A Slice of Paris in Ontario
Coffee Chronicles 3/100
In the rustic town of Almonte, I stopped for lunch and coffee in an unassuming café on the main street of this former mill town in eastern Ontario. On the surface, the Mill Street Crêpe Company is unmistakably Canadian, with its industrial façade, rustic brick walls, and towering iron-beamed ceilings.
But as I entered this quaint café, my thoughts drifted to Paris. At first, I believed I was distracted by my upcoming interview about my memories of Paris (on KABC.com, likely on Sunday at 11:30 a.m. ET, but I'll let you know). I thought about cafes I visited over the years in France's capital and how I recently had arrived by a fast train from Rotterdam at Gare du Nord. Only after enjoying the hum of conversation and the aroma of freshly brewed coffee for a while did I notice the decor choices that may have unconsciously drawn my memories to France.
So far, I had missed some initial clues about Paris, like the Eiffel Tower playfully painted on the café's window and the menu cover. There was also another hint of Paris that I had missed: a black and white poster of a steam train entering a train station that adorned the wall, which could have been taken in London but, at closer inspection, somehow looked more like Gare Saint-Lazare or one of the other main train stations of Paris as so often painted by impressionists like Manet, Monet, and, from the distant perspective of the Pont de l'Europe, Caillebotte.
It was an unusual choice for a cafe that seemed quintessentially Canadian, with a hint of rustic industrialism that somehow felt more reminiscent of Almonte than Paris. This town in Ontario has been industrial since its founding in the early 19th century and only turned to tourism after the last textile mill closed in the 1980s.
I admit I was a bit slow on the uptake. Yet, when I gazed upon a faded printed version of Renoir's famed "Luncheon of the Boating Party," I finally grasped the café's mission to whisk its patrons momentarily to the City of Light.
Although I have never seen the original painting in Washington, DC, I instantly recognized Renoir's masterpiece. Painted in 1880, it is an iconic celebration of the joys of good company, delicious food, fine wine, and the tranquility of nature. It's a world where the natural surroundings and human interactions exude calm and gentleness, a scene you would like to join. It is the kind of image that never fails to make me feel happy; it transports me briefly to Renoir's dreamy world of loveliness, where I like to escape to, especially now that today's global developments conform more to Hieronymus Bosch's grotesque visions of the underworld.
It was the weeks-long news coverage of human suffering, injustice, and disrespect for the most basic of human rights that led me to Almonte. I wanted today to leave the news cycle and city life behind and hide where I usually find solace: in nature, culture, or history.
I will add a downloaded image of the painting for you: it's the opening photo of this article. However, that is not what I stared at; after many years of exposure to sunlight, the faded reproduction in the cafe missed most of the original vivid colors. The one you will see in this article shows the lovely full-color scene set in a riverside restaurant in the village of Chatou, just a stone's throw away from bustling Paris. You can see the Seine River flowing serenely in the upper left background.
Similarly, Almonte is just a stone's throw away from Ottawa, along the small Mississippi River. The snippets of information floating in my mind now fell into place; while this crêpe house cafe had tried but failed to lure me into a feeling of being in Paris, I realized the painting aimed for the opposite. It depicts the Parisian bourgeoisie escaping the French capital to seek respite from urban life in nature.
Although Renoir's work may have been an odd choice by the establishment's owners in their aim to recreate Paris, Renoir's masterpiece seemed instead to mirror what I was doing today: escaping from the realities of city life.
While I ordered my lunch and let my mind drift off into history and culture, a banner popped up on my phone to remind me of dramatic events taking place elsewhere in the world. I decided to ignore my connection to the world; instead, I focussed on the distant background of the painting. There, partially obscured by the restaurant's canopy, a railway bridge stands as a connection to Paris and the harsh reality it represents. However, none of Renoir's diners even glanced in that direction; they ignored it like I had just done with my smartphone notifications about the world I wanted to keep at a distance.
I enjoyed my stop in The Almonte café; although the coffee disappointed me, the mushroom soup was excellent. I recommend the crêpe of roasted vegetables, a mix of onions, pepper, tomato, spinach, pickled eggplant, black beans, goat cheese, zucchini and mushroom.
This cafe or lunchroom is an unexpected fusion in a small former industrial town that has reinvented itself as a weekend escape from Ottawa, where 19th-century Canadian industrial heritage meets some elements of 19th-century Paris and where its masterpiece reproduction reminds the viewer to escape the capital city to a nearby weekend getaway.
The Mill Street Crêpe Company offered me a charming slice of two worlds in a single sip and inspired me to talk about Paris in tomorrow's radio interview.
This is the third in a series of cafes I visited. I will always post these to my coffee supporters on https://www.buymeacoffee.com/AlexVerbeek. Some of the longer ones, like today, I will also share with all subscribers at The Planet newsletter.
I will soon share some more photos and stories of Almonte on Patreon.
I write this newsletter because I believe we can do better on this beautiful but fragile planet if we work together.
You can subscribe for free to receive this newsletter in your email, but please consider supporting this initiative by paying for a subscription. The paying subscribers make it possible for those who can't afford it to read for free.