PAUL CORCELLET had a small but celebrated grocer's shop in Paris, on the rue des Petits-Champs, between the Palais Royal and the Opera. The shop was crammed with goods: 60 sorts of tea, 15 varieties of honey, 42 of mustard, including a peanut-
flavoured one inspired by President Jimmy Carter.
If you called in at the shop, said Patricia Wells in her 1984 Food Lover's Guide to Paris, you were likely to be served by Corcellet himself, 'robust, rotund and indefatigable'. If you were a new customer, he'd introduce you to his wife, offer you a drink from one of the many exotic bottles he stocked in the shop, and then invite you to sample his latest gastronomic discovery, which, in the Eighties, might have been a new mustard or cocktail.
A decade or two earlier, however, the sample offered might have been chocolate-covered termites, tinned rattlesnake meat, alligator tail or a slice of elephant trunk. For Corcellet was the grocer of novelty. He claimed to have introduced the French to avocados when he opened the shop in 1934 and later, in the Sixties, to kiwi fruit. In 1959 he was among the first to sell frozen food.
Among his first specialities were North African spices and produce. When the shop closed in 1989, he was still selling a huge assortment of exotic syrups and spices, often in miniature packets, useful both for sampling and for picnics and travelling. Both his customers and other grocers thought of him as 'the spice man', and he was even the subject of a 1986 book by Henri Viard, Paul Corcellet or the Spices of Life.
The reason for a grocer's attracting so much attention was not simply that his stock included dishes (he disliked tinned ones) such as smoked boa, monkey in wine sauce, bears' paws and python steak, In fact, in the 1983 edition of the Gault-Millau guide to Paris he was only listed for 'torrefaction', coffee-roasting, which he did every day at the back of the little shop, while the gastronomic laurels were awarded to a shop kept by another branch of the Corcellet family in the 16eme.
Paul Corcellet's celebrity stemmed from the fact that he was a member of a dynasty of caterers-cum-grocers stretching back at least to the time of the French Revolution. An ancestor, Jean-Pierre Corcellet, had a shop in the Palais Royal where, according to family tradition, Josephine de Beauharnais met her Napoleon, when each had come to buy coffee.
No doubt the Corcellet family was involved in selling the livestock of the zoo during the Paris Commune, when food shortages obliged the Communards to eat rats and the bourgeoisie to dine on more exotic fare. It would explain Paul Corcellet's affinity for python and elephant meat. Though it is not much discussed in gastronomic literature, there is, in fact, a French tradition of indulging in exotic foods.
The most important chef in history, Antonin Careme (1784-1833), was taught by the grocer-entrepreneur Germain Chevet. Chevet had supplied flowers to the queen, but he also kept a shop. Alexandre Dumas pere, the great gastronome, wrote an article on 'bear steak' that was received with 'a universal outcry against the audacious narrator who dared to say that there were places in civilised Europe where bear is eaten'. Instead of condemning him, said Dumas, the protesters ought to have taken themselves off to Chevet's shop, and asked if there was such a thing as bear ham. Chevet 'would have enquired without a trace of surprise', wrote Dumas, whether the customer required 'a Canadian leg, or one from Transylvania'.
It was this non-mainstream tradition of French alimentation that Paul Corcellet maintained when he was photographed cutting up a python and offered a cocktail stick containing a cube of elephant trunk to casual callers at his shop.
His daughter Celine carries on the family tradition, after a fashion, at her shop in the Var, at Tamaris-sur-Mer. Her stock, however, is restricted to condiments.
(Photograph omitted)Reuse content