One of the things that Francophiles have always loved about France is its café culture. That delicious tradition of having an unhurried coffee while watching the world go by. Think of those real-life famous French cafés – the Deux Magots in Paris where Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre used to rendez-vous and the Café de la Gare in Arles where Van Gogh stayed. And think of those in the world of fiction, such as the Café des Poètes in Jean Cocteau’s film “Orphée” and Le Condé in Patrick Modiano’s novel “Dans le café de la jeunesse perdue” .
I am happy to report that as far as the Aude is concerned, café culture is alive and well. If you stop for coffee in an Audois café, there may well be a group of budding philosophers/painters/writers/film directors already ensconsed at a table engaged in brilliant conversation, but even if there is not, you will find the following:
1. The likelihood is that the café will be individually owned and operated rather than one of a chain of cafés. It will therefore have its own distinct character.
2. When entering the café you will not be expected to queue at the counter to order your coffee, wait for it to be made and then carry your cup to wherever there is a free place. Instead you will sit at a table (or stand at the bar if you prefer) and the waiter will come to you and ask you what you would like.
3. When ordering coffee, you will not have to work your way through a long list of choices (e.g tall americano with vanilla syrup, decaff skinny latte, single shot cappuccino) before deciding what you want. If you ask for “un café” you will be given a small strong black coffee. “Une noisette” is “un café” with a shot of hot milk. “Un café creme” (also known as “un café au lait”) is coffee with lots of hot milk and is usually drunk at breakfast time. And that is it.
4. You will not be asked if your coffee is to drink in or takeaway. A café is of course a place to drink in. The inhabitants of the Aude are not given to rushing along the street clutching a disposable cup in such a hurry to be somewhere else that they have to drink their coffee en route. There will be a blissful absence of cardboard cups with plastic lids containing spouts through which to suck, which seem to be everywhere now in the Anglo-Saxon world.
5. The waiter will bring you your coffee in a white china cup. You will drink it in your own time, while talking to your companion, reading the paper or simply in your own reverie. When you have finished and you are ready you will pay the waiter and leave, all the better for the time you have just spent.
All of the three cafés are located in a row along the cours de la Republique in Castelnaudary. It is not possible to tell whether or not the next Jean Cocteau or Simone de Beauvoir is sitting in one of them. But each of them makes a good spot for those of us who like to linger over excellent coffee.