Café Au Lait: A Beverage Unfit for the Roll

soldier and sweetheart in belle epoque paris

Whether congregating in the Café de Paris on the Boulevard de Italiens or the Cabaret de la Mère Saguet at the barrier du Maine (a favorite of Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas’), Parisians of all ages and walks of life made a point of conspiciously sipping coffee or cocoa as regularly as their circumstances allowed. They did this not merely to get a jolt of caffeine, but to see and be seen. “We require publicity, broad daylight, the street, the cabaret,” M. Alfred Delvan writes about himself and his fellow urbanites in his Histoire Anecdotique des Cafés et Cabarets de Paris (1862), “well or ill, we desire to exhibit ourselves from home.” Delvan considers this desire the sine qua non of the Parisian character. “We delight in attitudinising,” he continues, “in making a show of ourselves, in having a public, an audience, witnesses of our lives.”

One particular Parisian café witnessed much in the way of history-making. Opened in 1724 by a Sicilian emigré who lent his establishment his name, the Café Procope was the favorite haunt of such estimable philosophical and literary figures as Diderot, Fontenelle, Rousseau and Voltaire. Yet the Café Procope achieved notoriety of a different sort in an event that happened after the establishment had passed from its namesake to his successor.

can-can dance high kick, moulin rouge, paris

The event involved one Poulain de St. Foix, a dramatist of declining fortune and popularity. As if cognizant of this fact, St. Foix was often found to be in a foul mood when he took his daily coffee at the Café Procope. One morning he appeared especially saturnine. A play of his performed the evening before had been savaged by critics. It was as he was brooding over this flop that a guardsman of King Louis XV entered the café for a hasty dinner of café au lait and a roll. Overhearing the guardsman’s order, St. Foix abandoned all self-restraint. Perhaps still smarting from the opinions critics aired about his latest play, he felt compelled to register one of his own. “That’s a poor dinner,” he snapped at the guardsman, who tactfully ignored him. This only encouraged the latter to voice his opinion again … and again. St. Foix’s behavior soon got the better of the guardsman. He asked the playwright what he meant by his outbursts. “You won’t prevent me, however,” St. Foix returned defiantly, “from thinking that a cup of coffee and a roll are a poor dinner.”

To prevent St. Foix was exactly what the guardsman intended. He drew his sword and challenged the querulous dramatist to a duel. St. Foix accepted. The two men exited the café and crossed blades. During the ensuing swordplay the playwright received a small wound to the arm, the sight of which caused the guardsman to relent. Expecting the customary amende honorable, the guardsman instead received only further insolence. “Yes sir,” St. Foix exclaimed, “I maintain that a cup of coffee and a roll make a very poor dinner!”

parisian male types of the belle epoque

Incensed by this breach of etiquette, the guardsman went to renew his attack, when out from the crowd of onlookers stepped two marshals, who apprehended the combatants to bring before the senior marshal of France. The guardsman accounted for his actions, explaining to the senior marshal that St. Foix had insulted him several times. “My lord, I had no intention of insulting this gentleman, whom I consider a brave man and a gallant soldier,” St. Foix blurted out, thus insulting the guardsman once more by interrupting him, “but even your rank will not prevent me from saying that a cup of coffee and a roll are a very poor, shabby, sneaking, miserable dinner!”

The senior marshal burst out laughing. Indeed, just about everyone who witnessed or heard tell of the failing dramatist’s perverse insistence found the whole affair wonderfully droll. Even Louis XV is said to have cracked a smile when word of the event reached him.

Should you wish to discover for yourself whether café au lait and a roll make for a shabby, sneaking, miserable repast, the recipes below can aid you in making this assessment. The first is taken from The Godey’s Lady’s Book Receipts and Household Hints (1870) and the second from  The Successful Housekeeper (1882).

Café Au Lait

The French are justly celebrated for this breakfast coffee, which may be made as follows: Use an infusion, made as directed, or in a cafetière, only of double the strength, and when clear, pour it into the breakfast cups, which have been previously half or three-quarters filled with boiling milk, sweetened with loaf sugar.

French Rolls

Into one pound of flour rub two ounces of butter and the whites of three eggs well-beaten; add  a tablespoon of good yeast, a little salt, and milk enough to make a stiff dough, cover and set in a warm place till light; cut into rolls, dip the edges into melted butter to keep them from sticking together, and bake in a quick oven.


Baumgarthuber, Christine. Fermented Foods: The History and Science of a Microbiological Wonder. Reaktion Books, 2021.

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