June 17, 2008


According to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper article, “If coffee is the fuel of France, then the cafe may be the soul of France — a place to gulp an “express” in the morning or sip a leisurely cafe creme in the afternoon, to rest or flirt, to gossip or debate politics; in short . . . to be French…(the cafes are) the stomach, lungs, liver, bad conscience and — oh yes — soul of the city. You buy tobacco in some, gamble in others, philosophize, write or surf in yet others, and drink and eat in all — sometimes well. Romance buds, hatred flares, revelation dawns, violence erupts, fortune smiles upon lucky winners, smoke gets in everyone’s eyes…If nothing else, cafes animate the city — that is, they keep it awake with noise and stimulants. They’ve been around for centuries…”

Cafes are a part of the urban Parisian landscape, according to Anne Rohan, which contribe to the city’s charm. Another site states that cafes on every corner on every street in every neighborhood, serve their communities by offering their patrons a “living room” outside their small apartments, to which they rarely invite guests. Cafes also offer a cozy, heated place to escape from small, freezing apartments. The patrons use the cafes as their living rooms, rarely inviting guests to their homes. Cafes are the palce to sip coffee, read, write, and argue.

Although historically, the roots of the cafe are tied to coffee, one internet writer stated, that “Admittedly, the coffee itself is often pretty bad.”

“For the coffee? Good heavens, no, I don’t go to a cafe for that. Coffee is simply about the cheapest thing you can order while occupying a table for an hour or so …”

Coffee, exotic beverage quickly became fashionable among the well-off population, was reputedly brought to France in 1644. According to Mike Nachaj, it was introduced by traders who had grown used to drinking the beverage in the Middle east.

While Turkish ambassador, Suleiman Aga, was in France during 1669, he introduced Turkish-style coffee to the court of Louis XIV and to the numerous Parisians he entertained “at the most extravagant coffee parties, held in opulent castles hired especially for the occasion. The haute société of Paris soon fell under his spell and everything Turkish came into vogue.” However, even though many aristocrats quickly adopted coffee, others found it rather distasteful—it’s said that the German wife of Louis XIV’s brother compared it to the Archbishop of Paris’s breath (ugh!). After an initial flirtation, Madame de Sévigné  rejected coffee as violently as she had rejected chocolate. Another nobleman used it only as an enema and remarked that it did the job very well.

Another web site stated that coffee consumption was initially centered around Marseille, and it took nearly twenty five years for the beverage to became popular in France. Some “cafés” opened in the capital city a few years later.

A search for the oldest café existing in Paris today was conducted by Phil Chavanne, the Senior Editor of a Paris guide who knows the city’s secrets in and out, and Arthur Gilette. Their were two competitors.  They discovered the Le Procope Café on Odéon square. It sports a plaque that affirms it as “the oldest café in the world., having opened in 1686.

The other candidate and the winner is the St. Nicholas Tavern, which pre-dates Le Procope by a wide margin. It was named for the patron saint to whom local clergymen had erected a statue which replaced an earlier pagan statue nicknamed “The Man with Doves.” The statue of St. Nicholas was torn down in 1792 during the French revolution. It used to be affixed above the door of No. 4 rue de la Colombe.
The tavern itself is attested to 1240.

My interest in Paris cafes is focused on the La Procope Café, which will be a setting for a scene in the historic romance novel which I am writing, circa 1789-1790s. To fans of French history, this is the holy grail of Parisian cafes, according to. Watch for my post exploring the La Procope Café, its history and its current presence in Paris.

Web sites used to research this article:
by BeatChick

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