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Paris and its Province  |  Part I: Feeding the City

Skip to: Intro.  |  Part II  |  Part III  |  Bibliography

by Anne-Caroline Sieffert

PhD Candidate, French Studies, Brown University (2013)


Paris seems to have an insatiable appetite.
— Ernest Alfred Vizetelly


In Emile Zola’s novels, Paris is often represented as a stomach ready to swallow its protagonists. In The Fat and the Thin, Zola describes the farmers driving to the Halles, the central market and backdrop of his novel, in this manner:

At the Neuilly bridge, a cart full of cabbages and another full of peas had joined the eight wagons of carrots and turnips coming down from Nanterre; and the horses, left to themselves, had continued plodding along with lowered heads, at a regular though lazy pace, which the ascent of the slope now slackened.

In the opening chapter of the novel, Zola depicts the farmers riding to the market from the surrounding rural areas of Nanterre and Neuilly. One of the farmers, Mme François, picks up a strange passenger at the bridge, who has nearly perished from hunger. While he rests in the back of the carriage, amongst carrots, she explains to him how every morning she and others bring produce harvested that day and the day before to Paris’ markets.

La Rue Rambuteau le matin
Le paysan des environs de Paris in Les Français peints par eux-mêmes. Paris : Curmer, 1840-1842.

La Rue Rambuteau le matin
La rue Rambuteau le matin in Vitu, Charles. Paris. Quantin: 1890.

The most extensive of those markets was the Halles, built in order to solve definitely one of Paris numerous and serious public health issues: rampant famine. Bringing food supplies to Paris in a sufficient quantity was vital for the city. Efforts to maintain a wholesale market directed the flow of suburban deliveries first to the Place de Grèves, its traditional spot. Two Préfets of the city, Chabrol and Rambuteau, then commissioned studies that the infamous urban planner Haussmann later used to build a new farmers’ market, the Halles, in 1853. Along with the building of the new pavilions, designed by architect Victor Baltard, new roads were designed throughout the city, making the trip easier for suburban farmers.

Les paysans de la Beauce en route vers Paris
Farmers from Beauce going to Paris in the morning in Les Français peints par eux-mêmes. Paris: Curmer, 1840-1842.

Farmers sold their good to wholesalers, who would then sell them as retail throughout the city. But even the establishment of the Halles did not entirely solve the problem of supplying food to Paris. Food traffic was slow, primarily due to irregular and slow modes of transportation, such as horse-drawn carriages and shipment via canals. As the city was growing, so was its impact on the countryside as it drained more and more resources from further and further away. Increasingly, authorities were confronted with the issue of ensuring a fast and reliable food supply to the city. One of the solutions formulated was to build a comprehensive railway system to direct the flow of food supplies. This permitted the extension of new cultures to new regions. Rural economy started to take off in some regions, while it deteriorated in other places. If Paris was dependent upon them to eat, these regions were also dependent upon the city to buy their products. Any economic problems the capital experienced were immediately felt in the surrounding areas. In addition, some regions began experiencing drastic changes, largely derived from dining tastes in Paris. Champagne, for instance, rose to its prestigious status, building the wealth of its region, while Auvergne largely stayed devoid of any industries, feeding Paris beef and wheat.

By 1869, just 37 years after the first railway was installed in France, the network extended 17, 000 kilometers, catching up with the industrial-sized rail system in Britain. By 1914, France had the densest railway network in Europe. All of the new lines were designed with Paris at their center, making it nearly impossible for regions to sell their products anywhere other than the capital. A farmer in Auvergne, for instance, was only 140-some kilometers from Lyon, and 430-some from Paris. Nonetheless, it was easier for him to sell produce in Paris, taking it to the capital using the train, than it was to go to Lyon by horse-drawn carriage. The provinces’ main customers, therefore, was Paris.

Unsurprisingly, it increased the position of attraction of the City and its draining power. The absence of transversal lines linking provincial cities rendered traffic difficult and cumbersome in the Province. In the example above, a farmer would have to take the train up to Paris and then down again to Lyon to make it safely there with a relatively fresh produce. Since waterways had been organized in much the same fashion, regions were structurally dependent upon the city. An example of this economic dependency is showcased in the clothing industry. Trends in Paris could make or break entire industries: such was the “indienne” in Mulhouse. Very popular toward the end of the 18th century in court, the indienne, a type of colorful cotton-printed fabric imitating a style from India, progressively disappeared over the course of the following century. Despite an attempt to move manufacturing closer to Paris, and the creation of a massive marketing department, the fabric went out of fashion by the late 1850s in Paris, and the entire mill was progressively phased out. Another example of these trends can be seen in popular culture, through the movie Brazza, ou l’épopée du Congo, a 1939 movie. In it, the hero, Brazza, is seen coming back to Paris where his travels have inspired a frenzy of pineapple-based desserts: as time went by, the tastes of Paris would shape the future of more and more people in France and the future colonies.