Whether or not ça sent le printemps [spring is in the air], where better to head for a break than Paris, the city of light itself, to soak up the café culture with a crêpe, a croissant, and a copy of L’Equipe all sous un soleil de plomb? But if your budget won’t stretch to travelling abroad despite your craving for a café crème, there’s a aperçu [taste] of France a little closer to home – just take the Circle line.
“We’ll always have South Kensington”
According to the 2011 census, London is home to more expats from France than from any other European country apart from Ireland, and many of them can be found working, if not living, in one of the most affluent and attractive areas of the capital. Stroll down the southern end of the newly-pedestrianized Exhibition Road in South Kensington and you will pass crêperie after café after croissanterie. Chairs and tables pepper the promenade, heralding the newly arrived premières tiédeurs du printemps [first warm days of spring]. Waistcoated waiters sail through the larger well-known French boulangeries-patisseries such as Paul and Le Pain Quotidien, while nearby Bute Street is bursting with independent boucheries, bistros, and brasseries. One eatery declares proudly in a window that it’s reached the finals of the competition to serve “the best cup of coffee in Europe”, a claim that cannot really be left untested at ten o’clock on a Saturday morning.
“But this is France!” exclaims the waiter, throwing his hands in the air (after I make the redundant observation that “there seem to be a lot of French cafés round here”). “This is Froggy Alley,” he says pointing at Bute Street, replete with restaurants and rotisseries, “and this whole area is called Froggy Valley.” He seems proud of the nickname. “I wouldn’t go back to France,” he adds with a laugh, “not unless I retired or something.” After serving me with Gallic grace, he retreats to the kitchen to talk politics in lively French, leaving me to linger over my wide, white cup of café au lait (so different from tall American coffee mugs) and warming pain au chocolat. Perhaps I have convinced him I am a sort of clandestine coffee shopper, who travels from bar to bistro grading roasts, because le café is indeed très bon.
Let them eat brioche
In the neighbouring street, one of the fromageries is ripe with Roquefort and Rocamadour, as well as plenty of vin and pain (the French kind – I try the brioche. This, incidentally, is what Marie Antoinette meant by “Let them eat cake!” – if she said it at all.) A number of bar stool tables and chairs are neatly arranged, waiting expectantly for customers. “We have tasting sessions during the day where people can come in and sample the cheese, the wine, the bread,” explains a shop worker, pointing at the window display piled high with everything from galettes to baguettes. “There are lots of Italians round here, too.” I see a dozen or so delightful delicacies in all colours of the rainbow – the famous French confiserie known as macarons – and try a few of those too. Asking all these questions, ça creuse!
Other Francophones are also doing brisk business here – there’s a Lebanese deli serving tagines and tabbouleh, and a shop making Belgian waffles. The syrupy smell stops me in my tracks and a few minutes later I’m biting into a caramelized honeycomb gaufre. Such a preprandial feast deserves a rest break, so I stop for a café noir at the crêperie, where they are playing French DJ David Guetta, but I am obliged to eat again – “It’s lunchtime!” says the waitress, and soon a sugar-dusted, lemon-drizzled crêpe comes my way. Bon appétit…even if it’s encore une fois.
Une tranche de vie [A slice of life]
After l’addition, and at a somewhat slower pace, I walk by the newsagents selling Le Monde and the pâtisseries piled high with gateaux, past the prestigious Lycée français Charles de Gaulle, one of the most highly-regarded independent schools in London.
Over the road is the Institut français, an astonishing treasure trove of French culture and cinema on a quiet residential road, where the only reminder of home is a streak of scarlet as a London bus goes by. Inside, the receptionist explains that people are queuing to join the regular Saturday “philosophy café”, where they can argue academically about la belle France over a coffee in Le Bistrot. The tickets are selling comme des petits pains, and besuited waiters bearing trays of exquisite viennoiseries glide by in preparation. “The people who come are mainly British people,” she explains, “who just want a slice of French life.”
In one of the nearby bookshops, they greet me in French (it must be the pashmina, masquerading as a foulard) and everything is printed in that language, including receipts (although the VAT is certainly British.) They sell everything, including a wide selection of children’s titles ranging from original French works such as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince to translated fiction (I’ll leave you to work out what Monsieur Chatouille might be). The bookseller looks shocked when I ask her if she lives locally. “Oh no…! The French people living here are mainly City workers,” she explains: this part of London is beyond the reach of expatriées like her working in customer service. I ask her what she misses about home, and she knows instantly: “The public transport system,” she says, “I once tried to go to Stratford-upon-Avon for the day…” Her face tells the rest. Like many of her generation, she has come over here to improve her English, and also to take a little slice of British life back to France. I feel that in this cultural exchange – at least when it comes to all things baked, buttered, and besprinkled with sugar – we Brits get the better deal.