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The American’s Guide To French Coffee

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My Ode to Coffee

Oh, 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.

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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.

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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.

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Café

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.

Café américain

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.

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Café au lait

The famously French café au lait. Coffee with hot milk. It’s like the cappuccino but think less froth.

Café vanille

My personal favorite. Vanilla coffee. Do I need to say more?

Café noisette

Hazelnut coffee is named for the color rather than the flavor. Just a bit of milk to get that nutty hue.

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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?

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2 Replies to “The American’s Guide To French Coffee”

  1. Fun post! I still can’t get over the smallness of French coffee cups. A grand cafe is stilly tiny. Even a “mug” of coffee is about 3 sips’ worth at my in-laws’ house. My morning coffee time is the best part of my day. Even though it’s silly, an American-style coffee in my NYC mug that I brew at home makes me feel closer to the US and sometimes that’s all I need. I’ve been here 5 years but I’ll always be an American first and foremost, American habits and all. My coffees are BIG — not changing that! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

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