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Why it's great for food obsessives:
There are few better ways to understand a culture than by investigating its markets, where commerce and appetites collide, and where all social classes intermingle in one seething mass of scents, tastes, and sounds. And there are few food markets as famous as the historic Les Halles in Paris, which is setting for this classic 19th-century novel by Emile Zola, one of the all-time great food writers in fiction. The tale follows Florent, who becomes a fish inspector at Les Halles after escaping from prison, where he ended up after the French coup of 1851. The novel offers a fascinating look at the French working class and political unrest in the capital, but it's perhaps most notable for its sensory descriptions of the charcutiers, cheesemongers, and other food merchants who create the backdrop for the plot. One fromage
-driven scene is so beautifully wrought, it's become widely known as the "Cheese Symphony" (see below).
Beneath the stall show-table, formed of a slab of red marble veined with grey, baskets of eggs gleamed with a chalky whiteness; while on layers of straw in boxes were Bondons, placed end to end, and Gournays, arranged like medals, forming darker patches tinted with green. But it was upon the table that the cheeses appeared in greatest profusion. Here, by the side of the pound-rolls of butter lying on white-beet leaves, spread a gigantic Cantal cheese, cloven here and there as by an axe; then came a golden-hued Cheshire, and next a Gruyere, resembling a wheel fallen from some barbarian chariot; whilst farther on were some Dutch cheeses, suggesting decapitated heads suffused with dry blood, and having all that hardness of skulls which in France has gained them the name of “death’s heads.” Amidst the heavy exhalations of these, a Parmesan set a spicy aroma. Then there came three Brie cheeses displayed on round platters, and looking like melancholy extinct moons. Two of them, very dry, were at the full; the third, in its second quarter, was melting away in a white cream, which had spread into a pool and flowed over the little wooden barriers with which an attempt had been made to arrest its course….The Roqueforts under their glass covers also had a princely air, their fat faces marbled with blue and yellow, as though they were suffering from some unpleasant malady such as attacks the wealthy gluttons who eat too many truffles. And on a dish by the side of these, the hard grey goats’ milk cheeses, about the size of a child’s fist, resembled the pebbles which the billy-goats send rolling down the stony paths as they clamber along ahead of their flocks. Next came the strong smelling cheeses: the Mont d’Ors, of a bright yellow hue, and exhaling a comparatively mild odor; the Troyes, very thick, and bruised at the edges, and of a far more pungent smell, recalling the dampness of a cellar; the Camemberts, suggestive of high game; the square Neufchatels, Limbourgs, Marolles, and Pont l’Eveques, each adding its own particular sharp scent to the malodorous bouquet, till it became perfectly pestilential; the Livarots, ruddy in hue, and as irritating to the throat as sulphur fumes; and, lastly, stronger than all the others, the Olivets, wrapped in walnut leaves, like the carrion which peasants cover with branches as it lies rotting in the hedgerow under the blazing sun.