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Tucked away behind the Panthéon in the 5th arrondissement, the restaurant ‘L’Estrapade’ sits on the street of the same name. It’s a quiet street, studious and respectable, and the restaurant seems perfectly adapted to its surroundings.
Looking at the menu, though, something seems to be not quite right. Amongst the standard bistrot fare of chèvre chaud, blanquette de veau and profiteroles is a dish that would leave many perplexed. In this environment of freshly cut flowers and red-checkered tableclothes it is possible to order a Suicide au chocolat.
This is just a little joke perhaps, surely a variation on the culinary concept of Death by chocolate, which, bizarrely, is protected by a registered trademark. One word is changed, replaced by a synonym for death, but in some places such terms can have more importance than in others.
One person who understood the weight of words was the writer and philosopher Denis Diderot, who lived in a house at the number three of this street. It was at this house in the mid 18th century that Diderot worked on his Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (Encyclopedia, or a Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts, and Crafts), a monumental creation with a declared aim “to change the way people think”.
The encyclopedia gives definitions for over 75,000 words, and amongst the detailed descriptions of mechanical equipment, philosophies, musical terms and natural history is one entry that shares the name of the street on which Diderot lived: the estrapade. As the entry points out, the object “n’est plus d’usage, au moins en France“, but what was it?
In the definition given by Diderot it was ‘une espèce de punition militaire’ (a kind of military punishment), but in Paris it was a form of torture that was used mainly on the city’s Protestant population. It involved tying the victims’ hands behind their backs, suspending them from a post by their wrists, then dropping them. Few survived the punishment, as—in full view of the baying crowds—they were repeatedly hoisted back up to the top of the post and then dropped back down again.
The street, and the restaurant, have therefore taken the name of a particularly brutal form of torture. The denomination of the street reflects the fact that these punishments took place near this point, and the restaurant has simply used the street name to ensure that it can easily be located by potential clients.
The estrapade (otherwise known as strappado) was outlawed shortly before Diderot began working on his encyclopedia, but he must have been aware that he was living on the street where this torture had taken place. Whether any traces of the torture were left in the street at the time of Diderot is not noted, but nothing survives today.
Apart, that is, from the name of the street itself and from an apparently innocent-looking dish on the menu of a restaurant.
Adam Roberts has lived in Paris for so long that he has now managed to disappear. He runs the Invisible Paris blog which celebrates the parts of the city which would be refused entry to the ville musée today. He also creates self-guided walking tours of Paris that you can download and use for free.
City Segway Tours are great for seeing Paris in a different light. You’ll see more, have more fun, and not feel tired at the end of it. These are highly recommended and truly a great thing to do during your stay.
Fat Tire Bike Tours are another great way to see the city. You’ll get the company of an expert guide, the use of a super-comfortable bike, great tips and advice about what to do while in town and an exciting, informative and educational experience.