Since the early 1900s, Geneva’s food hall has been a beloved feature of culinary life in the city. Many generations of the same local families — and expatriates and visitors who come and go and come back again — loyally purchase goods from the merchants whose stands line the two long corridors of the Halle de Rive. The President of the Halle’s Merchants’ Association tells me why that’s so.
One of my favorite shortcuts — whether or not I needed food — when walking to my former home in Geneva’s Eaux-Vives district from the city centre led me straight through La Halle de Rive, a culinary corridor running between Rue Pierre-Fatio and Boulevard Helvétique.
The observance of quality and service, the array of beautifully presented produce, the friendly greetings of the food merchants, and the enjoyment of the locals gathering for lunch or raising un verre at the in-house Bistro des Halles left me feeling I was sharing a cherished, time-honored tradition in the life of the city. Which, of course, I was.
Local roots go back to early 1900s
What I didn’t know then is that the present-day Halle has its roots in a wood and metal-framed structure, now long gone, that sat in the Eaux-Vives’ Place du Pré-l’Evêque from the early 1900s.
And that before it assumed its present-day appearance in 1969 it was a covered throughfare bordered with sidewalks that Dominique Ryser, President of the Halle Merchants Association, recalls “you could ride your bicycle through.”
Mr Ryser is the second generation of his family to manage the Fromagerie Bruand cheese counter at La Halle de Rive and his personal memories and feelings regarding the food hall run long and deep. “It’s the centre, the heart and soul of the city,” he tells me.
He remembers that as a child he sampled pieces of ham and cheese offered by the Halle’s merchants, including Pascal Perruchione of Traiteur Pascal, purveyor of handmade pasta and fine Italian specialities, who began his apprenticeship there 37 years ago and who today serves as Vice-President of the Merchants Association alongside Mr. Ryser.
Transmitting wisdom and good taste
They credit their success and that of their fellow 21 merchants — two dating from the Halle’s inception in 1969 — to more than offering under one roof a wide-ranging selection of high quality produce that’s unrivalled by any competitor, though that has a great deal to do with it, too.
“Behind these stands you have a patron, a family, a spirit and a passion,” Mr Ryser says. “But most of all we are gens des métiers (specialist tradespeople) and we are here to practice our métier the way it should be practiced.
“We’ve done research into our products and have faith in them. We’re here to pass on our knowledge and promote good taste.
“It’s our job to guide our clientele in their choices so they have pleasure around the table.”
Pascal Perruchione enthusiastically agrees. “We’re all artisans. We have our own products, our own laboratories, and in order to succeed we have a lot of work to do,” he says, referring to his 14-hour-a-day, six-day work week. “People come here wanting to speak to the patron, to learn how products are made, to ask for advice and to place special orders. The Halle de Rive is here for that!”
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Passion rewarded with customer loyalty
In turn, the merchants of La Halle are rewarded for their dedication with long-term loyalty that passes from one generation to another within the same family of customers.
“I serve clients who used to come here as children,” Mr Ryser explains. “Maybe they went away for their studies or jobs and now they are back with their own children. The circle continues.”
Tourists find their way to the food hall, Mr Ryser explains, because after visiting the cathedral, the Jet d’Eau and taking a boat trip, they inevitably want to discover the heart and stomach of a city, much as he does whenever he travels.
Of course, La Halle is also favored by the city’s expatriates who are looking for both a taste of the region and also of home. “Our choice of products is very international: coté fromage, we sell cheddar, Stilton, Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese cheese. What you can’t find at one merchant you can find at another,” he says, which he views as an advantage over shopping at a grocery store where if you don’t find what you want, you have to go elsewhere.
Focus on choice and that something new
When a merchant’s stall becomes available at La Halle, a prospective replacement must present a serious business plan and reflect the collective vision to offer depth and diversity to the existing product range and perhaps offer something entirely new to the mix.
“We are always on the search for new products and are not here to copy,” Mr Ryser explains. Many of the ideas that eventually make their way to competitors originated at La Halle, he tells me.
The genial Halle de Rive
A unique opportunity to sample the range and quality of produce on offer at La Halle will take place at the 4th annual “Géni Halle de Rive” that is scheduled for Thursday, 2 November 2017. For CHF 90.00/person, food lovers can sample à volonté (to their stomach’s desires) delectables offered by the Halle’s 23 merchants, complemented by a selection of Geneva-area wines.
Some 400 food lovers enjoyed the 2016 edition, so stop by La Halle in early September to see when tickets become available for this must-do celebration.
It’s a social as much as a culinary event, when customers and merchants can chat and raise a glass to each other and enjoy in one very special place the best artisanal food and drink this region has to offer. ♣
La Halle de Rive
29 Blvd. Helvétique, 1207 Geneva
Monday to Friday, 07:30am – 07:00pm
Saturday, 06:00am – 04:00pm
All photos by CLG.