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Where did it all begin? The popular story on how the name "bistro" originated says it came from the Russian word "bistro" or "quick", "fast". When the Russian army invaded France during the Napoleon wars, they used to shout "bistro" to demand faster service. The name stuck, and now we refer to Paris bars as "bistro" or "bistrot".

Ready for a meal "au terrasse" by the walls of an old theatre

Bistros were a lower class restaurants, where the French workers could gather, have a cheap meal and a drink. In the traditional bistro nowadays you can still find a zinc bar, and a menu written on a blackboard. While the drink offering is extensive, the menu is usually short (but so good!), and based around traditional French cuisine. From boeuf bourguignon, blanquette de veau, to a tarte Tatin and an île flottante.

Somewhere in Paris...

Simple food, wine from the region, an intimate, low key, laid back atmosphere - this is what a French bistro is about.

Sharing a good meal au terrasse at Les Lyonnais

Other than a for a full meal, people drop by for coffee, bien sûr! Served in a tiny porcelain cup, it gives you a permission to stay as long as you want. The cups and plates have either a brand of coffee printed on them, or the name of the establishment itself. Many times you also find the style as in the picture below, colored dark green, burgundy, yellow, or white, with a gold rim.

Savoring my coffee in a traditional bistro cup (edged in gold, these come in dark green, burgundy, and white as well) at "Chez Janou" bistrot in Paris

Now I am coming to the part that will interest aficionados of highly collectible French bistro items. In the 19th century right up to 1950s coffee in French bistros was frequently served in thick porcelain cups called "brûlot". They are the traditional kind of cups that were used in French cafes all over France for many decades but sadly went out of fashion... Made of heavy porcelain so they could stand up to the constant abuse of handling and washing...and to keep the coffee hot.

One of the numerous places to eat in my Lyon neighbourhood, Cafe de la Cloche

The name "brûlot" comes from the eponymous preparation of strong coffee on which a sugar sprinkled with brandy was flamed. The way they were treated in a fast paced life of a bistro made them prone to chips and breaks. Needless to say, nowadays they are rare and highly collectible. When I am at a flea market I always have my "feelers" out for them, and ask my friendly vendors to save me some when they come across them.

Highly collectible and rare bistro tip saucers

The real rarity are the numbered saucers. They were used in old French bistros as a way of charging the drinker. The pile of dishes on their table were testament to how many drinks they'd had. The colors of the rim denoted the amount the drink cost. They are very difficult to come by these days, and are prized by collectors.

The brûlots come in many designs; I love them all white, with blue stripes, painted flowers... You get the idea!

In the country with rich culinary traditions and a strong cafe culture, the distinctions between brasseries, bistro, cafe, etc. is slightly blurry now. What hasn't changed is the outdoor seating in traditionally woven chairs, "terrasses" cropping up for lunch and dinner times almost everywhere, and the relaxed atmosphere of taking your time, alone or with friends, savoring every bite.

Savoring a drink outside

So when you find yourself in France next time, bring your appetite with you. From restaurants, brasseries, bistros, to les bouchons, guingettes, cafés... It is really hard to have a bad meal in this country! But remember the mealtime hours. Déjeuner is a middle of the day meal, and is served between noon and three (make sure to be seated by 1 pm, or you may go away hungry...). Dinner is served from 7 or 8pm depending on the region. What to do in between? There is always "apéro", but it is a subject for a new blog post!

And when you come by a flea market to try your luck - maybe you will find a brûlot to remind you of your French adventures?

And if not, one of the virtual "shelves" (French bistro) in my online shop is dedicated to vintage bistro collectibles.

A bientôt!

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