Friday, January 23, 2009

Of the 101 things I love about France...

#68 would be the coffee culture. I'm quite partial to a frothy grand crème in the morning, une noisette in the afternoon and a sharp little café after a big dinner. I like the simplicity of ordering coffee at a café, although it has taken me a few years to hone my French coffee drinking to perfection. After a few amateur attempts at finding the right coffee for the right time of day, I think I've found my magic formula.

Coffee, how one orders it and how one drinks it, represents a huge cultural difference between France and the States. It's funny how a basic thing, how people satisfy their addiction for a hot legal stimulant, can be so perplexing and different, depending on what country you are in.

What I like about coffee in France is that there's no bs in coffee ordering; no skinnies or mochas or vanilla nut bean. You basically choose milk or no milk and then the size, which ranges from a thimble full to a normal coffee cup size. After all these years in France, I have a hard time remembering what the attraction was to an endless pot of weak coffee.

Before the invasion of Starbuck's, the idea of buying a giant coffee in a paper cup with a lid to go would have seemed absurd to the French. I remember having a travel coffee mug in the States that I never left home without. I don't think I've ever seen a French person drinking coffee in their car here. Part of the enjoyment of coffee drinking in France is the café culture, whether it's sitting on the terrace of a Parisian café or bellied up to the counter in a village bar.

I rarely see the French take milk in their coffee after breakfast, and after dinner, forget about it. When offered coffee at a French friend's house, milk is rarely proffered with it. My local bar owner shudders and says it's simply degueulasse the amount of milky coffee les anglais drink throughout the day.

Sure, great coffee can be found the world over, but the subtle nuances of how to order just the right cup of coffee can be overwhelming in some countries. It seems to me though that once you master the art of ordering the perfect cup, whatever country you are in, you become just that little bit closer to understanding that culture and its people.

Recently, though, I've sensed a shift in the coffee culture here. Cafés are struggling a little under the smoking ban, with some of the regulars who smoke drinking less coffee and not staying as long. And the French love affair with tea and infusions seems to be increasing as well. A non-smoking, herbal-tea-drinking Frenchman just doesn't quite conjure up the same stereotypical image the world used to have. Maybe that's a good thing, but I just don't want to imagine a France without its cafés and coffee...

6 comments:

Isabelle said...

Very nice post!
One thing that always surprises me when I go to the U.S. is that everybody seems to be walking around with a drink in hand (coffee, soda, juice...). It's as if Americans were more thursty than Europeans!

Melissaand3boys said...

One thing we noticed when we lived in Maryland that was different than either California or Colorado was that there weren't many sit down coffee shops. There were Starbucks everywhere but they were in stores.

Here we have both...coffee shops where people sit/meet/talk (and they aren't all Starbucks!) and people running around with their coffee travel mugs and those paper cups!

wcs said...

Coffee in a paper cup can taste, well, like paper. Not always, but it's so much better in a proper cup while sitting down.

It's my humble opinion that the American business culture is the culprit in our hurry hurry, eat and drink while standing/walking/driving so you can get to or get back to work.

That, and the fact that we tend not to live in cities and don't walk except to and from parking lots. Somehow a coffee shop in a mall doesn't have the same allure as a Parisian terrace.

Emily said...

Coffee in a cup taste nothing like the real deal! Sitting in a little cafe and enjoying the aroma of freshly brewed coffee... hmmmmm :)

poppy fields said...

I laughed at the non-smoking, herbal-tea-drinking description. That's my husband to a T.

Leesa said...

I do totally agree with you... I drink most of my coffee chez moi... OR at a cafe' and sometimes @ Starbucks- but I always order it in a mug if I am staying. I'm not partial to Starbucks - I much prefer REAL coffee... but occasionally I have to have a soy latte! ; )