Sunday, March 18, 2012

Café au Lait for the Literary Minded


From the moment we are born, our first cries from the womb herald that we are social creatures. We will never be naturally quiet again; the need to communicate is so wired into our biological survival strategy, that the choice not to speak is often interpreted as an act of aggression.

To be ignored was Werner von Ebrennac's fate in Le Silence de la Mer* (The Silence of the Sea) written by Jean Bruller under the pen name Vercors. Bruller published the slim volume in Paris under the radar of the Nazis, an impassioned and compassionate study of the mandate of French resistance played out in a provincial village with only three main characters: von Ebrennac, an idealistic and naive Wehrmacht officer billeted in the home of an elderly man and his niece, whose names remain hidden from the reader.

The tale's tragedy is two fold. It is as much about von Ebrennac's disillusionment with Nazi propaganda as it is the hopelessness of love and unification with the young Frenchwoman whose trenchant silence softens to just one word when the cultured and kind soldier she has come to have feelings for is transferred to the Soviet front.

The conviviality and solidarity between uncle and niece is displayed in the many cups of coffee they drink throughout their days, listening without response to von Ebrennac's romanticized soliloquies focusing on the merging of German and French cultures after the war is over. The officer, who takes his meals at military headquarters, is never offered to join them for coffee, as he is denied all hospitality usually enjoyed by house guests in happier times.

Their coffee, as in the manner of the French style, is often drunk with an equal part of steaming dairy. Though a very strong brew can be quite bitter at times, the milk of human kindness cannot always be denied.

Café au Lait - My way

Serves 1-2 (It is typically served in large bowls without handles, as seen in the above photo)


1/3 cup ground Turkish coffee (or very finely ground espresso)
1 cup filtered water
1 cup cream, whole milk, or reduced-fat milk


Combine coffee and water in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil. Remove from heat. Let stand for 5 minutes. Heat your choice of dairy in a separate small saucepan until steaming, but do not allow to come to boil. Remove from heat. Strain coffee through a fine sieve lined with muslin or cheesecloth to collect the finest particles of grounds. Pour strained coffee and steaming dairy simultaneously into 1 or 2 deep and wide bowls. Although a matter of taste, sugar may be stirred in at the last minute. Serve immediately while still steaming.

This is for Simona of Briciole who is hosting the fifteen edition of Novel Food, an event she co-created with Lisa of Champaign Taste, highlighting the food and drink found within the pages of the literature, poetry, memoirs, and essays which feed our minds as well as our bellies.

* For those interested in screen versions of this novel, Jean Pierre Melville's 1949 film is available with English subtitles on DVD. There is also an exquisitely beautiful 2004 French TV production on You Tube, but it is not offered with English translation, only in its original French, as well as Spanish subtitles.


  1. Café au lait is one of my favorite hot drinks. Lovely!



  2. I always though cafe au lait had chicory in it. We make something called "filter coffee" in southern India which is made in a similar way, but has some ground chicory in it, usually an 80:20 ratio (coffee:chicory). Its good to see you back here Susan!

  3. That reminds me of a time when I was in Tunisia and desperately wanted a cafe au lait. When I tried to place my order the words slipped my mind. Something I commonly ordered and I couldn't recall! "Cafe...", I could recall the English word milk, the German word Milch, the Spanish word Leche...but they spoke Tunisian and French, finally in desperation I ordered "cafe moo", yes I mooed. I got my cafe au lait and a chuckle.

  4. What a lovely piece of writing Susan! Glad you are back and feeling better. xo

  5. I can relate to meaning of caffellatte, something really important in my everyday routine. Of course I also have my own type, but the principle is the same. The book sounds good.


    is BWW back?

  6. Ahh a latte always tastes better with a book. Le Silence de la Mer sounds like a great book--I'll have to read it after I get through War and Peace by Tolstoy.

    Lovely post.

  7. I don't know Le Silence de la Mer (what an interesting title!): your description is quite intriguing. In my mind café au Lait embodies French everyday life. Thank you so much for your contribution to Novel Food. And, of course, welcome back!

    P.S. I just saw this French movie set right before the war.

  8. Good to see you back in the blogosphere! This book sounds like one I would enjoy. Thank you for posting about it.

  9. This book sounds interesting and I love your café au lait--it looks so warm and comforting. Perfect to tuck into when reading. ;-)

  10. i'm not a coffee drinker but love to have a taste. i'd enjoy the company, too. interesting book. i'd like to see the movie, too.

  11. Love coffee so this one is welcome.

  12. Nice to hear you are back up and entertaining us with gorgeous photos and writing again. I can't say I enjoy cafe au lait because I cant stomach coffee but I often wish I could as it seems quite an elegant drink and one to drink solo in quiet contemplation

  13. This sounds like a great way to experience Café Du Monde at home--if you haven't and find yourself with a chance to get to New Orleans, you simply must make that part of your itinerary.