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 NescafÃ© 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: “cafÃ© au lait” (coffee with milk) or “cafÃ© crÃ¨me” (coffee with cream) and “cafÃ© 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 10â‚¬, 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 “Ã la franÃ§aise” 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, LattÃ©, Iced Coffee, and all that Starbucks language that goes with it like “skinny double lattÃ©” – 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.