Tuesday, March 25, 2008
There’s coffee and then there’s café
A comment by Teena in Australia made me think about the French coffee conundrum: How can a country that has one of the world’s most developed café cultures not have the best coffee? One could go on for days about the unique quality of the French café, or the quintessentially French nature of it’s customs and clientele, or the long list of Famous Writers and Thinkers that have created great works while sitting in one. But does anyone really have anything to say about the coffee? There’s the wonderful shape of the tiny cups, there’s the deep blackness of the mysterious brew within, but what about the taste? Does anyone really care?
It’s hard to tell. The quality of coffee in Parisian cafés can range from acrid to excellent, but it’s rare that you’ll come across a cup that would make your average New York coffee freak sing. I think it’s an acquired taste. If you are expecting Italian espresso, you’ll be disappointed. But if you are willing to accept your coffee cup as merely one piece of your overall café experience, you’ll soon find that it’s syrupy, bitter quality is the perfect complement to the peculiar atmosphere that reigns in a Parisian café. Now that there’s no more smoke (see The End of the Smoky Café), it is the coffee that must express, as it were, the gestalt of the establishment. The French are not afraid of the negative, in fact they often embrace it whole-heartedly. So if their coffee is slightly acid, or harsh, well, hey, so is life. Chances are, the person behind the counter is not going to feel like prettying up the bitter reality of the dark liquid that seeps out of the massive machine behind him or her, nor is the customer at the zinc bar going to expect it. Which is one of the reasons that I think (hope) that Starbucks, despite its current invasion of Paris, will never really catch on.
We bought an espresso machine last year, and I was surprised how little interest my coffee mania inspired in my French friends, or in the machine sales people, for that matter. Though weak, American style brews are simply not tolerated here, coffee is coffee for most French people, and that could mean anything from drip to pods. Nespresso has made huge inroads here, probably mostly thanks to George Clooney’s mug on the advertisements. People like the gadget, but no one seems to really get worked up about things like grind, aroma, or beans (which are really hard to find). That’s OK, we managed to find a good machine, and to my delight I’ve realized that you can find Italian espresso in the supermarkets here, if you dig around a bit. But you’ll still be hard pressed to find a decent cappuccino in this city, which is perfectly understandable to a Parisian. After all, this is Paris. They just don’t do frothy here.