French Cafe Culture
"It is generally acknowledged that the French far excel the English in their mode of preparing coffee. Their superiority consists in their excellent method of roasting, and the manner in which they prepare the infusion." (*)
The French take their coffee very seriously, although in some respects this obsession is less about the characteristics of the tipple (French roasts are generally dark and strong) and more to do with social context. Coffee brings comforting rituals, time spent with friends, a quiet pause for reflection and a quizzical Gallic gaze as the world goes by.
Whether sipping a two-hour espresso with the morning paper in a Parisian café, enjoying a post-prandial café noisette in a Lille estaminet or relaxing ‘en famille’ at sundown after a four-course banquet in Périgord, the key to enjoying coffee in authentic French-style is with a sense of insouciant unhurriedness. What’s the rush, and who could deny the importance of a lazy petit déjeuner? After all, no French wake-up call is complete without a steaming café au lait in which to dunk one’s buttery croissant or buttered baguette ‘tartines’.
We must not forget the role played by French cafés in matters of the mind. Sartre and de Beauvoir practically invented modern philosophy while wagging chins over coffee and fags in Les Deux Magots, while some say that the Revolution itself would not have been possible without the social networking opportunities provided by the capital’s coffee houses.
More broadly, cafés in French villages and suburbs became crucial as community hubs, buzzing places in which to hear gossip and pass it on – waiters become confidantes and regular customers become friends. Each place boasts a unique history, an independent identity, plus the kind of characters and atmosphere that will never be claimed by modern lifestyle coffee shops with shareholders to please and overpriced muffins to flog.
While the rest of the world gets tongue-tied over skinny lattes, vanilla shots and mochaccinos, the French remain resolutely old-fashioned and unfussy about their coffee consumption, and for that we should applaud them. “Garcon, un café, s’il vous plaît!”
Justin Postlethwaite is the Editor of French Magazine and The Traveller in France. Read his blog here.
(*) From Coffee: Its history, culture, modes of preparation, chemical and medicinal properties and commercial statistics by Samuel Beckett, Tea and Coffee Dealer of Bath, 1845.