La zézette

A short history of a Belleville café

At the crossroads of four different arrondissements, Belleville is known among Parisians as a miniature Chinatown and for its rowdy bars. But who knew that the area’s history was so rich in entertainment ? Even before it was a part of Paris, Belleville was already the city’s most talked-about party district, beginning with the construction of a wall in 1785.

In the video, you learned that Louis XVI decided to build a tax wall around Paris. So from 1785, the Farmer’s General wall separated Belleville from Paris. It wasn’t until 1860 that the wall came down and the 20 districts we know now were created.

La zézette

Cabarets and theaters

But until then, construction materials, heating fuel, and food and drink were taxed as they entered Paris. And as I mentioned in the video, everyone quickly understood that it was much cheaper to eat and drink on the outside of that tax wall !

Parisians and Bellevillois alike flocked to the area’s brand new cabarets, theaters, and goguettes or singing clubs, which provided inexpensive entertainment for the working class. People gathered, ate, drank, and danced in all the leisure establishments that literally pressed up against the Farmer’s General wall.

Mardi Gras

Nearby, a fair stretched out along the boulevard, where people watched animal tamers and flame throwers, listened to singers with accordions (known as “suspender pianos”) and bet on street fighters. They ate waffles and apple turnovers, and theater actors’ flamboyant costumes enchanted the crowds. Belleville also had fireworks displays, an artificial lake, and theme parks.

Belleville even had its own Mardi Gras festivities from 1830 to 1839, complete with disguises, drinking, and dancing ‘til dawn. The revelers you see in the video excerpt from Marcel Carné’s film Les enfants du paradis, which takes place in 1828, are actually in a nearby theater district to the west known as the boulevard du Crime. But the same types of wild parades and street parties were going on in Belleville during that period.

“Saint Monday”

By the late 1800s, alcoholism was rampant in Belleville. Absenteeism from work on Mondays was high : after spending Sunday with their families, men would actually make the rounds in the various taverns of Belleville. It was called “celebrating Saint Monday” (fêter le Saint-Lundi). The cartoon below is from a satirical magazine called L’assiette au beurre, in publication from 1901 to 1936. Its caption reads : "What a strange wind ! I can hardly stand, and yet the leaves aren’t moving."

La zézette

But all sorts of people went to the local cafés, not just working men. Sometimes women attended the cafés with their husbands on Sundays, but more often, women went with their boss and colleagues, and drank a zézette, the simple mix of absinthe and white wine for which you’ll find the recipe below.

Did you say zézette ?

But just what is a zézette, anyway ? If you ask any French person (or any bartender for that matter) for a zézette, they’ll look at you as if you were crazy. Children are more likely to use the word zézette when they’re referring to…. Well, how to put this ? They’re talking about lady parts.

In fact, the zézette is also a type of cookie from the city of Sète, near Montpellier in the south of France. Viewer discretion is advised, but you may click here for a photo of the potentially offensive cookie. See what I mean ? Maybe it’s just me, but I’d rather pour myself a nice turn-of-the-last-century lady’s drink, rather than eat cookies that look like lady parts. You decide !

For hours of operation and other details, see the Aux Folies web site.

Thanks go to M. Boissy of L’Art Nouveau for permission to use the map of the Farmer’s General wall.

And for francophones who are looking for a thorough web site on absinthe, please go to Le musée virtuel de l’absinthe for pages and pages of interesting documents and history.

La zézette

La zézette

If you’re in Paris and want to try a few different types of absinthe, and even use a real absinthe fountain, go to the 11th district’s La Fée Verte (108 rue de la Roquette). Knowledgeable bartenders will help you choose between the many absinthe drinks available (including Marilyn Manson’s own brand) and the 1930s décor will make you feel like you’re definitely in another era.

Absinthe is now fully legal in Europe, but it isn’t the same stuff that made Belle Époque artists crazy. Banned in 1915 in France, absinthe made its comeback in 2011 when the active ingredient, thujone, was dialed down. However….

Here is my disclaimer : The sweetness of this drink belies its power ! Please consume responsibly. I cannot be held accountable for loud singing, wild dancing, or other absinthe-induced antics that may ensue from the consumption of this beverage.

ingredients :
- 1 part absinthe
- 7 parts sweet, very cold white wine (Sauternes, Montbazillac, Côteaux du Layon, or any other unctuous white wine)

how to make it :
1. Pour the two ingredients together in a pitcher and stir well.
2. Add two ice cubes to each glass. Pour about a half-glass of the Zézette (remember this is strong stuff), and serve immediately.

makes as many drinks as you like, depending on the size of your “parts” (sorry !)

Tags : cocktail , Belleville , absinthe , white wine , cabarets , Aux Folies


modération a priori

Ce forum est modéré a priori : votre contribution n’apparaîtra qu’après avoir été validée par un administrateur du site.

Qui êtes-vous ?
Votre message

Pour créer des paragraphes, laissez simplement des lignes vides.

Mitch 17 juillet 2015

Wow ! Great video ! Very professional. Time to partay.

Allison 17 juillet 2015

Thanks for watching ! Yes, partay indeed — but with absinthe, I highly recommend moderation !

Ellen Zinder 18 juillet 2015

Delightfully informative and just plain fun !

Latest recipes