"The reluctant Francophile..."
My husband Jack has always wanted to live in Paris and learn French. I thought it would be good for him to achieve his life time dream. Hence, we moved to Paris in 2008. My first year was difficult. I started "missives" to relieve some stress and chronicle my life so friends back in the US could read what I am experiencing. I currently write about my food and travel experiences, which is my passion.
It is definitely a challenge to live here, but each year it gets easier, and quite enjoyable, in large part because I value friendships over locale. I have a love/hate relationship with Paris as do most Parisians, mais La vie est belle (but life is good)!
Friday, February 19, 2016
Café society and coffee in France
Since moving here in 2008, I've posted several news articles on various social networks about France's café society, and in particular here in Paris. Ironically considering France is the gastronomic capital of the world, coffee is not on par with its culinary standards. Many of my readers have commented and have also asked specific questions about this disconnect. So, I decided to write a blog on my thoughts about the café society and the coffee itself.
First a little history about the coffee society in France. Like the counter-culture revolution of the San Francisco Renaissance, "The Beat Generation" of the 60's, it was born out of the people wanting to explore life "intellectually." And, whereas the "Beat Generation" sought out meeting places in e.g., book stores to exchange ideas through literature and reciting poetry, the French sought refuge in cafés to have lengthy political discussions/debates and even conspiring as early as during the revolution to today's world view of everything from politics, to art, to cuisine etc. So, it wasn't born out of "let's get some coffee" as it was more for people to congregate.
After the revolution, people continued to meet in cafés. Great artists, musicians, actors etc., met at cafés where they could linger and spend hours discussing/debating subjects of interest. And, writers could come and spend hours at cafés getting inspiration and yes writing for hours. In fact, one of the cafés we frequent is "Le Select" in the Montparnasse area of Paris (99 Boulevard du Montparnasse, 75006). This is the café spoken about in Ernest Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises." And, the café is featured in Nöel Fitch's book, "Paris Cafe", where he discusses the likes of Hemingway, Beauvoir, Picasso, James Baldwin, and George Plimpton who frequented certain cafés. In fact, if you go there today, at the back of the café, you will see today's generation of writers either writing in solitude or having heated discussions/debates about "the world." There are many more cafés with such history to list, and if you're interested there are several books available about the French café society on Amazon.
Speaking from my own personal experiences of living in Paris in today's world, cafés are an integral part of Parisian life. Since most Parisian homes/apartments are small we use cafés as our starting point, intermediate point, and even our ending point. It's sort of our "public living room." Whereas, generally speaking, in the U.S. homes are typically the meeting place, because #1 they're larger, and #2 you don't feel rushed. And typically in the U.S. you are "obligated' to continue ordering drinks when you're in a café and/or bar in order to use their space. In Paris, you can order one drink, e.g., coffee and sit for hours and you'll never be rushed.
Keep in mind that cafés are our social connection to our friends, business meetings, and a host of other events. A typical day for many French would consist of dropping by a café for breakfast and having a "café creme" with a baguette spread with double rich creamy butter, dipped in coffee, or a pastry. (Note: French are not big on American style breakfasts). As noon approaches the cafés are where many people go for simple and quick lunches, and they can get you in and out within an hour or two for many workers. Later, between 4-6 pm, we start "l'heure de l'apéro" loosely translated "hour of the drinks or apéritifs"; the closest similarity would be to the American "cocktail hour." As friends begin arriving they will either start with coffee or go for apéritifs, wines or even cocktails. At some cafés, they will provide a plate of sausages, potato chips, peanuts and interestingly enough, popcorn. Then around 8 pm, we begin discussing what we should do for dinner (Note: dinner starts later in Paris). We can either stay at the café, or go to a bistro/restaurant. (Note: most cafés are not known for their food, and many use frozen or prepackaged foods). Or, in some cases some of us will go home. If after dinner people want to go out for a night cap, guess where they go? most often to a café for a "digestif." (Note: this socializing can even be on a work day, the French don't live to work, but work to live). On week-ends in the younger more hip areas, such as the 11eme arrondissement, the cafés actually turn more into a bar, with a bouncer and even a D.J.
Now back to the coffee. The coffee was never the main draw for going to cafés, more the connecting glue and always took a backseat. So, with that said the coffee quality suffered. The coffee came from France's old colonies, and the best way to describe this, is this quote from an article from "slate.com"
"For a long time, coffee imported from the French colonies came in duty-free, making beans from the rest of the world more expensive. The French colonies produced mostly Robusta coffee, a cheaper bean with a stronger, harsher taste than Arabica, the other predominant coffee varietal. Because of the access to mostly Robusta beans, the French palate grew accustomed to this harsher varietal, and before coffee deregulation in the 1950s, Robusta comprised 80 percent of the French coffee market. More than 60 years later, that palate for a harsher bean still exists, and Robusta beans still account for around 50 percent of French coffee."
When we first moved to Paris in 2008, I could barely drink the coffee in the cafés, I found them extremely harsh with almost a burnt and acrid taste. My French friends would tell me that's because unlike American coffee, which is stereotypically viewed as being weak, watered down, and large, the French like strong coffees. It's semantics and cultural, I tried to explain by saying:
There is a big difference between ordering coffee versus espresso in the U.S. Therefore, when ordering a café (normal) in France it will always be an espresso. Whereas when ordering a coffee in the U.S. it will always be larger and brewed with more water. Therefore, in the US if you want to order a stronger coffee, you have to specifically ask for an espresso. And, on the flip side, when ordering a coffee in France brewed with more water like "American" style coffee, you have to ask for a "Café Allongé".
Taste is very subjective and many cultures prefer their coffee a specific way. For example, Ethiopians drink their coffee without milk, but usually with lots of sugar or salt. Italians like very, very, strong coffee and never have dairy in their milk in the afternoon, it's associated with breakfast. And, the French like their coffee very harsh and even bitter. Personally, my favorite coffee country is Italy, followed by the cities of Seattle and San Francisco in the U.S. In fact, up until recently I use to bring back coffee from the US or Italy, but the better roasted and blended coffees are now available at Starbucks and specialty coffee coffee shops around Paris.
"French Market Maven" and I went to her local café a couple of years ago. I asked if they had a café mocha. They had no idea what I was talking about. My friend Marie, who is half French and who's been living in Paris off and on since childhood and knows the culture asked the waiter to take chocolate and pour a little espresso or vice versa. The waiter looked perplex, because of course, they aren't allowed to think outside the box, and told us that it couldn't be done. So I ordered a hot chocolate and an espresso. Until this day, at most cafés I still order a hot chocolate and coffee separately and mix it myself. I recite this story because little-by-little "café mochas" are becoming known. Coffee is no longer just a "pick-me-up," but it's becoming more of something to be enjoyed with varying flavors and taste, as is wine.
Thanks to Stéphane Cataldi (French, but with Italian roots), barista extrodinaire, I believe he has single-handedly changed the public's growing taste of coffee in France. More and more French are embracing and focusing on the importance of the e.g., brew style, quality of the coffee. Hopefully, one day the French will view coffee as they do wines. With that said, many have seen this as a business opportunity and specialty coffee shops are popping up all over Paris, and many are French who are honing their skills in e.g., Italy as well as in the U.S. They're even having fairs and contests now. It's still difficult to get a café mocha in most cafés, but it's improving. Here's a list of some great coffee shops in Paris "Good Coffee in Paris" my personal favorite on this list is "Café Coutume." And, here's another list from my friend's at "Paris by Mouth" "Guide to Decent Coffee". And, finally from Bloomberg, their favs "Where to drink decent coffee."
With Starbucks and the new specialty coffee shops opening in Paris, there are so many choices, but here's a simple basic list of the coffees served at most cafés:
Café -- Shot of espresso, you can ask for a double
Café allongé -- More like general American coffee
Café noisette -- An espresso with a dash of steamed (foamed) milk, sometimes the milk is served on the side
Café serré -- Shot of espresso with half the amount of water. Extremely strong
Café crème -- Espresso with warmed cream or milk
Starbucks in France has really changed how people view coffee. They have so many flavored espressos both hot and cold, with the latter unheard of a couple of years ago. (Note: at bistros/restaurants and French homes, coffee is always served after dessert, not with it)
With France's keen sense of taste with food and clothing, I am confident they will become a force to be reckoned with in the coffee world. So, in addition to coffee and intellectual pursuits, cafés are also a great place for people watching.