Our Man in Paris: Café society ain't what it was


Each morning for eight years, I have been eating breakfast and reading the newspapers in the same café in Paris. I am now part of the drab furniture: "Monsieur John."

Each morning for eight years, I have been eating breakfast and reading the newspapers in the same café in Paris. I am now part of the drab furniture: "Monsieur John."

My order - coffee, fresh orange juice and a croissant - is brought to me without my asking. I am consulted by the chef, Alain, and the waitress, Cathy, on the great, unanswerable questions which face France and the world.

What does Charles see in Camilla? More to the point what does Camilla see in Charles? Why are Paris Saint Germain, the capital's only professional football team, permanently rubbish?

I watch smugly as English-speaking tourists are kicked around by Cathy. Not me. I am part of the community (a status first gained after only three years' daily attendance).

My other favourite café in Paris is a truly scruffy place. It is one small room, with a cupboard-kitchen in one corner and a cupboard-toilet in another. I go there to watch Champions' League games on cable television.

The owner is a dapper, forty-something, half-Tunisian man, also called Alain. I once watched in astonishment and admiration as he refused to serve a group of 20 respectable, young people on the grounds that, a) he had never seen them before, b) he would never see them again and, c) he didn't feel like it.

For many months, I could not work out the sociology of Alain's regular clients, a multiracial repertory company of depressive, foul-mouthed people in their late 50s. I thought at first they might have something to do with the mental hospital next door.

The truth finally dawned. They were taxi-drivers, taking a meal break, and topping up their alcohol level, before heading back to the mean, night streets of the 17th arrondissement.

According to a recent, sociological study, conducted over 10 years for the ministry of transport and tourism, French café and bar society is changing rapidly. The traditional café - metal bar, metal chairs, wooden service - is giving way to something more modern and woman-friendly, with soft armchairs, gentler lighting, low coffee-tables, healthy menus and proper toilets.

Out of curiosity, I sampled one of these new places the other day. It was part of a chain called "Bert's". The English sounding name is intended to bestow an aura of cosmopolitan smartness. Whoever chose the title did not know that, to Anglophone ears, any café called Bert's ought to serve egg, bacon, two sausage and chips, and scalding tea in chipped, white mugs.

Bert's, which calls itself a "contemporary café", has mock-leather couches and low coffee-tables. You have to serve yourself from tall fridges containing ready-made sandwiches and salads in plastic cartons.

If this - a sandwich bar with sofas - is the future of the Paris café, French civilisation is doomed. Can you imagine Jean-Paul Sartre helping himself to a chicken tikka sandwich from the fridge before joining Simone de Beauvoir on a mock-leather couch?

The sociological study by Monique Eleb and Jean-Charles Depaule traces the rise of different forms of café - music bars, gay bars, sandwich bars, tea bars, Irish and British pubs - as the capital's population has become wealthier, more cosmopolitan and more bourgeois-bohemian.

To these, one must reluctantly add the eight Starbucks which are now operating in Paris.

All, however, is far from lost. Paris is down to its last 1,700 traditional bars and cafés (compared to 10,000 a century ago) but that still means 85 cafés for each arrondissement. And the city's union of bar and café owners reports that the erosion of traditional establishments has halted in the past few years.

Admittedly, the Bert's-type cafe, imposing a self-consciously youthful style for a well-heeled target market, is flourishing. But so, too, is my unreconstructed and unselfconscious morning café, where the clientele shifts hourly from street-sweepers to businessmen to mums-waiting-for-school-to-finish to wannabe supermodels to off-duty cops.

As Mme Eleb and M. Depaule's study points out, the true character of a bar or a café is made by, and belongs to, its customers, not its owners.

Root and crop

My vegetable garden in Normandy is already planted with potatoes, onions, shallots, garlic, lettuce, carrots, leeks, broccoli, sprouts and radishes, but one of my favourite vegetables is, as usual, missing. You cannot buy parsnip seeds in France. As a French gardening book sniffily puts it le panais (parsnip) is "greatly appreciated by the English but reserved for cattle on the European continent".

No more, it seems. The humble parsnip and other root crops such as "black radishes" and topinambours (Jerusalem articho-kes) are abruptly trendy among Parisian foodies and chefs searching for "new taste sensations".

A stall on the Marché de l'Alma, in the 16th arrondissement, which specialises in unusual vegetables is besieged each Saturday by chic Parisian hostesses clamouring for parsnips.

Maybe, parsnips will become the new cocaine. Maybe, the Colombians could be persuaded to switch crops. Maybe, I should import seeds, dig up my lawn and go into mass production.

Grace found and lost

I had an appalling experience in the park the other day. I lost my seven-year-old daughter Grace for 10 minutes. I searched everywhere, calling her name. No sign of her.

Eventually, a sweet Indian woman, a nanny to another child, found her in a corner of the sand-pit that I had overlooked. "You had better come quickly," the woman said to Grace. "Your grand-dad is looking for you."

A truly appalling experience.

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