french coffee

We’ve had a wonderful time abroad.  More on that soon.  But a notable minus of Corsica: the coffee sucks.

In fact, the coffee sucks in France as a whole.  For a culture that so values gastronomy, this is difficult to come to grips with; I think without exception every other country on the Med understands coffee.  The French just don’t get it.  They don’t do crema.  They seem to extract the hell out of the shot until it flows weak and bitter into the cup, producing a kind of undrinkable dishwatery fluid, irrespective of the quality of the beans or equipment.  Then, if they deign to add milk, it’s great glugs of low-fat UHT stuff steamed coarsely but to the brink of ionization.  Our only decent coffee of the past two weeks, it pains me to say, came out of a Nespresso machine at our friend Ivo’s in Marseille.

When going out, it’s unwise to order cappuccino, macchiato, espresso, or anything of the sort; “café crème” is your best bet, if you’re physiologically dependent.  If you’re not, just skip it.  And if you must have a “p’tit café” after dinner, expect to use the sugarcube to blunt the edge.

Why, or how, can it suck so badly?  Here’s the best theory I can come up with.  The Italians have perfected espresso; after trying one at Sant’Eustachio, there’s nothing much further to say on the subject.  Some other countries, like Turkey, Vietnam* or Ethiopia, have their own indigenous and aesthetically valid take on the drink.  Others, like Israel and Australia (yes, and Seattle), are happy to learn their craft from the Italians, and if they’re ambitious, try to improve upon perfection by scoring really special beans, controlling their process with exceptional rigor, or hiring unusually hot baristi.  But the French don’t have a credible coffee culture of their own, and they can’t adopt the Italian one, because they loathe the Italians.  Also because they resist adopting anything non-indigenous, whether it’s food, language, technology, whatever.  So instead, every restauranteur, baker and barman belongs to an unspoken conspiracy.  Their mission is to construct an alternative universe in which coffee is a kind of ironic comment on how coffee is actually nothing, nothing, like an aspirin, or a toothpick.

This seems like a fragile situation.  It would only take one expat, one rogue bar, one corner café in a fashionable neighborhood, to topple the house of cards.  Extreme measures must be in force to prevent such a thing.  Withheld business licenses?  Sabotage?  Deportation?

*Someone’s going to write a snarky comment about Vietnamese coffee having been introduced by the French.  While it’s true that coffee cultivation and the inverted filter came from France in the 19th century, cafe da is clearly a Vietnamese invention, as evidenced by the fact that it’s only available in France at Vietnamese restaurants.  It should also be kept in mind that much of coffee history takes place in the 20th century; the espresso itself was only invented in 1884.


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7 Responses to french coffee

  1. speaking as a brit (with all that entails of views of France, but also being married to a Norman)… Coffee is indeed not French and espresso is particularly Not French, so theyre not going to learn to do it right. I’m not sure a french press is even french, but a cafetiere as they’re known is by far your best best; ask for cafe au lait – i find asking for un cafe avec beaucoup de lait chaud and looking slightly naive as I ask gets the best results. Espresso is contrary to the point of coffee for breakfast which is a bowl of milky coffee to dunk croissants in, although this is a breakfast for children and really ought to be hot chocolate. If you drink espresso you probably smoke gauloises and then you can’t taste anything anyway…

  2. Agreed … Italy/Sardinia is/was only a stonethrow away :)

  3. We had the same experience in the American South last summer. Finally found a good one in Athens, served with frog legs.

  4. Pingback: places in corsica | style is violence

  5. Fannie says:

    As someone said, the great disappointment of the EU is that it is still impossible to get a truly great croissant and cup of coffee in the same country.

  6. Greg Downing says:

    You should pick up a “handpresso” for your next trip to France. Pretty easy to make a cup on the go and takes up very little space.

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