Sometimes the vessel brings as much delight as its contents. Such is the case with the Café au Lait bowl. Its generous size makes it perfect for holding everything from soup to nuts.
If coffee is the first or only thought that comes to mind for Café au Lait bowls (after all, the phrase translates to “coffee with milk”), you may want to think a bit more creatively. They’re not only great for venti-sized helpings of soup or hot chocolate, but also for fruit, salad, cereal, ice cream, candy, bread, dips and pasta. I’ve even turned them over and used them as drying stands for my decoupage projects.
Lidy Baars, owner of online home-décor shop French Garden House (frenchgardenhouse.com), is both a collector and seller of these French-born bowls. She shares her insight here so you can enjoy your own collection.
In the early 19th century, coffee was served in elegant porcelain Café au Lait cups, mostly to the elite class, but by the late 19th century it became affordable for the masses, Baars says.
Their historical value appeals to the antiques collector; the faience “country” bowls are scooped up by Francophiles and French Country lovers; and white porcelain bowls are favored among shabby chic and cottage-style homeowners, Baars says. Then, of course, some people just love collecting bowls in general.
Baars sells sets of four reproduction Café au Lait bowls for $44; simple vintage and antique bowls range between $35 to $85 a piece. “Very old ones or extremely rare examples, like a bowl from 1900 with a Communion transfer design we sold recently, can go for between $85 to $145, depending on the age and intricacy of the design,” she says.
Where to Find Them
Flea markets or, less often, antiques shops are your best bets. “In France, it’s le Marché aux Puces de Vanves on the south side of Paris,” Baars says. “We sell them at French Garden House; they are the first thing I look for on buying trips and the first thing out of the truck when some of my favorite French dealers come by with their wares.” Search also at online auction sites.
How to Display Them
“I love stacks of the bowls, and this is how we display them at home,” Baars says. “We use them daily, so they are in the kitchen on a stand. You can use them anywhere for a little French touch: on your vanity to hold jewelry and in the guest bathroom to hold soaps, bath beads and cotton balls.”
“For new bowls, Comptoir de Famille, which makes a beautiful Fig pattern, and Pillivuyt, with their classic clean, white bowls are two French companies that produce excellent bowls,” Baars says. “We sell a few other lines of reproduction bowls that are fun and colorful; the patterns are always changing.” Baars recommends handwashing the bowls and not putting them microwave. “They weren’t made for that, and while they are quite sturdy, it would be a shame for them to crack due to temperature differences,” she says.
By Meryl Schoenbaum
Photography by Mark Tanner