Black stuff at Balzac’s

17 Oct

If you enjoy coffee as much as I do it’s always a delight to find a really good coffee shop, which serves great coffee and where you wile away the time, book in hand, or meet with friends for chat and a catch up.  I like a coffee shop where I can order my coffee in small, medium and large, and not a system of three words that all mean large.  I don’t need the barista to address me by name, a friendly smile and efficient service will do, and I’m always up for a tempting great to accompany my cup of coffee; it’s even better if it’s got a home baked feel to it.

So I’ve been particularly pleased to discover Balzac’s coffee roasters, a small chain of coffee shops which was started by Diana Olsen in Stratford, ON, home of Canada’s Shakespeare festival.  Diana’s degree in French literature, time in Paris and common passion for coffee which she shared with the French author Honoré de Balzac (he used to write furiously at night fuelled by cups of coffee) inspired to set up her first coffee shop based on a set of values that prioritises the production of artisanal, sustainable and great tasting coffee.  Now that original shop has turned into seven shops sprinkled around Toronto and Ontario.

I love the idea of a coffee shop inspired by a literary giant and one for whom coffee plays such an important role in story telling.  Reading through Balzac’s works you find that time and again, crucial action is centred around the social niceties of coffee making and taking; for example, in Eugiene Grandet where Eugiene defies her miser father to give her cousin Charles a cup of good sweet coffee before he learns about his father plan to take his own life, or Cousin Bette agreeing to take part in clandestine assignations in order to make sure she has enough money to buy the pure mocha she loves so well.  Coffee in Balzac work is far more than a drink with a pleasing aroma; in all of its social niceties and complexities it’s a  brilliant dramatic tool for revealing character and sending the narrative hurtling in new and unexpected directions.

So far I’ve been to two branches, the one in the distillery district, now an elegant place to shop, eat and enjoy the drama of the Soulpepper theatre co., and the one based at the public reference library.  What could be a better combination than books and coffee?  What I’ve enjoyed in both are the beautiful advertising posters, one to represent each shop and all designed in the graphic style of the 20s and 30s advertising that would have pleased artists like Bawden, Leighton and Nash.

To make me even happier I discovered that Balzac’s serve an almond croissant, which came close to my favourite almond croissant of all time (an honour that is currently held by Maison Blanc).  Balzac’s almond croissant is filled with a rich paste (rather than a crème patisserie which I’m not so keen on), topped with the same paste, so that it crisps in the oven and becomes beautifully crunchy and is sprinkled liberally with flaked almonds and baking sugar.  Almost, but just not quite, as perfect at Maison Blanc’s version.

In honour of this new found delight here are some of Balzac’s characters on coffee:

‘If you will but help me to my revenge,” the tradesman went on, “I will sink ten thousand francs in an annuity for you. Tell me, my fair cousin, tell me who has stepped into Josepha’s shoes, and you will have money to pay your rent, your little breakfast in the morning, the good coffee you love so well—you might allow yourself pure Mocha, heh! And a very good thing is pure Mocha!’ Crevel talking to Lisbeth, Cousin Bette

‘Well, let him have his coffee very strong; I heard Monsieur des Grassins say that they make the coffee very strong in Paris. Put in a great deal.’ Eugiene about Charles’ coffee, Eugiene Grandet

‘just think! they ask you sixteen sous for a cup of coffee alone on the place de l’ Odeon’ The Brotherhood of Consolation

‘The brother and sister poured in the coffee made by Sylvie herself on the table. When Sylvie had carefully prepared hers, she saw an atom of coffee-grounds floating on the surface. On this the storm broke forth.’ The Celibates

‘The pudding is delicious,’ said Genestas.  ‘Then w hat will you say to her coffee and cream?’ cried Benassis.  ‘I would rather hear our pretty hostess talk.’ The Country Doctor

‘Friendships struck up over Flicoteaux’s dinners were sealed in neighboring cafes in the flames of heady punch, or by the generous warmth of a small cup of black coffee glorified by a dash of something hotter and stronger.’ A Distinguished Provincial at Paris

‘Have we time to get a cup of coffee?’ said the artist, in a gentle voice, to Pierrotin.’ A Start in Life

‘It is pleasant to sit down and take a little coffee in quiet.’ The General in The Stepmother: A Drama in Five Acts





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