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In 1825, the renowned gastronome, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, famously said, “Tell me what you eat, and I'll tell you who you are,” and we suggest you use this as your entrée into the food culture of France. Starbucks may have made it to Paris, but the French are slow to embrace food or drink fads, and traditions that have endured for centuries are still part of the coffee culture in L’Hexagone. Knowing a bit about the culinary history of France will help you navigate the etiquette of ordering, drinking, and making coffee in France.
A Culinary Love Affair
The love of food has seeped into the consciousness of the French so completely that the art of the table is discussed, debated, and written about with ferocity. Centuries of fine dining traditions and entertaining have given the French an innate sense of what is proper and this history has made food singularly important to each Frenchman. Food is ever-present on their minds, whether they are discussing the luncheon menu in the morning with café and tartine de beurre, or tasting each dish as it arrives and judging it for presentation and flavor.
Dining is sacrosanct in France, and snacking, accessorizing with to-go paper cups filled with coffee, or noshing on the run in your car is considered déclassé. Attention to quality and detail is important at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and during coffee breaks too. Even if they are running off for un café au bar at 10 a.m., stylish service is de rigueur and coffee is always accompanied by the proper accoutrements.
Coffee beans were imported to France in the 1600s from Italy, most likely via the ancient port city of Marseille. Traded back and forth for 100 years from plantations in the French colonies, and cultivated by slave labor, coffee slowly made its way across France, but it was in Paris that France’s first café was born, most likely sometime in the mid-1600s. The title of oldest café in France goes to Le Procope, which was founded in 1686 by a Sicilian from Palermo named Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli. During the golden age of cafés in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Le Procope helped make drinking coffee a favorite pastime of the idle rich, royalty, intellectuals, literary giants, and revolutionaries. (The place is still in business today, as a middle tourist restaurant.)
Vive La Révolution du Café
Coffee, essential for everyday living now, didn’t become a national drink until the 1800s. During this era, machines for grinding the beans and other equipment were invented, and a hydrostatic percolator exhibited at the 1855 World’s Fair in Paris by Monsieur Loysel revolutionized coffee drinking in France. His improvements made coffee easier and cheaper to prepare at home and made it possible for cafés to produce up to 50,000 cups of coffee across Paris per day. This single change helped lower the cost of buying, grinding, roasting, brewing, and serving so that drinking coffee was within reach of everyone, no matter what his or her station in life.
Les Grains de Café
In France, les grains de café, or the coffee beans used to make coffee, are different from those in Italy and are more akin to the highly caffeinated coffee preferred in Turkey. That’s because the French roast their beans with a higher percentage of robusta beans than arabica and this makes a stronger, darker coffee with a slightly bitter edge.
Les Mots de Café
Café has dual meanings in France, which can cause confusion for non-French speakers. On the one hand, un café is an espresso, le café is also where you go to drink un café, and un café noir, un express, un pétit café, and un pétit noir are all different ways of ordering a simple café. Once thing is certain however: when your café arrives, count on it being served in a tiny demitasse containing one strong shot of espresso; don’t expect to order a half-caff, skim latte with caramel to go.