Eceaux is a drink inspired by a golden age of ‘Café culture’. But which kind of café? And which Culture?
To some Café Culture means the cast of Friends, Central Perk and a million kinds of lattes. To others, it’s sitting under an awning on the pavement "watching the world go by".
I grew up in Paris. Memories of my student life are full of late evenings and animated discussions in the city’s cafés. They are where I had my first hesitant taste of strong liqueur and where, even today, I never tire of people-watching. Paris is the heart of Café Culture as I know and love it. And the birthplace of a legendary Café Society.
First, there was coffee
Although coffee had been around for centuries (circa 850AD), it only arrived in Europe in the 17th century. At first, the bitter, dark brew was too challenging for Western society. It met staunch resistance, even being dubbed the “Devil’s drink”, giving cause for scrutiny by the Vatican. The story goes that Pope Clement VIII took one taste and declared:
“This devil’s drink is delicious. We should cheat the devil by baptising it.”
With its fortunes invigorated by this Papal blessing, coffee spread across Europe like wildfire. Still, not everybody expected coffee’s popularity to last. The celebrated literary aristocrat, Madame de Sevigné famously wrote,
“ The fashion for Racine’s poetry will pass, as will the fashion for coffee”. Wrong on both counts!
1686 saw the opening of the first coffee house in Paris, Café Procope in the city’s 6th arrondissement. And it’s still there today, only steps away from Boulevard St-Germain and the lively Quartier Latin. You can follow in the footsteps of luminaries like Rousseau, Voltaire, and Benjamin Franklin. And sip coffee surrounded by its lavish interior.
Then there was café culture
Following Café Procope’s success, imitations spread quickly across the city.
Parisian café culture was born.
For the many café’s clientele, the coffee was no longer the main attraction. They came to exchange news, gossip and rumours and most often an indistinguishable mix of all three. Yet in the 17th century, the spoken word was thought more reliable than the written. The newspapers of the day were not trusted.
During the dangerous times of the French revolution, the café established itself as the social meeting place. The place to engage in political debate and even rebellion. A place where the young Napoleon, still a lowly artillery ranked officer, could be found playing chess.
The calmer period of the French Restoration, following the fall of Napoleon, cultivated a more relaxed café atmosphere. Still the gathering place for impassioned conversations and philosophical discussions. Albeit with a lesser bitter political flavour.
The Golden area
The late 19th and early 20th century brought peace and prosperity across Europe. And with it, transformations in art, literature and science. What would become known in France as the ‘Belle Epoque’. This renewed era saw other cities flourish. But nowhere bloomed quite as spectacularly as Paris.
Built in 1889, the Eiffel tower symbolised this confidence and optimism. From the science of Louis Pasteur, to the birth of haute couture, all eyes were on Paris. Art Nouveaux was conceived in this exciting era and the flowing nature-inspired designs can still be seen in the city’s Metro.
Van Gogh had died in 1890 but it was during the Belle Epoque that his work was finally recognised. The post-impressionist movement was emerging. A new style fronted by Gaugin, Matisse and Toulouse-Lautrec.
Humble back street cafés and grand restaurants were all part of the Paris "café society".
Artists, writers and great thinkers mingled with members of the higher classes...and trod the edges of hedonism and excess.
Artists gathered in low rent areas like Montmartre living side by side with the Romani people. All rubbed shoulders in the same cafes and restaurants. The Romani were mistakenly thought to come from bohemia.
And the term ‘Bohemian’was born.
Bohemian later became the byword for anyone living an eccentric, unconventional lifestyle. Monmarte was the Parisian Shoreditch or SOHO of the day. The risqué element made the area fashionable. And soon, the fabled Moulin Rouge and Folies Bergère became part of the trendy nightlife.
The eccentric and exhilarating reputation of the Parisian café spread beyond France’s borders. Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway and Man Ray, all found refuge in the creative café social scene. The Closerie des Lilas is rumoured to be where Hemingway first read Fitzgerald’s manuscript for The Great Gatsby. And the enigmatic Gatsby embodied the decadence of the “années folles” (the crazy years).
The capital’s boulevards are where the most opulent cafés are found. Art Nouveau on a grand scale. Large tinted mirrors reflecting the over-the-top gilding. Colourful mosaics contrasting with the dark, curvaceous woodwork. Intricate stained-glass windows shining a soft light on highly polished brass work.
Less grand, but equally atmospheric, corner cafés punctuate the side streets. Wooden tables, tiled floors and the characteristic zinc counter. The décor is more restrained, but the conversation and ambience are still just as lively.
Café culture for the modern day of wellness
It was this golden era that inspired the Eceaux brand of drinks. Artists of the time were not just fuelled by caffeine but by liqueurs and strong alcohol... Like everything during that time, Paris did nothing in moderation. This was the age of Absinthe, the ‘Green Fairy ‘and the muse of madness. I wanted to pay homage to this flamboyant period, but recreate it for an age of wellness.
The challenge was to create a drink that reflected the character of the belle époque. But without the alcohol.
I didn’t want to mimic the simple flavours of a pastis, absinthe, or other aperitif or liqueur. I was aiming for something challenging, provocative and unique... But it had to be a drink you felt… DID something… It was a tall order.
I brought back botanical bitter-sweet flavours of wormwood and gentian. Botanicals found in iconic French aperitifs, digestives and liqueurs like absinthe. Then, I experimented with herbal stimulants and relaxants. This led to the creation of two variants: Tranquilité and Vitalité.
It took a lot of tasting, mixing and tweaking. A lot of maceration, infusion, percolation and distillation. Finally, we have created a drink that wouldn’t look, or taste, out of place in the 19th-century cafés of Montmartre... or the bar of the Moulin Rouge.
Et voila! Café Culture is not after all about coffee. It was, and still, is about the creative community. The epicentre of cultural revolutions, counterculture and artistic freedom.
Relax. Revive and Relive a taste of the belle époque.