Sitting at a French café sipping an express, watching people, overhearing conversations—it’s always magic, no matter how often it is repeated. Is it the coffee, is it the café, is it the entire experience, replete with the waft of cigarette smoke if the day is fine and your table is outside?
It’s all of the above, and more. It’s the little packet of sugar that sits next to the cup, vying for space with the chocolate covered almond or the Belgian spice cookie called spéculoos that some cafés serve alongside. It’s the server who bends over to take your order and asks, with a certain intimacy that might be reserved just for you, Madame? Monsieur?.
Coffee arrives swiftly in a French café because it is widely recognized as a necessity. It comes black, steaming and for the most part milkless, apart from a café crème (essentially a café au lait) or café noisette (an express with a dollop of milk—noisette is hazelnut, and here refers to the color, not the flavor). Or, if you really insist, some cafés will serve a cappuccino (of sorts).
Sugar is important to the French coffee drinker because much of the coffee served in French cafés is not very good. This has mostly to do with the quality of the beans, which are often the inferior robusta, rather than the smoother arabica variety. Sugar is the great equalizer. Stir it into less than perfect coffee and it becomes drinkable.
That said, lately sugar is less and less necessary because the quality of coffee in the French café is improving rapidly. That is most likely because some 70% of the coffee cultivated today is arabica, so more of it is getting into the French cup.
When do the French drink coffee? Not as often as you might think. If you observe a café throughout the day, it will be full in the morning until about 9:30 am, again at lunchtime, then again in the late afternoon. In restaurants, coffee is usually served after dinner, too.
In the French home, the coffee ritual is similar. Morning brings coffee in a large cup or a bowl, so that either a tartine—a length of baguette slathered with butter and/or jam— or a croissant or a pain au chocolat can be dipped into it. Coffee is served after lunch, and occasionally offered after dinner.
At home, the French brew coffee in several different ways. The current trend focuses on finely ground beans packed into tastefully colored metal pods that are sealed, packaged and tagged with names like Roma or Ristretto. These fit into stylish machines which, with the press of a button, produce a fine cup of espresso garnished with the requisite caramel-colored froth. The system has created a coffee frenzy, the stores selling it are always jammed, and customers who subscribe to a monthly coffee supply by mail keep the post office busy. There is even a “coffee club” associated with this method, making it something of a cult.
For the less trend-oriented, there is the old-fashioned vacuum method of coffee brewing. The system relies on two glass balls that fit together, with a cloth filter between them. Boiling water is poured into the bottom ball. The top ball, holding the ground coffee, has a glass stem that extends into the lower one, and a thin layer of cork makes the seal hermetic. The whole apparatus is set over a flame—initially the flame came from a fat little glass jar filled with alcohol and a wick, because the alchemy was meant to take place at the table.
Once over the flame, the boiling water in the bottom bubbles up through the glass stem into the ground coffee, which must be stirred for a minute or two before the contraption is taken off the heat. The machine begins to speak in a language of gurgles and soft whistles and then, suddenly, dark liquid travels down the glass stem into the bottom bulb on a reverse journey, this time as a smooth, tender, delicious brew.
The tried and true paper-filter method is common, usually with electric machines. I don’t know anyone who uses the French press method, in which boiling water is poured over coarsely ground beans, left to sit, then a plunger system pushes the grounds to the bottom of the pot.
Delectable coffee can be made in just about anything, I’m convinced. But there are several protocols to follow. The first is the quality of water. It has to be filtered, otherwise the chemicals used to purify tap water leave an unpleasant taste. Second is a clean coffee maker—ground coffee leaves an oily film that can turn rancid if it isn’t regularly removed.
Third is, of course, the coffee. Coffee is produced in dozens of countries in a 1,000-mile-wide belt around the equator, limited by the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. Arabica beans are cultivated primarily in central and south America, and in southwestern Africa. Most of the rest is robusta. Each coffee tree produces about one pound of coffee beans per year—that’s about 3,600 coffee beans—and most of the crop is laboriously hand-harvested.
The climate in these areas is mildly warm and wet, and the producing countries are often subject to political upheaval—vagaries in both conditions account for the wild fluctuations in the supply and price of coffee beans.
Choosing good coffee is no easy task but, like choosing good wine, it’s enjoyable, because the best way is to taste, taste, taste.
Common coffee wisdom says to grind the beans yourself, just before brewing. I held to this for years, until I realized how much I didn’t like the noise of the grinder, particularly first thing in the morning. So I set out to find the best ground coffee. I have my favorite roasters (brûleries), of course, who will sell ground coffee, but they’re not in my neighborhood. I decided to go to the very long coffee aisle in the supermarket and see what it had to offer.
I systematically tried every brand of coffee there and to my surprise and relief, I found a good ground coffee in a can. It comes from Central America. It is Fair Trade and sustainably produced. And it produces an elegant, smooth and satisfying cup. So take heart—if you don’t have a coffee roaster nearby, hie to a supermarket and see what it offers. You may be as surprised as I was.
Aside from drinking coffee, I use it in the kitchen, primarily in desserts. Chocolate mousse isn’t chocolate mousse without a tablespoon of very strong coffee, and freshly made coffee ice cream is delicious. Sometimes I’ll rub a leg of lamb with finely ground coffee before roasting—it adds a dusky, rich flavor. Or I’ll add a touch of brewed coffee to a sauce, for depth.
A couple of notes about ordering coffee in a French café. First, France isn’t Italy, and the coffee cultures are very different. Italian coffee is almost always sublime, whether it be black or milky, because Italians have gotten the art of coffee-making down pat, and they use fresh milk. In France coffee is appreciated but not venerated, so each cup isn’t perfect, and the milk in a French café is ultra-pasteurized, so it has a boiled flavor. That said, it is still more than possible to find a wonderful coffee in a French café. The best is an express or, if you’ve absolutely got to have some milk, a noisette.
A LITTLE COFFEE LEXICON
Café, petit café or express: espresso
Café au lait: coffee with hot (sometimes but not always steamed) milk, often served separately
Café crème: the same as café au lait, and what it’s usually called these days
Déca: decaffeinated coffee (pronounced day-kah)
Café noisette: with a small dollop of milk
Café américain or café allongé: watered-down espresso
Café léger: an express with extra water, but not as much as café américain
MOUSSE AU CHOCOLAT
Given the salted butter used in this chocolate mousse, it could only have originated in Brittany, where there is virtually no other kind of butter. The salt is subtle, adding a lovely counterpoint to the rich chocolate. I like to vary the flavor of the mousse by adding orange zest, coffee, a bit of ground fennel or a tiny bit of ginger. The beauty of this mousse recipe is its infinite character—you can change it to suit your whim, and your menu. I have even tried it with unsalted butter—it is very different, and very delicious as well.
NOTE: when melting ingredients in a double boiler, don’t cover it, as the condensation that forms on the top can drip into the ingredients, altering taste and texture.
3 large eggs, separated
7 oz (200 g) semisweet chocolate, preferably Lindt
4 tbsp (2 oz or 60 g) lightly salted butter
1 tbsp very strong coffee
1. Melt the chocolate and butter in a double boiler over medium-high heat. Remove from heat and whisk in the egg yolks and coffee. Let cool.
2. Place the egg whites and salt in a large bowl, or the bowl of a mixer fit with a whisk, and whisk them until they form soft peaks. Fold one-fourth of the egg whites into the chocolate mixture first, then fold in the rest. Taste for seasoning—you can carefully fold in additional coffee at this point if you like. Transfer the mousse to a serving bowl (or individual ramekins) and refrigerate for at least 2 hours (and up to 24 hours), tightly covered.
Serves 4 to 6
Susan Herrmann Loomis teaches cooking classes in Normandy and Paris. www.onruetatin.com . Find her latest book in the France Today Bookstore: www.francetoday.com/store . For more food stories and French recipes: www.francetoday.com/life_and_style/ chefs_corner 
From France Today Magazine