By Ciera Miller
1686. The Seine River washes up on the banks, flicking every which way. Its spray just misses the passersby and wets the gravel at their feet. On the left bank, the city is lit in the night sky. La Comédie-Française fills with Parisians enthusiastic for the ballet. Some gather from the abbey, others run from the café just down the street. A man with a book, however, hurries into the café, away from the crowd. He orders une tasse de café and slides into the seat beside his friend, a philosopher. He himself is a knight of words. The man sitting across from them is an artist. Together, they discuss the emerging ideas of liberty, equality, and fraternity.
The beginning of the European coffeehouse began in Paris in 1686, though it was started not by a French person, but by the Italian Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli. It’s called Café Le Procope and quickly became very popular amongst those considered intellectuals in the late 17th century. Its fame was in part due to its close proximity to La Comédie-Française, a theater made famous by King Louis XIV. It was he who brought two theatre groups together in Paris and made them perform together, mostly works of Moliere, a French playwright. After a performance, both the actors and actresses and the showgoers would mosey on over to the café across the street. And so began its fame in the art world.
But it didn’t stop in the art world. Instead, it’s arguably where coffee culture was begun, with themes in art, film, and literature, but not limited to the confines of those three words. Art isn’t limited to what we can see Michelangelo or Banksy do, especially in the performance world. Writers, playwrights, musicians, philosophers, and even statesmen in their art of understanding politics frequented Café Le Procope and of course brought their friends with them to share a cup of coffee, which not only brought more publicity to the café itself but also to the drink. Coffee was, for a very long time, sold only on the streets; it wasn’t the staple beverage of great philosophers and musicians. But the Café Le Procope managed to bring the two together.
Enlightenment philosophers like Voltaire, Diderot and Rousseau created a cultural focus of the café when they visited. It was most likely them with their big ideas about humanity and human rights that attracted the statesmen to the café, especially from across the Atlantic Ocean. Before the American Revolution, both Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson had traveled to France and stopped in at none other than Café Le Procope to share a cup of coffee and converse about the political situation happening not only in America with King George III, but also in France with King Louis XVI. It is often said that America helped along the ideas of revolution in the minds of others, and I bet this was proof of that. And of course, Napoléon made an appearance at the café, obviously on state business, and left his hat as payment once.
After the French Revolution, the café still stood and although it wasn’t as popular a place for politics and philosophy, it grew more into its literary, artistic roots with the visits of the famous poet, Paul Verlaine. Victor Hugo, acclaimed author nowadays, also spent some of his time there, as well as George Sand, the pseudonym of Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin, another French novelist.
Of course, the café that still stands today is not the one that was built 333 years ago. It went under many ownership changes at the latter part of the 19th century, and in the 20th, architectural. The café today mirrors what its 18th century counterpart once was, and not only in its architecture. Inside, there are plaques in commemoration of those leaders who visited so many years ago, and even Voltaire’s writing desk is preserved on the second floor of the building. Rooms are named after all of them, like Chopin and Franklin. The culture of France and the culture of coffee are preserved in the walls despite its renovation, and it’s something very beautiful to see when you walk along the left banks of the River Seine in Paris, thirsty for some coffee.
One of Voltaire’s favorite drinks to order at Café Le Procope was apparently a mocha espresso, which he called chocolat chaud. He would drink up to a hundred espressos everyday, just to take the edge off. It is still a menu item for the café today, a house specialty. Here’s a recipe for today’s version of your favorite philosopher’s favorite coffee drink:
- 1 1/4 cups of milk
- 2 Tbsp chocolate syrup
- 1 (1 1/2 fl. ounce) jigger of espresso
- 1 Tbsp sweetened whipped cream (optional)
Pour milk into a steaming pitcher and heat to 145 degrees F to 165 degrees F (65 to 70 degrees C) using the steaming wand. Measure the chocolate syrup into a large coffee mug. Brew espresso, then add to mug. Pour the steamed milk into the mug, using a spoon to hold back the foam. Top with whipped cream.R
Sources: The Coffee House – A History – I Need Coffee, Cafe Procope and The Birth of French Coffee Culture, Inside the Procope, the Oldest Cafe in Paris?, The 5 Oldest Coffee Houses in the World, Cafe Le Procope (Photo Source),Mocha Recipe – Allrecipes.com