Neat, like a shot of Tequila

Real Espresso Coffee

One of the things about living away from England so long is that most people miss that which is quintessentially English, or was an integral part of their experience growing up; like HP sauce, proper tea, marmite (yuk!), and decent beer – IPA, bitter or generally “real ale” as we call it. I’m not going to focus on those things just now, but rather on what I gain from being in France. The first is proper coffee.

When I was growing up, I didn’t like coffee and I took milk and sugar in my tea. The ritual of accompanying any event – like getting home from doing the shopping or from school, greeting anyone who dropped in, before sitting down to watch a TV programme – was making a cup of tea. “Put the kettle on” was one of the most common phrases heard in the house. I stopped taking sugar in my tea quite early though, realising that getting the right dose of milk in the tea had a lot more to do with achieving the right taste than sweetening the beverage.

I think I must have been about 14 before I actually drank coffee. Perhaps for two reasons; one being that my tastebuds probably evolved, somewhat due to smoking as well I think, the second being drinking proper coffee. All too often in my younger days, coffee was a teaspoonful of Nescafé in a big tea mug, filled with boiling water, and topped off with milk. I still can’t drink coffee like that. A friend of mine introduced me to filter coffee taken in small doses and drunk without milk. In English, we call that “black coffee” – a word which has to be added to coffee and yet you don’t add “black” to coffee. You take away the milk, which should never be added automatically in the first place. In French (and in France), coffee is black unless you add a word or two to make it milky: “café au lait” (coffee with milk) or “café crème” (coffee with cream) and “café noisette” (coffee with enough milk to make it hazelnut coloured, hence the noisette).

I quite liked black coffee like that. I was 14 in the very late eighties so home espresso (note preferred spelling) machines weren’t the rage. I was yet to discover coffee in its purest form: hot steam forced at pressure through finely ground coffee beans. A small cup holding little more than a mouthful, the foamy creamy top on a dark liquid which seems much more viscous than water, the strong caffeine hit.

I have a ritual in the morning with filter coffee because it’s easier. I drink “carte noire” strongly dosed in a small cup. Usually our cat Suzie comes to ask for her morning brushing at the same time – she’s got longish fur and needs brushing every day. So I drink strong coffee after my main breakfast and brush the cat. I had an espresso machine but cleaning it was too much trouble so I went back to a filter machine which cost me less than 10€, so it’s practically disposable. That doesn’t mean I don’t clean it ;-).

The best coffee of the day is after lunch. Having eaten a proper French lunch – salad or cold meat as a starter, then a meat and vegetable dish “à la française” like Guinea Fowl with steamed vegetables – dessert is replaced by an espresso, usually served with a piece of strong dark chocolate. I eat the chocolate, sip my coffee and roll and light my cigarette (I prefer handrolled tobacco, and it’s cheaper). A good end to a meal.

I was in the US recently and there in Starbucks I was pleased to see you can order proper coffee. In France when you ask for a coffee anywhere, they’ll serve you a single espresso automatically — unless of course they’re snobby Parisian waiters who think you’re American in which case they’ll probably ask you in broken English if you really want a single espresso. In Texas it was a different story. It took a moment for the girl at the counter to understand that I really wanted a double shot of espresso straight up in a cup. I got my proper coffee though, and I was satisfied. I overheard in the queue behind me “jeez he’s taking his coffee neat – like a shot of Tequila!”. I smiled.

Cappucino, Latté, Iced Coffee, and all that Starbucks language that goes with it like “skinny double latté” – that shit just doesn’t hold with me. These are all aberrations or variations on what coffee should really be, and as is served in France*. Neat, like a shot of Tequila.

* Admittedly proper coffee is even more Italian than French. They founded the word “espresso” and go to even greater extremes with “ristretta” where the coffee dose is the same, but the amount of water halved.


  1. Fella Evans

    13/10/2005 at 2:38 pm

    I agree with most of your comments about coffee and how it should be drunk. However, I do find it alarming that a supposed connaisseur such as yourself would shrink to the depths of buying a 10EUR throw-away cheap n’ cheerful filter machine to make the most important coffee of the day, ie that of the morning.

    I find this to be somewhat of a contradiction in terms with the rest of the article and I thus ask that you explain yourself on this bizarre choice of coffee-making hardware.

    If you really are a connaisseur and wish to preach the coffee-making bible to the world via your (much-read and widely appreciated) blog, then you cant admit to throwing a real espresso machine in the bin just because it took a few seconds extra to clean it.

    Id be interested in hearing your reply on this much-debated point.

  2. Simon

    13/10/2005 at 4:10 pm

    You’ve got a fair point there Fella. However, a filter coffee machine is a filter coffee machine at 10€ or 50€ it’s all the same just like them potatoes once they’re peeled or boiled.

    Given time and budget, a proper espresso machine is indeed in order. But the morning tiredness makes it easier to make filter coffee, and strong Carte Noire filtered makes for a perfectly acceptable breakfast coffee. I already said the best coffee of the day – for me at least – is the post-prandial lunch coffee.

    The real espresso machine wasn’t consigned to the bin by the way. It will no doubt come back to life when go back to drinking coffee more regularly at home. Or maybe I’ll get a Nespresso™ machine as a present one day too, but that’s an expensive present! They’re the only machines that combine simplicity with proper coffee flavour. Other cheaper imitations are no better than filter coffee makers that foam the last drops of coffee. Real espresso machines are expensive because you have to have high pressure steam – at around 19 bar or so – hence a strongly reinforced water chamber to make a decent cup of coffee.

    A nice cup of tea goes down well as an alternative. When you’re out and about however, only espresso coffee will do the trick.

  3. I’ve always been a cappuccino man, myself. I used to go to NYC a lot. I’d try to venture down to Little Italy where the best cappuccino was made. There’s just something about that Italian style or flair. Starbucks is fine, but, I have a problem with some of their coffee drinks and what they call them. I mean, it’s like looking at a menu in a diner somewhere. So much to choose from. Also, you made a very good point. Whenever I’ve asked for coffee to go, they assume it’s got cream and sugar. You have to tell them, NO, black! It doesn’t seem right.

  4. Simon

    13/10/2005 at 10:06 pm

    Hi Dave,

    Good to see you here. I have been known on occasion to prepare cappucino with real whipped cream and steamed milk. If you have a strong espresso base it can be a good drink on some occasions. It’s rarely my choice of coffee style though. Maybe if I ever make it to NYC again (been there twice, but only once downtown Manhattan) I’ll have time to check out Little Italy espresso joints.

    You make an excellent point about the menu at Starbucks and especially what they call their strange mixes of espresso, milk, cream, chocolate and whatnot. I’m with you all the way on that!


  5. I agree with you Fruey on what you say about the Nespresso machines. I’ve had a few espressos made by such machines over the past few years and I have to say that I dont think its possible to make a better coffee at home.