When I turned 35, I was frolicking through the food halls of La Grande Épicerie de Paris on Rue de Sèvres, in Paris’ stylish 7th arrondissement, to get some tea from Kusmi, I was in desperate need of new supplies of Prince Vladimir and St. Petersburg, my two favourite blends (and boxes, because who am I kidding, I buy it mostly for the boxes), but then I got sidetracked, sidetracked by a salami that looked so yummy as any salami ever could, the sign said “saucisson des Abruzzes”, and although I didn’t know where the Abruzzo (or is it “Abruzzi”?) are, Italy, I guess—I do have to look it up one of these days—anyway, I was sure that they produced the best salami in the whole world, it just looked so yummy—perfection, absolute perfection! I bought 500 gr of it, a baguette, a bottle of red wine, can’t remember what kind but I guess St.Émilion as I usually buy St.Émilion, and however Italian that salami was, I was still in Paris, France, wasn’t I? I made it happily to my hotel nearby to meet my parents who were waiting in their hotel room, you see, after dropping my tea in my room, I was supposed to pick them up to go to a nice place to celebrate my birthday, kind of a family tradition to dine in Paris on our birthdays, but I had just made a change of plans: I was planning on having a picnic in my hotel room! Baguette, salami and Bordeaux while looking out of the window. How swell, I thought, how very swell – but my mother’s reply was “What? Are you crazy?” – an hour later I had Bœuf Bourguignon at a nice place on Île St. Louis. Mothers! But I kept the box. I’m a romantic.
At first, I have to tell you that I am convinced that coffee’s a very healthy beverage. It’s really rich in flavonoids and these keep you safe from any antioxidants, even the French ones. So, the plural here is chosen quite deliberately, I always have to have more than just one coffee when I’m in Paris. I’ve had them in the sun, and in the rain. I’ve had coffees in high-toned places, and in places off the tracks. They’ve been served with the warmest of smiles, and in sheer disgust—which was quite amusing in a way, homophobia in the Marais, in a café on the corner of Rue des Francs-Bourgeois, because if you’re a waiter who happens to disapprove of gays, you really should reconsider working in their natural habitat. But I digress. I’ve had coffees that were just great, and coffees that tasted like way too strong a Nescafé. I’ve had coffees to go from Starbucks, and coffees in the presence of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre at the Café de Flore, au Flore, that is if their spirits still haunt the place, I think they won’t approve of that Louis Vuitton store right next to it, some marketing idiot thought it appropriate to squeeze their bags in the tiny space between the Flore and the Deux Magots—although, who am I to complain, I always paid the bills with euros from my Louis Vuitton wallet, but at least I hadn’t bought it there, in the very middle of St.Germain-des-Prés, but on the right bank, that’s where you are supposed to buy such things. But back to my coffee sermon: I’ve had all these coffees in wonderful peace, next to Frenchmen and tourists, next to people in suits on their lunch-break and next to people in sneakers on their honeymoon, and there never were any gilets jaunes in sight, there was never any pseudo-revolutionary brutality going on, no places were ever set on fire, and so I have just one thing to say to these guys if they ever dare to disturb my peace and quiet in Paris: Get lost, you losers!
Paris in 1958 was very different from today, from the Paris I know. First of all, it was so very dirty. It was none other than André Malraux, de Gaulle’s guy for everything cultural, who had all the blackened historic façades cleansed, he wanted Paris to be the City of Lights again, the most important operation in urban architecture since Baron Haussmann changed the face of Paris altogether in the 1850s and ’60s, and there was quite some dirt that had laid up since then, believe you me (and by me, I mean my mother, she should know, she did live in Paris in the early 1960s). Second of all, one of my favourite areas, the Marais, was considered a troubled district, it was quite run down in those days, don’t imagine you’d have found any of today’s fashionable cafés and restaurants there, no art galleries, no stylish designer stores, no perfumed air emerging from the Guerlain and Diptyque boutiques, certainly no gays, not even closeted ones, instead you would find a butcher right on Place des Vosges, just like in Jean Delannoy’s 1958 movie “Maigret Sets A Trap”, and a butcher who let you witness his bloody business through his shop windows at that. It was a different time, one might say, I say it was a better time – or more precisely, it was a more authentic time, a time where there was not yet a Louis Vuitton store between the Flore and the Deux Magots to please people suffering from logomania in every possible spot, or otherwise Simone de Beauvoir would have had to look for another place to work and have her p’tit noir. By the way, neither she or Jean-Paul Sartre were very fond of Malraux, trop réac politically, and I think, she might have sensed the side-effects that Malraux’s polishing of Paris would bring. Who knows? Luckily, she died long before the Louis Vuitton people opened their store on Boulevard Saint-Germain.
The Flore. This is the place where Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre worked on their essays, plays and novels, literary milestones that made them rich and famous (well, not really rich, but very, very famous), all while having lots of coffee and even more cigarettes. As for the cigarettes, I cannot say which brand they were smoking and if I would have liked their taste, I’m a Dunhill kind of guy, the blue ones, but as far as the coffee is concerned, gee, no wonder they were so embittered about society. I hate that brew. It’s so nicely presented, the coffee is served in a jug, you got another one for your milk, hot milk on top, you pour and mix it yourself, according to your taste, you get an extra glass of water, so all in all one really can’t complain—but still, I do. This coffee is just awful, it‘s way too strong, it tastes like overdosed Nescafé, strangely bitter, brutal, a simultaneous attack on your taste buds and your stomach, you take one sip and you immediately have to light a cigarette to recover from it—and it takes a lot of time to recover. But that’s actually the only good thing about it, as a convalescent, you spend your time soaking up the atmosphere while watching the passers-by, just as long as it takes to let this wonderful spot called St.Germain-des-Prés sink in really deep. I can do this for hours at a time while that nasty coffee is getting cold. And if you should feel like re-reading “Les Mandarins” or “Les Mots“, there’s a bookshop just next door on Boulevard St.Germain, so you can start right away, right there where it was written.
There’s a photographic error in this photo, the tea box should say Nuit à Versailles, too, not only 277, I mean what kind of information is that anyway, 277, just a stupid number, not even a nice one, but that damn Stelton cork-screw covers that tea’s much more evoking name of a night in Versailles. It’s a very tasty green tea, aromes of peaches, violets, kiwis, orange blossoms, and other yummy stuff that is to transport us to this magical place in France. Actually, just as it happens, I’ve never been to Versailles, however near to Paris, not once, so I’ve no idea whether there are any peach trees and violets in the palace’s gardens or not, kiwis are from New Zealand anyway, so I don’t really trust them, these fancy Dammann brothers. They just tell you n’importe quoi. Versailles, however, has a very culinary sound to me, my parents often visit, but rather the weekly market in the old town of Versailles than the palace itself, my mother always brings home artichokes, organic ones, of course, over the years it has become kind of a family thing to have our artichokes from Versailles, so whenever I see or eat an artichoke, I don’t think of the South of France where they grow but of Versailles, and I’m kind of disappointed that there aren’t any in this blend—but on the other hand, who wants a tea tasting and smelling of artichokes?
It’s strange that all of my favourite teas are named after some men of nobility, English and Russian aristocrats like Earl Grey and Prince Vladimir, both obviously with a penchant for citrus fruits, agrumes, as the French call them, in fact, bergamot is quite elegant an aroma, especially when compared to the bitter-sweet smoke than infuses your air when brewing a lapsang souchong, no Mediterranean orchards come to mind, you’re rather transported to some opium den in 1920s Shanghai, quite depraved a situation, you wanted nothing but tea and refreshment and suddenly you’re an outcast looking for oblivion, although I’m suddenly remembering a rather smokey blend by Twinings named Prince of Wales, but as there were also opium dens that mirrored the finest to be found in China, with luxurious trappings and female attendants—why not to HRH The Prince of Wales? And then there’s that Frenchman Mirabeau, a count involved in numerous scandals before and after 1789, he rooted for both king and revolution, nobody ever knew whose side he was ever really on—knowing this, it’s amazing he died of natural causes. Liquorice and lychee in Mariage Frères’ Mirabeau blend reflect quite accordingly his ambiguity: a down to earth character as long as the earth is done in chinoiserie.