Happy May 1st! And a happy day it is indeed, for me anyway, because in France, it’s a national holiday! On a Tuesday, too, which is a huge novelty for someone who has grown up in England, where mid-week bank holidays are simply not a thing – unless it’s Christmas, Boxing Day, or New Year’s Day, when the dates are simply not negotiable.
I haven’t done anything particularly extravagant today: a walk in the neighbourhood to pick up some lunch and baking a batch of brownies (peanut butter) have been about the extent of it. Unless you include the personal admin, which I’m quite pleased about having accomplished, since it let me tick several things of my to-do list and I bloody love ticking things of lists.
But I’m not going to write a post about my personal admin. Or my brownies, since there are a wealth of baking blogs out there and this isn’t one of them. Also because they’re currently cooling on the kitchen counter, so I can’t actually tell you how they turned out. (Fabulously, I’m sure).
No, instead I’m going to write about how I spent my afternoon two days ago, on Sunday.
It wasn’t how I was supposed to spend my afternoon. I had planned to meet with my friend (the one from Brittany, if you remember), which I did, and we had planned to have brunch, which we did. But the brunch we had planned to have was a picnic somewhere alongside the Seine, featuring dishes we had made and brought along. Unfortunately, though, Sunday dawned hideously* grey and rainy, so this particular scheme was quickly discarded. Have you ever had a picnic in the rain? Me neither.** With good reason.
Whilst rain is a perfectly legitimate reason to change plans with a friend, though, it is not a good reason to cancel them altogether, so we had a (very) brief discussion which concluded with the solution of simply going to a restaurant instead. I don’t even know why I even thought we needed to discuss it to be honest. Going to a restaurant is the solution to pretty much everything when you’re French. (Not forgetting, of course, that virtually all restaurants are also bars and vice versa).
So, brunch at a restaurant it was. We met at Place de la République, comprising a group of five in the end, and walked a while up one of the many roads coming off the Place. After what felt like an age but was probably no more than about ten minutes (it was raining and I was hungry, okay), we arrived at our destination: a small corner café, with (not uncommonly) more space in the covered terrace area than in the building itself. Not that there was a whole lot of space out there – they really had gotten as many little round tables and (not round) chairs in there as was physically possible. This is also not at all uncommon in Paris – you will very often find yourself as close to a stranger at another table as you are to your own dinner companions – but once you stop worrying about bumping elbows and other personal space concerns, the close proximity of, well, everybody, actually lends rather nicely to the general atmosphere of conviviality and cosiness which is almost universally present in Parisian cafés, restaurants and bars.
So that was the place. Now, the bit that anyone who is familiar with this blog has probably been waiting for (or at least expecting), anyway: the food.
Had I not previously looked into brunching in Paris at quite some length, I would have been more than a little taken aback. As it was, knowing exactly what to expect, I still kept laughing aloud at the whole thing. Suffice to say, the French don’t brunch quite like the British.
Firstly, brunch at this place, as in many, many other places in Paris, was in the form of a self-serve buffet. I haven’t ever encountered this outside of a hotel back home, although I’m sure they probably exist here and there. So, this was a bit of a novelty in a café – but nothing too astonishing.
No, in a nutshell, what is really baffling about French brunch is that it doesn’t actually vaguely resemble breakfast in any way whatsoever.
Well, okay, that’s not entirely true. There was fruit juice. And a skillet station where you could request pancakes cooked to order. But that was where the similarities between this meal and breakfast ended.
Firstly, brunch in France can be and often is a three course affair. The first time I saw this on a menu, I blinked a few times in confusion and checked the title. Nope, there it was: ‘Brunch’ at the top, and three subtitles underneath, one for each course. And although this was a buffet, it followed the same format, set out into three sections so you could quite clearly distinguish where you were supposed to get your entrée (starter), your plat principal (main course), and your dessert.
Which brings me on to the ‘secondly’: Dessert.
I’ve noticed before that French breakfasts, especially for the children, are particularly sweet. It’s not unusual to have a brioche role with a strip of Milka squares stuffed inside, for instance. Biscuits – and I don’t mean Belvita or whatever, actual biscuits – are considered a perfectly acceptable component of the first meal of the day. But a whole dessert course. That’s something else altogether. Not to mention every English child’s wildest dream.
And, actually, just about all the other foodstuffs on offer (excepting the aforementioned pancakes) were equally non-breakfast-like, by my understanding of the meal, anyway. I won’t list every item I had (I did my best to try a little of as much as possible), but I will tell you that roasted Mediterranean vegetables, some kind of chicken casserole, and chocolate mousse featured. It was two days ago now and I’m still somewhat confused.
I won’t say that the French don’t ‘get’ brunch: it was a delicious meal and a very enjoyable experience. However, I will say that I don’t think it is quite understood here that the very word “brunch” means “breakfast/lunch”. In the UK, this generally means you have regular breakfast foods in either greater quantities or at a later time than usual – so you don’t need a separate lunch. It’s breakfast instead of lunch, really. Eggs usually feature. Dessert most certainly does not. (Unless you’re having sweet pancakes, but then that tends to be the whole meal, not a third course.)
It’s an understandable misinterpretation: “brunch” is a fusion of English words, not French words. And actually, the French term for breakfast (petit déjeuner) breaks down to mean “little lunch” (the word for lunch being “déjeuner”). It doesn’t take a massive leap to understand how the concept might be construed a little differently here. But that doesn’t make the whole thing any less baffling, or novel, or hilarious, if you’ve grown up with the English interpretation of “brunch”.
I do have one question, though: when can I go again?
*Hideously grey and rainy, but not, I must add, hideous. I’m sure you’ve heard the clichés about Paris in the rain. It’s nicer in the sun, of course it is – but it’s still pretty damn lovely in the rain.
**Well, not deliberately anyway. I’m British, so I have definitely started a fair few picnics in the sunshine and ended them in the rain.