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Tea vs. coffee in Paris

When we think of cultures where tea is popular, China, Japan and England usually come to mind. But in Paris, tea drinking is hardly the pedestrian “cuppa” that exists in England.

In the 1600s, Louis XIV chartered expeditions to Asia that returned with tea, silk and porcelain. Afternoon teas became the rage among Paris aristocrats years before tea appeared in England. The Mariage family, who were involved in the first Asia expeditions, held a virtual monopoly on tea. Today Mariage Frères is one of the world’s finest purveyors of tea. Their original tea emporium on the rue du Bourg-Tibourg in the Marais has a quaint salon serving brunch, lunch and afternoon tea. A two-room tea museum upstairs traces their roots in the China trade.

Like restaurants, public tea rooms or salons de thé, (pronounced “tay”), emerged in the post-revolutionary era. Today there are two general versions of tearooms. Both types serve a light lunch, but some also serve breakfast. The grand salons, typified by Ladurée and Angelina’s, are elegantly decorated dining rooms and pastry shops. Ladurée opened near the place de la Madeleine in 1862 with Second Empire décor. They take credit for inventing the macaron — not to be confused with macaroons. A macaron is an elegant “French Oreo,” two small round meringues with a sweet filling in between. They come in dozens of flavors and colorful shades. Ladurée’s macarons are worshipped around the world. Angelina, on the rue de Rivoli, was founded in 1903 by an Austrian confectioner, Antoine Rumplemeyer. He named it after his daughter in law. The tea here is very good of course, but the main attraction is the hot chocolate, made from special African cocoa beans. It’s served in pitchers with a side of Chantilly cream. It’s so thick and delicious it will curl your toes. We take first time visitors there for lunch.

Other more numerous neighborhood tearooms are less for show and more functional. We often visit them for light lunches. Smart tourists on a budget enjoy the inexpensive but tasty meals featuring salads, quiches and tarts — and of course good tea or a glass of wine. I still remember the ratatouille tart at a tearoom in the Marais. Although they tend to attract “ladies who lunch,” tearooms are always a welcome sight when we are out and about at midday. Tea salons and tearooms fill a gentile niche in Paris. However, nobody “hangs out” at a tearoom. That’s what cafés are for.

The first coffee appeared in Paris in the late 1600s. The source was the Middle East, probably today’s Turkey. It was looked upon as gauche by the tea drinking aristocracy but caught on quickly with the lower classes. Street vendors would sell it by the cup. An Italian immigrant spice vendor, François Procopio, decided to take coffee upmarket and opened the Café Procope in 1694. It still exists today on the cobblestoned rue de l’Ancienne Comédie on the Left Bank. In addition to coffee, it serves classic French dishes in dining rooms from the era of Voltaire, who was a regular. The café concept spread and soon Paris had hundreds — now thousands — of cafés. From the beginning, the caffeine buzz stimulated conversation, debate and political theorizing. Marx, Engels and Trotsky were habitués at Parisian cafés. The intellectual foundation laid in the Left Bank continued in the 1950s with the Existentialists holding court in the Café de Flore and the Deux Magots on the boulevard St-Germain. The mass-market appeal made France a café-centered society, unlike the British tea culture. Cafés can have grand dining rooms, like the Café de la Paix near the Opera, or a few tables and a bar on a corner.

Coffee is served several forms. “Un crème” (pronounced “crem,” short for café crème) is espresso and steamed milk and usually only consumed in the morning. “Café au lait,” or coffee mixed with hot milk in a bowl-like cup, is something served at home or in the hotel breakfast room, seldom in a cafe. Asking for one will get you a crème. Ordering “un café” always means an espresso. Then there is “un noisette,” an espresso with cream on the side. (A noisette is a hazelnut in French, which describes the drink’s color.) American style coffee is “café allongé.” It is essentially an espresso diluted with hot water. “Café décaféiné” will be instant coffee. Coffee is always cheaper in a café when served at the bar. For visitors to Paris, it is often less costly to have coffee and a croissant at a local café than at the hotel unless breakfast is specifically included in the room rate. People watching is always more interesting at a sidewalk café. Tourists usually sit at the outdoor tables nearest the sidewalk; locals sit at the tables closest to the café.

Cafés tend to be the common denominator of a neighborhood. I’ve learned a lot from my vantage point at the Café du Marché, on the rue Cler near our apartment. It opens at seven in the morning. Delivery truck drivers, their overnight shift complete, stand at the bar with a “café calva,” espresso with Calvados, an apple brandy from Normandy. The street cleaners stop by next in their green uniforms. Baskets of croissants are set on the bar for self-service. Newspapers fastened to stick frames are available to share. American tourists arrive, seeking omelets. They are told that the kitchen opens at eight. In the morning, parents walk their young children to school. Then the moms meet up for coffee and chat before taking home a baguette and dinner ingredients. A young woman, probably a university student, serves the tables; she brings what you always have without being asked. The retirees wander in later with their dogs. Everyone greets the dogs by name.

The cast changes every few hours. At lunchtime those who work in the area pack the café to enjoy one of the plats du jour. Office workers in Paris are given daily lunch tickets by their employers that can be redeemed at neighborhood restaurants displaying a special decal. This practice supports family owned places and keeps employees happy. Six in the evening brings friends sharing after work aperitifs. Couples meet to enjoy a light dinner at eight. Around ten, students from the nearby American University stop by for late night mojitos. The daily rhythm doesn’t vary and this predictability gives a sense of order to the neighborhood.

Along the rue Cler there are several greengrocers, two florists, a butcher, a fromagerie (cheese), a charcuterie (pork products), a poissonnerie (fish) and a boulanger-patissier for baguettes and pastries. There is even a French version of the dollar store. Around the corner is a pharmacy and a bookstore. They combine to form a self-sufficient core of a neighborhood that older residents seldom venture far from.

I grew up in the 1950s in a small Pittsburgh neighborhood. On the main street there were two drugstores with lunch counters, a butcher, fruit and vegetable market, a bakery, shoemaker, bank and a hardware store. Everyone could walk to them as well as to school. When I returned for my 50th high school reunion, they had all disappeared. Sure, school consolidations and economic conditions played a part, but perhaps “going back to the 50s” is what I like so much about Paris neighborhoods. I hope they stay as they are. I have this fear that one Super Walmart could kill off these family businesses in one month.

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