Tea Or Coffee?

by David Sugarman

There’s a deadly dull programme on French TV at breakfast-time on Saturdays and Sundays called Thé ou Café, a tedious, funereally paced hour-long celeb profile and interview that saps you of the will to live. Take my word for it: watch the Japanese cartoons or teleshopping on all the other channels, they’re far more rewarding. This dreary yawnfest is called Thé ou Café for the simple reason that each edition starts with the presenter asking the guest that most profound, incisive and psychologically revealing of questions: do you prefer tea or coffee? Freud and Jung, you should be living at this hour…

Give the French their due, they do know how to make coffee. It’s hard to imagine the odours of France without the pungent smell of espresso. At breakfast-time, though, they have developed the curious practice of dunking their jam-smothered baguette in it. Anyone who has spent much time in France, especially staying with a French family, will have observed this, although surely not tried it. You see the familiar sight of bowls on the breakfast table and look around for the boxes of cornflakes, Weetabix or… oh no, is this a muesli household? But no, there are usually no cereals. Instead, coffee is solemnly poured into the cereal bowls which you have to hold up to your mouth with two hands to slurp your coffee from. You then smear your baguette with jam, and enthusiastically dunk it in your coffee. And this is the country of cordon bleu gastronomy?

But at least the coffee resembles coffee. Which is more than you can say for the tea. The 21 miles between France and England never feel longer than when you could kill for a cuppa. Why the French have so little appreciation of the point and purpose of a cup of tea will always remain a mystery to me. All too often waiters in cafés are clearly not au fait with the mechanics of the tea-brewing process. They have small teapots albeit with ill-fitting lids; they have teabags (Lipton Yellow wouldn’t be my choice, mind you); and they have the means of producing scalding hot water. What could possibly go wrong? Well, they bring you the wonky teapot two-thirds full of tepid water, with the teabag still in a paper wrapper beside it, that’s what goes wrong. But it can get worse: order a thé au lait and a fair number of cafés will produce a small jug of hot milk for you to pour into their apology for tea

Buying decent teabags in France is pretty much a lost cause, of course. When Marks & Spencer closed down their French operations in 2001, it was an event of near-catastrophic proportions for many British tea-drinkers in France, who were forced to adopt complex strategies for teabag-acquisition missions to supermarkets across the Channel, or lean heavily on friends visiting from Blighty. Most tea on French supermarket shelves should be prosecuted under the Trade Descriptions Act (or, as we call it here, Directive européenne 2005/29/CE dite Pratiques commerciales déloyales). Especially so-called “English Breakfast Tea”: it’s a no on all three counts! There is just one variety, called “Thé corsé”, that can produce a good, full-bodied brew. It’s exorbitant, but cheaper than a cross-Channel ferry when you run out…

Open All Hours, French-Style

by David Sugarman

I first came across this when I was a student. I spent a year as a language assistant in a lycée in Paris, living in a little room in a sort of dormitory corridor. For lunch most days, I would make do with some bread and cheese and a yoghurt in my room. There were a couple of small corner shops within a hundred metres of my school, both part of chains long since defunct. A couple of days a week I gave classes from 11 o’clock to 12 noon. Except that my classes finished three minutes early, giving me just enough time to sprint up the road and burst through the door of one of the corner shops as the shopkeeper was trying to lock up and hurriedly acquire my bits and bobs of lunch.

The idea of a food shop closing for lunch – a 2-hour break no doubt – struck me as the height of absurdity. I was later to discover that this is an ingrained habit in the French retail universe. Not just small shops, but often medium-size stores and supermarkets, too. When you want to get a bit of shopping done during your own lunch break, it’s easy not to be best pleased. I have fallen foul of the practice more times than I care to remember.

My mother owned a small dress shop for many years in England. As far as I recall, the assistants worked half-day shifts, but my mother took an egg sandwich in tinfoil to the shop every day and she would munch at it in a quiet moment. She wouldn’t have dreamt of closing the shop at mid-day. But I can only assume that French shopkeepers and shop assistants must be made of more fragile stuff, because without their two-hour lunch break they would surely fade away!

The issue of shop opening hours has been very much in the news lately, not with regard to lunchtimes (truth to tell, things are progressing slowly: one of my local supermarkets has just put up a big placard with new opening hours “sans interruption”) but Sunday trading and evening opening. French regulations governing “l’ouverture dominicale” are a mass of contradictions, paradoxes and exceptions. Huge furniture stores like Ikea can open but enormous DIY emporiums can’t. Several categories of stores in tourist areas such as the Champs Élysées are authorised to open, but the same categories in other tourist areas barely a kilometre away, such as the Grands Boulevards, aren’t.

Late-night opening is also a thorny issue, with the trade unions claiming that the premium paid on employees’ wages is desultory. Cases are going through the courts, injunctions are flying around, and the government is talking about new legislation. But don’t hold your breath: the French haven’t quite grasped the idea that if consumers want to shop on a Sunday, in the evening or, heaven help us, at lunchtime, it makes good commercial sense to let them. In many cultures the customer is king, but we all know what the French tend to think of kings!