If you live in Paris, chances are you frequent a café, a convivial spot around the corner from your home where you can stop in to have a coffee and a good gossip. This is the story of one such Parisian café, Le Mistral, which is tucked into a humble corner of the 20th arrondissement.
Once upon a time, about fifty years ago, when most cafés were run by families from the Auvergne region of France, a young Aveyronais, part entrepreneur, part charbonnier (coal-seller) decided to open a neighborhood café that would serve coffee, drinks and food and also sell coal. Thus, Le Mistral was born.
Though a combination coal shop/café seems unusual in these modern times, what with our lovely central heating systems and all, it was once quite common. In fact, the French word bougnat is defined as a coal-seller turned café-owner from Aveyron. (This fascinating article discusses the Aveyron-Paris migration (but only in French — sorry).)
Fast forward to 1987, when a young CK (now my husband) stumbled into Le Mistral as an American exchange student. Armed only with basic French, he became friends with the original owner’s sons, Didier and Alain. CK would stop in often for a coffee or a beer, and would sometimes write out the day’s chalkboard menus in exchange for a hot meal. Didier and Alain took CK. on visits to Aveyron, they helped him find a job and two apartments. Of course, in the end, every Parisian sojourn must come to an end. Eventually CK left the City of Light, his French much improved thanks to daily conversations on politics, sports and the Doobie Brothers with Didier and Alain. And despite the constraints of time and distance, the three never lost touch.
Now, over twenty years later, CK is back in Paris. Le Mistral is still there and Alain and Didier are still behind the counter.
On a recent visit, we tucked into steak and aligot, the regional dish of Aveyron that The Penguin Companion to Food describes as “an unusual dish of mashed potato in which very fresh Cantal cheese is melted, the whole then being vigorously beaten to produce a smooth elastic texture. The elasticity of this dish, which is a speciality of Auvergne, is such that a pair of scissors has to be provided when it is served.”
We enjoyed Aveyronais wine, produced by Didier and Alain’s vineyard in Estaing.
The menu is still on the chalkboard. I like the formule rapide, which consists of a green salad garnished with walnuts, a small steak and aligot, for 13€. Note the second menu, Le Bougnat, whose name refers to Didier and Alain’s father. I’m fond of the farçou, a savory pancake made of vegetables, served with blackberry jam.
Now that we live in the 6ème, Le Mistral isn’t around the corner. But we still go often to chat with Alain (photo above) and to eat aligot and saucisse d’Avergne (a garlicky sausage of the region). As family-run cafés rapidly disappear from the neighborhoods of Paris, Le Mistral remains simple and old-fashioned — a classic.
401 rue des Pyrénées (métro: Pyrénées)
Tel: 01 46 36 98 20