My Ode to Coffee
How I love you
You’re the drink of artists, students, parents, and CEOs
Never caring about last night’s woes.
More consistent than any lover
You make my heart skip a beat
And mornings oh so sweet.
Eh, I tried. Maybe I’ll just stick to prose.
My French colleagues swore by coffee. I’d always loved coffee, so it didn’t take me long to hop on that bandwagon. I don’t know how my life would have turned out if there hadn’t been an instant coffee machine in the teacher’s lounge.
Coffee and I have a very love/hate relationship.
I have a lot of coffee rules: no more than 3 cups in one sitting. Order smaller if you can. Absolutely no drinking before flights. Too much coffee and my heart will literally skip a beat. Or leap up my throat and out my mouth. At least, that’s what it feels like.
Will I ever stop? Probably not.
The French will sit around and drink coffee religiously. Sugar is added to taste, though no one liked to drink it black. I would always get funny looks. Really, no sugar? Yes, I actually like the taste. A teacher I worked with took his coffee with two sugars and, when you think about how small an espresso is, that’s just as much coffee as it is sugar. Bleh.
So, as an American, what do you need to know about French coffee? First off, the coffee probably isn’t from France. And secondly, the French take their coffee seriously. Very seriously.
There are 3 differences in American and French coffee culture.
1 – Portion Size
Like everything in Europe, the coffee portions are tiny. Think quality over quantity. Europeans would rather knock back a few espressos throughout the day than chug one water-down venti iced caramel macchiato.
2 – The Bitterness
Similar to America, unless you specify, you’ll get your coffee black. No milk, no cream, no sugar. Coffee in french cafes are dark blends that have usually been imported from Africa. African coffee is very, very good and also very, very strong.
bitter coffee = stronger espressos
stronger espressos = smaller portions
It’s all one big caffeinated cycle.
3 – Atmosphere
French coffee shops don’t really exist, at least not in the Western sense.
Cafes are for the social. There are no laptops, no textbooks, nor headphones. Wifi isn’t guaranteed. Europeans come to cafes to talk, to smoke, to relax. Studying for that midterm isn’t going to calm those nerves. And forget about doing work.
Most French cafes are just as tiny as their espressos. There’s the bar, a refrigerator or two, and one unisex bathroom that doesn’t exactly lock. The real life of the cafe is on the outside. Lights twinkle from red awnings. Circular tables line the sidewalks – who cares about pedestrians when you’re drinking coffee. The French will sit outside year round. Those twinkling lights become heaters in the winter. The cold never bothered the Europeans anyway.
At any cafe, there’s a woman in the corner reading a book. Couples lick their stirring spoons clean as a fluffy dog naps at their feet. A graying man sits with a newspaper in one hand and a cigarette in the other. There’s something about coffee and cigarettes that the French find very appealing.
So, now you know what makes French coffee different. Now how do they prepare it?
Here are the most common coffee creations on the typical menu français.
A.k.a. the espresso. They’re acceptable everyday, all day, from the moment you wake up to an after dinner repose. However, don’t shoot it. Unlike the Italians, the French have mastered sipping (at max) two gulps of coffee for hours, watching the world go by. It’s served with a packet of sugar and a stirring spoon.
This is what you think you’re ordering when you order a café. It’s sometimes called a café allongé or a “long coffee” and it’s a French version of the americano. Mostly espresso, but with more water so you get more coffee.
Café au lait
The famously French café au lait. Coffee with hot milk. It’s like the cappuccino but think less froth.
My personal favorite. Vanilla coffee. Do I need to say more?
Hazelnut coffee is named for the color rather than the flavor. Just a bit of milk to get that nutty hue.
There aren’t many coffee flavors or add-ins. You’ll have to skip the extra pump of cinnamon dolce. Milk and sugar are the most common mixers. It was hard enough to find a café vanille every now and then. If anything, the French prefer their coffee as it is.
However, don’t fret. If you’ve had your fill of dollhouse teacups and are dying for a decently sized cup of joe and maybe a place to connect to the world, there’s always a Starbucks around the corner in most of the metropolitan cities.
What would be your French poison?