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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