Saturday, March 04, 2006

French Coffee – Puncturing the Myth

As someone who has always felt that "French Roast" was the epitome of fine coffee and that the "French Press" was the epitome of fine coffee making, I came to France with high hopes for their coffee industry. I think it’s only fair to set the record straight and report that French coffee is not what we Americans think it is.

Despite looking hard, I have yet to find anything remotely approaching what we call French Roast coffee beans here. Nor have I ever seen a French press used in any French restaurant.

Despite the high quality of almost every other French food item, when it comes to coffee, the French punt. Even very high end stores like Hediard have pathetic light brown coffee – asking for something darker only produces a kind of incredulous stare (although asking the lackluster staff in a Hediard store ANY question produces a very similar response.) There is only one store in our arrondisement that roasts its own coffee beans, and its efforts are pretty puny compared to fanatics like Blue Bottle Coffee in the Bay Area.

In France, coffee means espresso, ordered as a “petit café.” What you will get then is an espresso that tastes ok as long as you’ve never been to Italy, where barristas are only slightly behind the Virgin Mary in cultural reverence. If you order anything other than a petit café, all bets are off. For example, a “grand café” may be a double expresso or just a single with lots of water. The amounts and temperature of the milk served in any coffee/milk variation tend to be even more extreme.

At work, that most revered engine of American commerce, the coffee maker, has no place in the French enterprise. Instead, they have sort of coffee dispenser monstrosities that make single servings, each one in its own plastic cup with its own plastic stirring spoon. My proposal to re-energize the French economy would be to reintroduce French Roast and the French Press into the French workplace and watch the productivity soar!