Coffee and The French
"Black as the Devil, Hot as Hell, Pure as an Angel, Sweet as Love." (*)
By the late 17th century, coffee was a sensation in the intellectual salons of Paris. But while writers and artists such as Voltaire – an “Enlightened” 40 cup-a-day man – and Rousseau headed to the Café la Régence and Le Procope (the capital’s oldest restaurant) to indulge in the newly hip exotic beverage, plans were afoot to follow the Dutch lead in creating lucrative plantations in the sun-kissed colonies. Step forward Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu, a French Naval officer on leave from Martinique in 1723.
A decade before, the mayor of Amsterdam had sent a coffee shrub as a gift to King Louis XIV, and this remained under guard at the Jardin des Plantes. Whether de Clieu stole seedlings or was given a clipping remains disputed but soon he was bound for Martinique with his precious Coffea cargo safely stowed on deck. In its glass box, the plant survived the ocean’s rigours, pirates and violent storms. By 1777, the single plant had yielded 18 million more on his own heavily guarded estate, and the seeds of modern coffee production had been well and truly sewn.
As for drinking the stuff, the French were inventive in their coffee preparation from an early stage. In 1800, Jean-Baptiste de Belloy, Cardinal-Archbishop of Paris, created the first drip-pot system, while the first real percolator was invented by a metalsmith named Laurens in 1818. Four years later, Louis Bernard Rabaut invented a machine which forced steam through the coffee grounds – the first ever espresso machine.
The most popular home coffee maker today is perhaps the ‘cafetière à piston’, also known as the French Press. A crude version was invented in the mid-19th century, yet only patented by an Italian in the 1930s. By the time that it was available on the mass market, the French passion for coffee had blossomed into a fully-fledged love affair. It is a romance undimmed today.
(*) Charles Maurice de Talleyrand (1754-1838) speaking of the perfect cup of coffee.