Episode 3: Le Café Parisian – The Ultimate Café Culture

Every time I return to Paris I get great amusement from sipping coffee at a café terrace watching the world go by. It brings me right back to those first years when I was a jeune fille au pair. There is a natural elegance about the French; perhaps particularly the Parisians. That French Flair! How they appear to ‘throw’ an outfit together that looks chic, yet, effortless – c’est instinctif

Getting back to the Parisian café… my first experience of sipping tea, à la bergamote, – rather than coffee back then – at a Parisian café is the garçon de café – waiter – with his bonnes manièresnot! My gosh, anyone who has visited Paris is well aware of these ‘can-be’ ill-mannered garçons de café. But, to be honest, that is part of the Parisian scene. I quickly grew to understand it and be amused by it. I was, no doubt, so immersed in Parisian way of life that very soon it didn’t bother me. Even now, during my multiple return trips to Paris, I continue to be amused, it’s what makes these cafés so Parisian. Having said that, I would like to highlight that there are friendly waiters; a little respect between both parties – customer and waiter – goes a long way. So next time you sit at a Parisian café, or any café at that matter, please give a smile to the waiter! By the way, your coffee will usually be accompanied by a glass of water which I tend to appreciate, merci.  

There are countless cafés to choose from. You’ll never be short of options no matter what your mood. Obviously, there are many trendy and renowned cafés dotted around the city but you needn’t stray too far as there are great local ones too. If you’re staying in Paris for a substantial length of time then get to know your local café – there will be a few to choose from; the advantage being, over time, you will build-up a rapport with the patrons and staff alike. You’ll soon be a Parisian…

On a warm sunny day, with a great book in hand, I settle myself comfortably into a seat. The odd time I’m distracted by the on-street activity. I get a great entertainment from the ‘conveyor belt’ of people going by; inventing life stories… The café begins to fill. Tourists having a glass of wine; groups of locals having an aperitif; some going solo, like myself, having an espresso and the best of the latest summer read to hand. The experience is one of fascination. I feel immersed in this Parisian scene, I feel at home. These places are packed with local vibes and culture; there is a pleasant community-feel to them where worldly philosophical debates materialise. The café is, in a sense, an extension of who we are. À suivre… Please feel free to share your experiences of the Parisian café scene.

The Regatta: A Cultural and Social Encounter

While I prefer exploring places off-season for their authenticity, summer can have its benefits as it reveals the connection locals establish with visitors. Coastal towns in summer are vibrant. There is always some kind of festival going on; the connection with the sea is significant to developing and enhancing these places and key to attracting tourists.

Regatta… a word that evokes the coast, the sea, sailing boats… In Castletownbere, West Cork, the ‘Regatta’ takes place annually, on the first Monday of August – a Bank Holiday in Ireland. Let me take you on a trip down memory lane… It’s not sure when this event first emerged but many retired locals tell me that it is reminiscent of their childhood. I found newspaper articles referring to the ‘Regatta’ dating back to 1912.

A few people to whom I spoke recall a time when there were gig races only prior to the event becoming part of the wider Festival of the Sea. A lot of fishermen used to be involved; my dad recalls there being a specific fishermen’s gig.  

Back to today’s event… there are both senior and junior, ladies and men’s gig races taking place over the course of the day. At intervals there are pillow fights, swimming races, greasy pole among other fun events. The festival not only attracts tourists but also a large number of the Castletownbere diaspora. The Regatta reveals a sense of ‘togetherness’. Fundamentally, this festival is about these people and for these people − permanent residents and visiting members of the Castletownbere diaspora − as a celebration of their maritime culture. People’s attachment to their heritage is revealed through their regular return visits to their native place.

It is a time and a place for all locals to meet and transmit the local heritage to future generations. As many people do not meet with one another outside of this festival due to professional and personal commitments in addition to geographical circumstances it is through the act of socialising during this festival that heritage and identity of the fishing community in Castletownbere is maintained. The festival is important to fishing culture as an agent that strengthens the ties between an increasingly dispersed ‘community’. It is interesting to observe these events take place. As crowds watch the ‘unfolding’ of different events some gasp in awe at the tenacity of certain competitors. The sheer resolve of the contestants offer a ‘theatrical performance’ to the spectators.

People invest emotionally in these events. Events like these reveal a collective sense of attachment to the pier as a place for social gatherings. When the last gig race is patiently awaited you can sense the excitement mounting. The atmosphere is electric, almost emotional, especially when Castletownbere teams are involved in the final effort to cross the line. So why not come visit us and experience for yourself the Regatta, a day-long celebration of maritime culture which is part and parcel of the wider Festival of the Sea.

An Encounter with Brittany

There are many things that remind me of France – of course la Tour Eiffel, le Champs de Mars, le Champs Elysees – for me it is without doubt the food. It’s always a culinary experience to eat in France. I suppose my first ‘taste’ of France was around the breakfast table of our host family in Morbihan, Brittany. Baskets overflowing with croissants, pain au chocolat – literally translates as ‘chocolate bread’ – and the incontournable – indispensible – baguette! Bien entendu – of course – no French table is without its beurre salé – salted butter – un délice – a delight – my mouth is watering!

In today’s post I’m going to be more specific; I want to tell you about the myriad of specialities that you can experience in Brittany. I suppose you have all heard of the infamous crêpe –pancake – but much thinner (I’m actually making crêpes for lunch mmm!). In Brittany one makes the distinction between crêpes, used for sweet fillings, and galettes, used for savoury ones. Crêpes, just like our pancakes are made with plain, white flour. However, galettes are made with blé noir (or sarrasin), buckwheat in English. Galettes are like dentelle – lace – they are so thin and slightly crispy.

Galettes and crêpes are a meal in themselves. The ritual is to have a ‘taste’ by having a galette au beurre – butter – this is the ‘opening scene’ to what is to come. It is important to get the earthy taste of the sarrasin; this awakens the taste buds. Afterwards, there is usually the choice of combinations, à composer soi-même, with cheese, ham, mushrooms, egg, saumon fumé – smoked salmon and so forth. A popular choice is la complète, consisting of ham, cheese, usually gruyère or emmental, and an œuf miroir – egg sunny-side up cooked on the galette and not separately. For dessert, it’s over to the crêpes! Again, some have the ritual of having a plain one or with a little sugar; sets the taste buds in motion. Then you can be more adventurous by tasting caramel au beurre salé – salted butter caramel. And the Bretons know how to make their caramel au beurre salé! Of course, there are the usual suspects with chocolate, sometimes with Chantilly (sweetened whipped cream) or orange segments. Our family favourite is a crêpe flambé au Grand Marnier. This orange-flavoured liqueur was created in 1880 by Louis-Alexandre Marnier-Lapostolle. Its best-known product is Grand Marnier Cordon Rouge; a delicate blend of fine cognacs and distilled essence of tropical oranges. Slow ageing in French oak casks gives it incomparable roundness and finesse. Accompanied with a bolée of cider, brut or sweet, the list of galettes and crêpes combinations is endless, well almost! I tend to remain a traditionalist!

The blé noir or sarrasin dates back to the twelfth century when the Crusades brought the plant to Europe. It is quickly acknowledged that this type of wheat, which isn’t wheat but a seed, is not easily cultivated. It wasn’t until it was planted in Brittany, where the soil is favourable and the climate id humid and mild, that the crop yielded results.  Voilà, un peu d’histoire – a little bit of history!

The Bretons usually make their biscuits and pastries with salted butter. One such pastry is thekouign amann – gâteau au beurre – butter cake – which is made from a rather unusual bread dough recipe and large quantities of butter and sugar. History tells us that the kouign amann was made for the first time in 1860 by the baker Yves-René Scordia. That particular year there was a shortage of flour but an abundance of butter and while his bread dough was a complete failure, he baked it all the same to satisfy his customers. This crispy cake with such a delicious taste of butter and caramel turned out to be a huge success. I must admit that it is rather heavy and very buttery but on a damp afternoon with a strong coffee it’s scrumptious; a great way of immersing myself into Breton daily life.

Food reflects our identity; it shapes who we are and is an important part of our everyday lives. When you consider the story of the kouign amann with its taste of salted butter, or the blé noir that is inherently linked to a damp and mild climate so typical of Brittany, you can begin to understand the distinctiveness of this authentic region and its people. I think that’s why I feel so at home there; the people have similar character traits and its climate is very much like that of Ireland’s. Both places are worth the visit.

Celtic Cousins

While I am quite at home anywhere in coastal France, I must admit that Brittany holds a special place in my heart. From early adolescence, my native Castletownbere began twinning with Locmiquelic, a coastal town in the Morbihan, south Brittany. Morbihan (Mor Bihan) means ‘Petite Mer’ – ‘Little Sea’ in Breton. Every other year a delegation from Locmiquelic would visit our native West Cork fishing port. For over twenty years our family greeted between two to four guests for one week. When it was our turn to set sail for Brittany, the people of Locmiquelic would play host to their Irish guests. It was then that I felt a strong connection with France and especially with Brittany. There was an air of familiarity – Celtic Cousins so to speak. Since then, I’ve always felt comfortable in this north-westerly part of the Hexagone – a moniker the French give to their country.

In the summer of 2014 I immersed myself in the fishing port of Le Guilvinec, Finistère (south Brittany) for the purpose of my research. It was my first time visiting this coastal community and I must say that there is ‘something’ about coastal Brittany that makes me feel right at home. What strikes me is the winding coast road that meanders from the auction hall to the beach. It is delightful for any swimmer to have such a splendid beach just at the edge of the town. I frequently walked the coast road; there is something so enthralling about the sea. Whether calm or calamitous, the sea has the ability to ‘draw’ you in to its world. I admire the houses that stand tall along this road with their spectacular views. It’s my favourite part of the town. The sound of the sea is so soothing.

Going to the boulangerie, most mornings, for the baguette; getting to know local residents though various associations and participating in various events, meeting people in the streets, having the banter… There’s a sort of mutual understanding between people from Celtic regions; a Celtic language, musical traditions, and in a way being rather similar in manner. Our perspectives, our ways of seeing and being in the world as Celts, intertwining traditions and modernity.

Brittany was an independent duchy; however, there were many turbulent years during which the Breton Duchy defended its territory against the Romans, Vikings, English and the French. The Duchy came to an end upon the death of Francis II in 1488. His daughter Anne inherited the Duchy. In addition to ‘keeping the peace’, a lack of political stability and financial resources engendered the marriage between Anne de Bretagne and the King of France, Charles VIII. The Ducal crown became united with the French crown in 1532. Following the French Revolution, and as a result of the various republican forms of French government since 1792, the duchy was replaced by the French system of departments. Of course its history is a lot more complicated but that tale is for another day… 

While centuries have passed, Bretons continue to defend their Celtic roots; never giving up the ‘battle’ – which at first was political especially during the mid-twentieth century but has, in recent decades, become a cultural one. I have observed, during my many trips there, and having lived there for three years in the early 2000s, contemporary Bretons are at ease and confident with their Breton identity – with who they are. Bretons are recognised for their force de caractère – strength of character. A Breton fisher once told me that “Le fait d’être Breton est ancré en nous, c’est régional, je me sens enraciné dans l’héritage Celtique” – “The fact of being Breton is anchored within us, it is regional, I feel rooted to the Celtic heritage”. There is a sense of belonging to a collective. During my fieldwork, I become conscious that Bretons tend to experience a stronger affiliation with people from other Celtic regions, such as Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, Galicia, among others rather than those from other French areas. Identity is complex. Everyone experiences it differently and constructs rather distinct meanings to how sense of identity is to them.

A Breath of Fresh Air…

I enjoy an early-morning walk; before breakfast, especially during the summer time. I actually don’t do it very often as I usually go for my daily walk at around 11 am but relish this early-morning activity.

When both my sister and I are spending a few days at our parents’ we always delight in our early morning activity, usually around 7h30 am. We fill a backpack with our bottles of water, a banana each and sometimes our Mom’s homemade spelt scones with our Dad’s homemade blackberry and apple jam. Delicious!

Always delighted to accompany us is my sister’s German Shepherd. Our usual walk is to the local strand which takes about 20 minutes. Then, we sit on a bench and have our ‘pre-breakfast’ and Darcy has his bowl of water. Depending on the weather we sit enjoying our time; mornings are always so tranquil. There is a certain peace about the place. We sit, watching and listening to the ebb and flow of the tide. Sometimes there are courageous swimmers and fishers out checking their pots. We wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

Arriving ‘home’ we sit down to second breakfast and a good strong cup of ‘real’ coffee. There is something innately therapeutic about the sea, especially the ebb and flow of the tides that mirror, so to speak, the comings and goings of everyday life. It’s good to appreciate and be aware of the small and simple things in life that fill our minds with memories, shared between two sisters.

Next time you find yourself on the coast, find a bench or anything that presents itself in the guise of a seat, and feel your ‘being’ in nature. Be part of the maritime landscape. Breathe in the briny sea air. Perhaps bring a yoga mat or even go for a swim; just 15 minutes of activity, as regular as possible, to increase your flexibility, strength, improve your health, relieve stress and possibly change your life. Once you start it becomes second nature…

A little bit of “Nice” history…

I recently spent a week in Nice; it’s my second time there. I like to go there during the off-peak season as it’s much quieter and there’s more of a ‘local’ vibe about the place. That said, the city is always dappled with both national and international visitors. Anyway, as I strolled through Nice’s old district I could almost feel a sense of Italy; an identity that remains connected to its Italian origins. It must be said that during the course of most its history Nice would swing between French and Italian dominance. You only need to raise your head to appreciate the names over the shop-fronts. The myriad of restaurants, cafés and other various establishments possess an ambience imbued with “all things” Italian. By the way, for anyone wishing to taste some good pasta I’d recommend La Favola, in Nice’s old quarter.

The Greek seafarers who established and settled in Marseille were those who founded Nice approximately three centuries BCE. The city was probably named in honour of a victory over a neighbouring colony – Nikē is the Greek goddess of victory. After the Greeks the Romans arrived in the first century CE and settled in the mountainous area behind Nice. By the tenth century, Nice was ruled by the counts of Provence when the House of Savoy of Northern Italy, who ruled from Turin, took over in the 13th century. It wasn’t until the 18th and 19th centuries that Nice would experience French occupation on several occasions. However, it wasn’t until 1861 when Napoleon III signed the Treaty of Turin that Nice definitively became part of France.

Sandwiched between the Alps and the Mediterranean – entre terre et mer – between land and sea, Nice enjoys an advantageous geographic situation. During the latter half of the 19th century the British aristocracy descended on Nice during the winter season to enjoy its douceur – mild – climate. The favourable climate of Nice and its hinterland continue to attract visitors from the world over. I hope I’ve given you a “taste” of Nice!

What’s in a Name?

Back to my surname, that brings me to Baltimore, metaphorically, of course. I’d like to mention a book that i’m reading at the moment; it’s by Des Ekin, author of Stolen Village, a book that brings to light that sack of Baltimore, an intriguing story that occurred in 1631.

Back to the task in hand, the book I’m reading at the moment is Ireland’s Pirate Trail, the very name puts a smile on my face as my mom always says that the O’Driscolls were pirates; and, so they were, she is right in saying that but as a youngster it really wasn’t my ideal image of my ancestors!

Exploring our past is a great way to understanding our present, and who we are, and as such why we are…

My grandfather was a fish merchant and traded with France. My dad and his brothers were fishermen as were many of my cousins. Collectively, the family have an innate relationship with the sea and coastal environment. It’s in the blood as we say, we have salt in our veins.

You recall the sense of place I discussed in another post, an attachment that people establish with specific places, well for me, as long as I’m on the coast is what’s the most vital to me. Of course I have a strong connection to West Cork but just being able to see and feel the sea no matter where I find myself…

During my research in both Brittany and West Cork, many of the interviews and conversations held with locals highlight the importance of being in a coastal environment rather than being somewhere specific.

Thanks for joining me!