22 November 2010

Le Café Matinal

Un grand crème avec son croissant nec plus industriel

If you are in France for very long, but don’t have access to a coffee maker — or, heaven forbid, you are staying in a hotel that doesn’t offer breakfast — you will sooner or later wind up at the counter or terrace of a sidewalk café, at an hour when everyone else is still at home. In short, you will be enjoying an authentic experience, one of the small but treasured daily pleasures I’ve found in France over the years.

A French café in the early morning is considerably less romantic than the same spot will be in the afternoon, but the first advantage is that you will not be surrounded by tourists. Instead, you will be surrounded by gruff, shadowy, hunched figures who clutch at their grand crème as if their lives depended on it, and mumble at the sports pages as if they actually understood the rules of soccer.

The chances are very good that some of these fellows — and, at the counter, they are always men — are spiking their morning coffee with a little cognac. If the customers are women, shop girls or vendeuses, the chances are even better that they’re enhancing the brew. A friend used to take his coffee near the Grands Magasins, where he quickly learned why the French standards of customer service are so peculiar. The shopgirls are buzzed even before they get to work.

Their conversation is terse and perfunctory. The French at their morning café often appear to be hung over, and perhaps they are: at any rate, they do not want chatter or music. If there’s a television playing, the volume is usually turned down or off.

The weather in France tends to be damp at all times of year, which is why you are very unlikely to take a table on the terrace at this early hour. The moisture in the air muffles all but the loudest sounds — and paradoxically perhaps these seem even louder by contrast with the dull, sleepy silence all about. Garbage and delivery trucks and street sweepers rage and groan; they seem to shake the stones from the pavement, and you cannot hear anything else. But then they pass, and the streets are quiet again.

You nurse your coffee as if it were a restorative elixir, which it is. The brew is much stronger here than it is in any diner in the United States, and less bitter than what you would find chez Starbuck (a pernicious institution that has made ruthless inroads in France in recent years).

You will have the option of ordering a petit déjeuner, meaning a croissant and/or a few slabs of baguette, more or less fresh, served with obdurate pats of butter and perhaps a little dish of apricot or raspberry preserves. You aren’t required to order these things, much less to eat them, any more than you are required to smoke cigarettes: it only seems more French when you do.

The proof is standing at the counter. If you look at the grizzled gentleman in the cloth cap and threadbare overcoat, standing next to you, you will see that he eats nothing, and he lights his cigarette only when he leaves.

If you are reading one of the left-wing newspapers — especially Libération — indeed, if you are reading any paper but L’Equipe — you risk a disdainful look from that grizzled gentleman and a comment muttered under his fetid breath. Congratulate yourself: you are now a political martyr, another Jean Jaurès.

The Fatal Café, 1914:
Jaurès was fatally wounded in the 2nd Arrondissement.

The grizzled gentleman will know the bartender, of course, and you will not. You may eavesdrop discreetly on their conversation, but in no circumstances should you laugh, even if one of them says something funny. However, neither of them is likely to do so.

If you are like me, the grand crème (a double shot with steamed milk that is, somehow, not exactly a café au lait, and considered much less prissy, besides) will be insufficient. Your dose of caffeine has not been filled. But the price is too steep to order a second cup, and besides, you are confident in the knowledge that, in a few hours, you will order an espresso, perhaps at this same counter.*

That cup will be served with a little cinnamon cookie called a “Speculoos,” which incorporates in its name the slang word for “toilet paper” (pécul) and the Latinate word for “asshole” (cul), and is by happy chance manufactured by Lotus, the largest manufacturer of toilet paper in France.

You will try not to think about this.

You will, however, remember quite happily that there will be another cup of espresso after lunch, and another in the afternoon. You will be fortified and ready for what comes.

This is how it is done.

NOTE: You will not order a grand crème except between the hours of 8 and 10:30 in the morning. Otherwise, you will subject yourself to scorn and mockery that will scar you for life, if indeed you manage to survive the attempt.


Anonymous said...

I am very sorry to hear about the inroads made by Starbucks in France, but it's not as though the French are now losing their innocence as a result; they have had "McDo" for decades, have they not?

-- Rick

Jonathan said...

Lovely post, Bill! I'm looking forward to more. Now I'll know what to order and what to expect while in Paris.

William V. Madison said...

@ Rick -- You're right, McDo has flourished in France for decades. (Full disclosure: I ate lunch at the McDonald's on the Champs-Elysées on my 16th birthday.)

The signal difference between McDonald's and Starbucks is that the hamburger joint was never a distinctly French institution, whereas the café was: a place where one could order a single cup of coffee, then sit for hours and watch the world go by. This is precisely what Starbucks offers its customers, i.e., something the French already had made their own.

Starbucks does sell larger cups of coffee, and you can buy coffee to go, two innovations that are sometimes useful. Otherwise, I can't understand why anyone in France would go there.

Anonymous said...

Are you suggesting that certain native traditions, certain aspects of the cultural identity, are worth preserving against the forces of globalization? You sound almost like ... gulp ... a cultural conservative! What are you going to do next, propose restrictions on mass immigration?

-- Rick