There is, not far from Paris, a haven of peace, calm and beauty. A corner of France where the joy of living is palpable at every street corner, where conviviality is not limited to the misleading slogan of living together. Barbizon is no longer a village-museum but a living village, with its small shops, its restaurants and even its doctors! Reportage.
Something imperceptible has changed in our relationship with Paris. In the past, Parisians lived outside, in the street, in Les Halles, in the bistro, they captured the ambient energy of the city. Today, more and more of us stay at home, recluse, cloistered, sheltered from visual, human and sound micro-aggressions. The spectacle of the city that fed us and shaped us has become hostile, distressing. We now prefer the security of our living room.
“ Barbizon, which was a village-museum essentially made up of galleries, has become a living village”
Going to spend a day in the village of Barbizon, located on the edge of the forest of Fontainebleau, we suddenly had the feeling of rediscovering this collective life which once made the charm and the salt of the capital. Here, people talk to each other and show solidarity, whether they are garbage collectors, employees, shopkeepers, upper class citizens or Olympic horse-riding champions (there are two of them in the village); they take coffee together in the morning, on the terrace of the Royal, and feel bound by a common sense of belonging, as if they were members of a small Republic on a human scale. Would Barbizon be an exception? We invite our readers to go there this summer to form their own opinion. In theory, it takes an hour and fifteen minutes by car to get there from Porte de Bercy, but that’s exactly the time it took us to get out of Paris, as if this possessive mother refused to let her children go.
As for mayors, we met a happy one who still believes in political action: Gérard Taponat. Born in 1957 in Barbizon, this former professor of human resources at Paris-Dauphine University was elected without a label in 2020. We thus learn that a village mayor receives compensation of 1,500 euros… Which seems derisory. In two years, he managed to create seven businesses in the center of the village which has since gained 160 inhabitants. Indeed, the Covid of 2020 played exactly the same role as the cholera of 1849, when the painters Jean-François Millet (1814-1875) and Theodore Rousseau (1812-1867) came to settle here and founded what we then called the “school of Barbizon”… a real community of painters who lived in autarky, away from Paris. This forgotten village, which had been populated by Napoleon’s last grognards after the Emperor’s death in 1821, already fascinated by its light, its beauty, its calm, the kindness of its inhabitants (the artists paid for the innkeeper in it giving paintings!) and, above all, by the presence of the forest. It was in Barbizon that a tube of paint was used outdoors for the first time – an invention dating from 1841.
“Before Covidsays the mayor, there were 20% second homes. Today, there are less than 10%! Barbizon, which was a village-museum essentially made up of galleries, has become a living village. Leclerc and Carrefour, located outside, complain of having lost 3% of their turnover because of my policy: but it is these 3% that support our businesses in the center of the village! » You know many of them, you, French villages of 1,300 inhabitants, which have a bakery, a butcher, a fishmonger, a cheese shop, a florist, a café, several restaurants, a primary school, a hotel, five dentists, three doctors , three speech therapists? The medical desert, here, we do not know!
Notice to our readers: in addition to his dream of creating an old-fashioned arthouse cinema, Gérard Taponat wants to open a bookstore. “I am looking for a passionate and, if possible, experienced bookseller. The local is found, with an apartment above, and the town hall is ready to help to participate in the rent of the shop which belongs to a private person. »
For this mayor who spends his time mediating in order to resolve conflicts, politics serves to appease, to balance, to restore life: “I believe the most important thing is to love people. »
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However, bringing a village back to life cannot be decreed: “We have 51 unfilled positions, mainly in the catering sector, which is why our restaurants are only half open, due to lack of staff…” On March 28, 2022, the mayor organized a big “job dating”. Caterers and restaurants in the village have been mobilized to provide a huge outdoor buffet. “There are 11,000 unemployed in Seine-et-Marne. Pôle Emploi contacted 700 individually. Only 12 came and only one accepted a permanent contract, paid 10 to 20% above the national average! » Moral of the story: work in France is today perceived as a punishment, not as a means of fulfilling oneself and building one’s life.
The charm of Barbizon is its fine watercolor light, its atmosphere steeped in the history of art, its air perfumed by the scent of the forest, its old golden stones… It’s like being in a theater set. The statue of Vercingétorix, in the center of the village – the work of a disciple of Rodin – attests that the refractory Gauls are still very much alive! The first of them is the owner of Gaulois sur le Grill, Philippe Auguin, who presents himself as “butcher-philosopher”. This former rider settled here in 1987 to practice his sport. As his parents were butchers, he created a butcher’s shop which has transformed over the years into a wonderful restaurant offering exceptional meats: “I have been working with the same breeders for twenty-eight years, I master everything, from the birth of the animals to the slaughterhouse, including breeding and food. I even managed to convince vegans to eat my meat, that’s telling you! » Homemade fries and mashed potatoes, Barbizon cherry clafoutis, magnificent wines… This is one of the places where the village lives.
On the same sidewalk, the Val’et des fromages cheese factory opened during the Covid, in 2020. Valérie lived until then in Villepinte and worked at Renault as a car park manager. “Since I have been living in Barbizon, I feel reborn. There is a village life, everyone knows each other, for nothing in the world will I go live elsewhere! »
On the day of our visit, Valérie received a splendid farmer’s Saint-Nectaire from the spring pastures, made with very flowery, rich and colorful raw milk. But its singularity is the presence of all the Bries from the surrounding country, those from Meaux and Melun, certainly, but also from Coulommiers (very delicate), from Montereau (unctuous with character and a flowery rind sometimes stained with red ), Nangis (very rare), Provins, Fougerus, not forgetting the brie noir, matured for a year, dense and velvety, which the locals used to dip in the morning in their café au lait…
Would a village without a baker be worthy of the name? Unthinkable in France, however, this is increasingly the case, the French having taken the habit of going to buy their bread in supermarkets. In Barbizon, Guillaume Potherat is a journeyman baker straight out of the Middle Ages. With his wife Stéphanie, who studied Fine Arts, he has run a bakery for fourteen years, which is the other nerve center of this city of Utopia where everyone is proud to be a citizen and to participate in the common good. Its leavens ferment for twenty-four to forty-eight hours and give succulent breads, with a melting crumb and full of flavors. Guillaume has also brought back to life the “tranchoir bread” of yesteryear, the kind that was cut into thick slices to serve as a plate. His flaky croissants have the good taste of butter and he also sells all the artisanal products of the area, such as the honeys of a beekeeper who talks to her bees, Madame Pereira.
Some Parisians also don’t hesitate to come to lunch or dinner at the Relais de Barbizon, a fish restaurant the likes of which we don’t do anymore – Jean-Pierre Coffe started his career there in the 1970s, peeling langoustines! The terrace shaded by centuries-old chestnut trees is in itself a paradise where you can do nothing but sip a little white wine. Chef Mikael Briens took over this country institution in 2008. Every morning, he goes to Rungis to buy his line-caught fish, sea bass, sole and turbot caught the same night or the day before in Brittany and which he offers whole to customers. Cooking is done in the pan, quickly, pink on the bone, to allow the fish to keep all their freshness, their iodized taste and their good juice… They are cut up at the table, before our eyes. We particularly recommend the sea bass in a salt crust (42 euros), the sole meunière (49) and the grilled turbot (41).
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Barbizon is a laboratory of life, a case study, where the collective and the individual mingle harmoniously. There are characters with a strong character whose historical model was David Rousset (1912-1997), resistant and deported, the first to have written about the concentration camps. Talents flourish there, like Bérengère Evain, the first female Meilleur Ouvrier de France in eyewear, who has set up her workshop in a pretty courtyard, with magnificent old machines from the Jura.
We thought we noticed a downside: there is no gas station in Barbizon and the nearest station is Fontainebleau. But this is no coincidence. Some will tell you, with a smirk, that this absence of a train station is an advantage, in view of certain suburbs, close and disreputable, which tend to export their “left-wing intellectuals in hoods”… As it should be, Parisians working from home who have come to settle here find it very difficult to return once a week to the big city.