Coffee with Balzac: A Parisienne’s Café Adventures

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Coffee with Balzac: A Parisienne’s Café Adventures

Last summer I spent my holidays with the famous French writer Balzac. I know what you’re thinking. It’s not possible because he’s dead. You obviously don’t know my son. While we were on holiday in Spain, my son suddenly had an idea. He decided it was time to read the entire Human Comedy by Honoré de Balzac. Believe me, that’s a lot of books to read. Lying on the beach, working on my tan, I listened attentively as my son told me about the fabulous adventures of Rastignac, a young provincial drunk whose sole ambition was to conquer Paris. Then in the evening, over a mojito and Mexican fajitas, my son passionately explained why Balzac was the first sociologist of French literature. In short, morning, noon and night, I was with Balzac.

And then when we got back to Paris, of course my son wanted to visit the home of this great novelist. So we went to Auteuil, in the 16th arrondissement. And that’s when I was shocked. Inside the maison, I came face to face with Honoré de Balzac’s coffee pot. The red-and-white porcelain pot stood still and proud behind its glass case. While Balzac is known as a very talented writer, he’s also known as a great coffee drinker. It is said that he drank 50 cups a day, and that it was coffee that killed him at the age of 51 in 1850 

Maison de Balzac, rue Raynouard (Paris, 16e). Photo: Polymagou, Wikimedia commons

Fifty cups is a lot, even for an enlightened coffee lover. Inspired by his famous coffee pot, I too suddenly had an idea. What if I went to drink a coffee where the great Balzac drank it? So I crossed the entire city and went to the Rocher de Cancale. This café and restaurant dates back to the year of Napoleon’s Civil Code, 1804. Located near Les Halles, this mythical place is not to be missed. Its large, sky-blue facade, adorned with elegant old wood panelling, stands in stark contrast to the trendy, crowded bars on rue Montorgueil. This is where Balzac used to feast on oysters from Brittany. He would enjoy gargantuan meals in good company. As a discerning gourmet, Balzac never failed to choose a delicious dessert accompanied by … a coffee. 

Le Rocher de Cancale at 78 Rue Montorgueil, 2nd Arrondissement, Paris. Photo: Tom Ackroyd / Wikimedia commons

It was this restaurant that served as the setting for his famous novel characters. The place was empty; it was 9 o’clock in the morning. Delivery men were dropping off crates of salads and tomatoes for lunch. I took a seat at the back of the room – decorated with exposed timber beams – and ordered a coffee from the smiling waitress. While I waited for my coffee, I admired the engravings on the wall by Paul Gavarni. This famous illustrator, a friend of Balzac and Hugo, is best known for his drawings of Lorettes. The Lorettes (and Grisettes) are all the young seamstresses, shop assistants and workers of the 19th century who lived in the area around the church of Notre-Dame-de-Lorette and were supported by wealthy men. That’s good, I thought, amused, because my favorite Balzac novel is The Splendors and Miseries of Courtesans

Coffee in Paris. Photo: Mariela M/ Flickr

Then, as I was drinking my espresso, I realized that Balzac wouldn’t have liked my coffee at all. He would have grimaced and found it very bland. He made his own blend of three varieties, from Bourbon Island, Martinique and Yemen mocha. Then he would lovingly boil it at home in his delicate red and white coffee pot to obtain a concoction that was a bit like Turkish coffee, i.e. thicker and more bitter than the one you find in our Parisian bistros. 

In fact, this genius of a writer needed caffeine to write, as his schedule was quite hectic. He slept at 8 pm and was woken at 2 am by his servant. He would put on his cashmere dressing gown and set to work. In front of his quill pens, inkwells and candles, he would write his masterpiece for eight hours straight, drinking gallons of scaldingly hot coffee. After a few hours rest, he would go out and enjoy the joys of Parisian life. But like Cinderella, he would return home at 8 pm and do it all over again. 

Honoré de Balzac (1842). Photo: Louis-Auguste Bisson/ Wikimedia Commons

In the end, compared to this great man, I really do look like an amateur with my mere morning cup of (light) coffee. As I stare into my empty cup, I remember that Balzac wrote a treatise on excitants. About coffee he said…. He said… Ah yes, I remember, he was referring to Napoleon’s army. That’s it! The coffee I’ve just drunk is kicking in. My neurons, stimulated by the caffeine, are starting to work. All of a sudden I feel Balzac’s presence in this place steeped in history, and I have the strange but magical impression that he’s whispering words to me: “The coffee falls into your stomach, and from then on everything becomes agitated: ideas shake like the battalions of the Grande Armée on the battlefield.”

Edith’s memoir, Parisian Life, Adventures in the City of Light, is available on Amazon

Lead photo credit : Cafes along a Paris street. © Unsplash, Caleb Maxwell

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Edith de Belleville is a licensed tour guide in Paris, an attorney-at-law, and an author. She published a memoir in English called "Parisian Life, Adventures in the City of Light." Deeply inspired by Parisian cafés, she also wrote a book with American author Lisa Anselmo called "Paris Cafés, a Love Story," which will be soon available. When she is not at Versailles or the Orsay Museum, Edith can be found on a café terrace in Paris, enjoying a café crème and watching the world go by.