In Paris, cost is a trifle when it's a matter of truffles

At 5 o'clock in the morning the narrow streets of the Second Arrondissement of Paris are deserted. An occasional dark figure scuttles by in the shadows, disturbing only the crumpled bits of paper scattered in the gutter.

Suddenly, the quartierm comes alive like a magical play. Brilliant yellow headlights from dozens of small trucks parked at odd angles along the Rue Montmartre and white shafts of light from the Singe Pelerin (the pilgrim monkey) bistro bathe the street in and eerie glow. Blue-smocked men scurry back and forth with sides of beef, veal, pork, and venison on their bakcs like a colony of giant ants. Other workers in black rubber boots uncrate flounder, cod, trout , and squid from white polystyrene boxes. And on down the street, ducks, pheasants, rabbit, wild boar, beaver, and great strings of sausages hang in open storefronts.

This one-block stretch of the Rue Montmartre and fewer than a dozen other street markets throughout the city are all that remain of Les Halles, the huge covered marketplace (described by Emile Zola as "the stomach of Paris") that was relocated in suburban Rungis 11 years ago.

Now, while most Parisians sleep, an army of small trucks filters into the city each morning delivering foods from all over the world to the Paris street markets and larger supermarkets.

France is affected like every other Western nation by recession and inflation. But the quality, variety, and qunatity of fresh food available in Paris request suggest that the French have found other ways to deal with the high cost of living than by cutting down on food.

"It's tradition here," says one man buying cheese in the Rue de Levis market.

"In the United States you economize on food as well as other things. In France we maybe travel less, buy fewer clothes, or decide not to buy a new car. But we must eat and eat well."

"People buy what they want," says a fishmonger in a long white apron. "Business is always very good." He pointed to the array of fish displayed on beds of ice on his cart. Mussels from Spain, scallops, oysters, sea urchins, snails, and four different sizes of bright pink and red shrimp from Senegal and Norway. The tentacles of a Tunisian octopus lay curled in a box to one side.

The fish merchant pauses for a moment to sell shrimp to a young woman. When he tells her the price for a kilo, she hesitates and then asks for half a kilo. "You see," he says as she leaves, "some change their habits, but I have many other customers who keep buying the same things. The crisis doesn't touch them at all."

Indeed, for those who can afford it, Paris offers an astounding assortment of food -- above and beyond the colorful, but by comparison mundane, street market.

In the Place de la Madeleine a small shop specializes in truffles. Fresh, preserved, peelings, or pieces, the black delicacies sell for about $1 per gram. And neatly arranged in straw baskets around the shop are what appear to be the same items found in the street market.

But they "most certainly are not," the proprietor says. "In the middle of January you cannot find this lettuce anywhere else." He points to a basket of curly green leaves with a sign indicating 52 francs per kilo (about $5.37 per pound).

Proudly displayed near the window are Chilean plums and nectarines, Israeli strawberries, South African apricots, Brazilian limes, dried Ecuadorian bananas, and Senegalese string beans.

"My customers know where to come, it's that simple. They are willing to pay for something special," the proprietor adds. "It's like gasoline -- whether it's 2 or 4 francs a liter, it's all the same when people need it."

Across the square of one of the most fashionable food stores of Paris, shoppers dressed in furs browse through an assortment of exotic fruit. Others line up to place orders for smoked salmon, wild boar terrine, crayfish, or tiny quails wrapped in bacon. Window-shoppers pause along the sidewalk with awed expressions like children looking into a candy shop.

"That's ridiculous," one woman mutters, pointing to jar of caviar at $372 per pound. "At Christmas they have to get police to keep the lines from disrupting traffic," another woman remarks.

A white-capped and -coated policeman directing traffic around the square is reflected in the store window. A flock of pigeons flies up into the gay sky with a great flapping of wings. A amn stares at the exotica on display in the window and sighs, "I just look. There are rich and poor. Maybe someday it will all stabilize. But alas, this is Paris."

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