Joanna Masters-Maggs, our resident repeat-expat Food Gossip and Creative Chef, is back with her column for like-minded food lovers. This month: Coffee, the Achilles heel of French cuisine.
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“I wouldn’t mind French coffee being quite so terrible, if they would just admit it,” my English friend said in exasperation as she clicked her cup back into its saucer. “It’s the equivalent of British tea, from an urn, at a railway station in 1930s Huddersfield.” There was a pause as she picked up her croissant for my inspection. “But I suppose there are compensations.”
If you have spent any significant time in France, you will have noticed that it is very difficult to find a really good cup of coffee. If you have never visited, I’m sure you will find that difficult to believe, such is France’s reputation for wonderful food, wine and coffee. So, take a breath, retrieve your eyebrows from your hairline and trust me on this one:
If you’re not a fan of Starbucks, France might just be the place to drive you there. If you can find one, that is.
Why is French coffee in so unpalatable? It has the power to cause involuntary facial spasms and to make my stomach roil. At first I put these symptoms down to my taste buds being insufficiently sophisticated to appreciate its forceful nature. After two and half years, my friend’s comment helped me to recover some self-esteem and quit making a victim of myself.
Maybe—just maybe—it’s not only me.
Tea: A Brit’s second language
Joanna, apparently mildly surprised at her enjoyment of French coffee
I drink the tea this way, because that’s how I was brought up drinking it. We drink it for comfort, to stay awake, to go to sleep, or to get over a nasty shock. It comes with its own social language. Offering tea to an upset friend shows concern when we cannot find words. Failing to offer it to an unexpected guest says they should not expect to stay long. Giving some to a workman is a way to show your respect for them and to ensure a good job. Thus, overseas, tea is a rock of sameness I cannot let go of. In fact, it is the only overseas product I really must have if I must have something from home. It works for me.
Coffee: A rough guide
The coffee in France, therefore, should appeal to my rough taste in beverages. It is largely made from robusta beans which are recklessly roasted until the flavor verges on the acridity of all things cremated. It is drunk black, the addition of milk or cream deemed unsophisticated; ironic, given the rough, bad manners of the coffee itself. The tiny cups are instead dangerously laced with extreme amounts of sugar or sweetener and then downed rapidly in a way Mary Poppins would have approved of. And why not? Sometimes even the French should be allowed a break from tasting and judging good food and drink. My tea gives me the comfort and hit I demand, so why can’t I accept that the French should also be allowed, sometimes, to demand substance over style?
With coffee, the French give themselves a break from the world’s demand for them to be so effortlessly chic. Coffee is not approached as is, say, wine, with a sort of intellectual or artistic mindset. The routines of coffee tasting are not observed. Whereas wine is lifted to the light, swirled, inhaled luxuriously and sucked over the tongue, coffee is knocked back as if by a Russian soldier engaged in long evening of vodka toasting. Coffee is not cupped with the hand to prevent the aroma escaping prematurely before the nose is lowered to inhale the intensified aromas. It is not sucked over the tongue to seek the full range of flavor.
I must admit, it does the heart good to see the French behaving so badly.
Coffee climate change in Montpellier
Coffee in Montpellier
I understand, though, that this is changing. There are increasing numbers of little cafés which roast their own beans and grind to order. Little places where robusta beans are eschewed for the more subtle delights of arabicas. It’s been a while since I have had the time to hunt down these places in Paris. However, last week I was in Montpellier and had the great good fortune to find two of these hallowed places.
Café Solo is an adorable place where the smell of coffee can be enjoyed a considerable distance from the front door even on a rainy February day. I had forgotten this smell. You don’t get it in a Starbucks or a Costa or any of the many similar establishments. The tiny interior is crammed with drawers of beans, a counter of homemade delights in little covered cake stands and, in a corner, a large roasting machine. My family and I discovered it quite by chance while exploring the streets of Montpellier.
Here we enjoyed what can only be described as a consultation with the artiste who would make our drinks. She listened to what we like and do not like, and pronounced her judgement on what would suit. Describing the flavours of each of the beans in that day’s selection, she guided our choice. Then we waited and watched while our coffee was made. It arrived in charming mismatched espresso cups and, thoughtfully, with little jugs of frothed milk– just in case. Hmmm—there was me thinking I am a coffee hooligan who needs the milky stuff, just like a kid, but I absolutely did not need a drop of it. My mocha bean from Ethiopia was soft and smooth with a tumble of flavours which lasted in the most pleasant way. It was a delightful surprise. I am so accustomed to a punch in the back of the throat from a tough one-dimensional over-roast. Not so here.
“You see,” explained the artiste behind our coffees, “we French make terrible coffee. We just don’t know how to make it.” She smiled broadly, knowing full well that we could not agree with her.
We found a similar place a few streets later and just had to go in to try another. Would it be possible to find two great coffees in one day? Yes, it was. This time Columbian for me; a bit more acidity, but absolutely no acridity. Lovely. Again, intoxicating smell of roasting coffee beans.
As we returned to our hotel, nursing the residual flavor of our coffees, we saw a Nespresso shop and just had to go in. We knew that the chic, modern interior with its rows geometrically displayed and pristine pods as well as the absolute absence of the smell of real coffee would round off our day perfectly. Today that clinical chicness, instead of depressing us, would only intensify the memory of the delightful little stores we had just left. How deliciously wonderful it is to confirm how right I was. Clutching my bags of beans from Café Solo to my nose, I knew in that moment I would never succumb to the clinical pod. May my work surfaces be forever stained by the work of my little espresso machine and my walls stained by the periodic explosions to which the enthusiastic amateur is prone.
I thought I had no sophistication when it comes to coffee, but, perhaps because I don’t drink tea for the tea itself, I do drink coffee for the coffee itself. I am much more open to trying different flavours and I am very willing to drink a lot of bad coffee until I find it. Since I can manage without coffee, I am not lured by the siren call of Nespresso machines, Starbucks, or any of the lesser places. I found absolute delight in those two shops which sell the stuff the way it should be sold. I am willing to keep trying everywhere, until I next hit coffee gold.
Perhaps the next big discovery I will make is that the French acceptance of routinely bad coffee has freed them to become gourmet tea drinkers. It would be fun to think so.
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Joanna was displaced from her native England 16 years ago, and has since attempted to re-place herself and blend into the USA, Holland, Brazil, Malaysia, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and now France. She describes herself as a “food gossip”, saying: “I’ve always enjoyed cooking and trying out new recipes. Overseas, I am curious as to what people buy and from where. What is in the baskets of my fellow shoppers? What do they eat when they go home at night?”
Images: All images from Joanna’s personal photo albums, and used here with her permission