The Secret Slang of Paris’ Butchers

One of my favourite things about writing historical fiction is the research. To me, it’s like detective work: inevitably, I end up taking deep dives into a particular subject. (I just spent two days reading about the changing judicial system and socio-economic make-up of the Paris police force at the start of the Second Empire and will probably end up writing “he was a policeman”). Research is an essential part of the writing process for me, not least because I often get my best ideas for plot and character (not to mention future novels) while researching.

This month I ended up taking a fascinating detour into argot – French slang – and particularly types of vernacular native to Paris. And so I discovered louchébem; the secret slang of Paris butchers.

Louchébem is just one form of the many types of argot that have existed in Paris; it is a variant form of a slang called largonji, and similar to javanais and verlan, in which individual words are disguised by using a set of rules. For example, in javanais, [av] is inserted after every consonant followed by a vowel: “bonjour” thus becomes “bavonjavour”. Louchébem substutites [l] for the consonant at the start of the word: the original consonant is them re-attached at the end of the word, followed by an em/ème suffix. “Boucher” (butcher) thus becomes “louchébem”.


Les Halles centrales de Paris, construites sous le règne de Napoléon III. 1862, Baltard, Callet

In Les Misérables (1862) Victor Hugo called argot “the language of the dark” and “the language of misery”, and like all slang, louchébem had its ties to the underworld. Originating some-time during the mid-nineteeth century, some sources claim that louchébem was invented by inmates at Brest prison, though it was mostly spoken in the stalls, alleyways, bars and cafes around Les Halles: the enormous food market that was the setting for Émile Zola’s 1873 novel Le Ventre de Paris “The Belly of Paris”.

Les Halles itself was a liminal place, by turns seedy, glamorous, luxurious and cutthroat, where societal lines were necessarily blurred; among the plenty was great poverty, and prostitution thrived in the surrounding streets. It was in this tight-knit world of commerce in all its forms that louchébem thrived. A cross between a type of cant and jargon, designed to be unintelligible to outsiders while using the specialised vocabulary of a profession, it was spoken almost exclusively by the city’s butchers, but due to close proximity, many of the other vendors and workers understood it well. For example, the “larçonguesse” (garçons) in the “listrobems” (bistrots) that surrounded Les Halles were known to speak louchébem to the butchers who came in after their shifts, carrying their “lobékesse” (gobbets) of meat for the chefs to cook.

Postcard showing Les Halles, 1900.

Louchébem was spoken among the butchers and vendors of Les Halles until the 1950s, and was used by members of the Parisian Resistance during the Nazi Occupation. Apparently, although not as widely known these days, it is still spoken by some workers in the meat industry. Some of the words have even crossed into common use in French, for example the word “loufoque” (“crazy”).

Anyway, here’s a short glossary of louchébem, to get you started:

Lonjourbem, ça va lienbem?” = Bonjour, ça va bien? = Hello, how are you?

larlépem” = parlé = talk

lijonpem” = “pigeon”

lardonpem” = pardon = excuse me?

lerchem” = cher = expensive

lortefeuillepem” = portefeuille = wallet

A lotvem” = à votre santé = to your health / cheers!

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Fig Cake with Fig Leaf Cream

In Tangier, at the very edge of the casbah overlooking the strait, is a house called Dar Zero. An old property, with white, crenelated walls, this is where Samuel Pepys lived in 1683, during the English occupation of Tangier (1661-1684), when he was employed as a secretary to George Legge, Lord Dartmouth, who had been tasked with abandoning Tangier and destroying its fortifications. In Dar Zero, Pepys wrote sections of his famous diaries, often seated beneath the shade of a huge fig tree that continues to grow in the garden to this day…

Dar Zero, in the Casbah

Dar Zero is very much an inspiration for Dar Portuna, the grand house in An Echo of Scandal. So, in honour of Pepys and his fig tree, here’s a recipe that uses ripe, seasonal figs, alongside fresh fig leaves. It’s a riff on my favourite Smitten Kitchen strawberry cake. Fig leaves have a wonderful aroma, somewhere between floral vanilla, coconut and tobacco. Here, they’re made into a syrup and mixed with whipped cream, to create a gentle, fragrant indulgent pudding that’s perfect to eat as the last golden rays of summer sink into autumn.

Fig Cake with Fig Leaf Cream

Ingredients:
For the cake:

  • 100g butter, softened
  • 190g golden caster sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 190g self-raising flour
  • 120ml milk
  • 1 tsp of vanilla bean extract
  • 2-3 fresh figs (if you can’t find fresh you can used tinned, or dried figs soaked in a little water to plump them up a bit)
  • 1 tbsp of caster sugar

For the syrup and cream:

  • 2-3 fresh fig leaves
  • 2 tbsp caster sugar
  • 250ml double or whipping cream

Method
The Cake:

  1. Preheat the oven to 180C/350/gas mark 4. Grease or line a 10in pie dish, or a 9in springform cake tin.
  2. Beat the butter and sugar together until pale and fluffy.
  3. Add the egg, along with a tablespoon of flour to stop the mixture from splitting and beat in.
  4.  Stir in the milk and vanilla extract.
  5. Gently fold in the remaining flour until no streaks remain.
  6. Pour the cake batter into the prepared tin.
  7. Cut the figs into halves or quarters, depending on size, removing any woody stems, then press gently into the surface of the cake at regular intervals.
  8. Sprinkle the surface with the remaining sugar, so the fruit turns jammy.
  9. Bake for 10 minutes before turning down the heat to 165C/325F/gas mark 3. Bake for another 35-40 minutes, or until the surface is golden brown and a skewer comes out cleanish.

The syrup and cream:  

  1. Rinse the fig leaves, pat dry, and cut off any remaining stalk. Place them under the grill for a minute or two, keeping a close eye on them and turning when necessary: you want them to be gently toasted/browned but not burned. This releases the scent of the fig leaves.
  2. Place 2 tbsp of caster sugar in a pan along with around 8 tbsp of water and the fig leaves (don’t worry if they crumble).
  3. Press the fig leaves into water and stir about until the sugar has dissolved.
  4. Bring to a gentle boil for 3-4 minutes, until the water starts to reduce to a syrup.
  5. Leave to cool, before straining through a tea strainer or muslin into a jug.
  6. Spoon 2-3 tbsp of syrup over the cake while it is still warm, so that it soaks in.
  7. Pour the double cream into a clean bowl.
  8. When the syrup is completely cool, stir 4 tbsp (or more, to taste) into the cream, then whip until soft peaks form.
  9. Serve the cake cut into wedges, with a dollop of fig leaf cream alongside.

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