rabbits; 6 euros, 2 kilos (almost 4 1/2 pounds) of chopped chicken gizzards. During asparagus season, white asparagus were selling at St.-Denis for 10 euros a kilogram, compared with 32 euros in central Paris. (O.K., the asparagus here weren’t “calibrées” — matched according to size the way they would be on the Boulevard Raspail.)
The article notes that many merchants slash prices as closing time (1.30pm) approaches.
Letter from Paris
Place du marché Saint-Denis
Metro : Line 13 - Basilique de Saint-Denis