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Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Visiting a Cafe in France and the Story Behind Coffee.

Behind the French Menu
Bryan G. Newman
Updated November 2016
A double black Espresso Coffee.
Photograph Courtesy of Grour Codrin through
A first-rate French café is more than just the coffee and pastries it serves. A successful French café offers minimally comfortable seating and a place where people may meet regularly, drink coffee, or relax and just let the world float by.

A Café, in France, in the Early Morning.


Then a French Cafe two hours later.
The Café de la Marie.
Then Comes the Early Evening.
Happy Hour in Paris

The first coffee bean
Long before the first French café, there was the first grain de café, the first coffee bean. That first coffee bean originated on a small evergreen tree in Ethiopia.
Then, just to confuse us all, I was told by people who really do  know everything there is to know about coffee in the raw that the coffee bean is, in fact, a seed, not a bean.   What we call the coffee bean, in fact, grows inside a coffee cherry, and that makes it a seed. These learned coffee dealers and blenders also told me that you would not want to eat a coffee cherry.  So we are left with the coffee seed; despite that fact, I want to avoid confusion in this post, and so I will continue calling coffee seeds coffee beans.
Coffee Cherries on the Tree.
Photograph courtesy of Foto76 through
The first coffee exporter
From Ethiopia the beans, and the secrets of making the drink, were exported to Yemen.  Yemen would then become the world's first international coffee exporter when she started selling the beans to Turkey. In Turkey coffee quickly became the most popular national drink, and at that time anyone who visited Turkey came home praising "Turkish Coffee."
Coffee came to Europe with the Turks when the Ottoman Empire invaded, and occupied, parts of Eastern and Western Europe.  You may say that coffee took Europe by force of arms!
France’s first café and the oldest café in France.
Coffee came to France from Austria some years later. Then, according to the accepted tradition, the first French café was opened, in Paris, by two Armenian brothers, Pascal and Grégoire Alep, probably in 1661. The oldest French café, still open in France is the Café Le Procope, also in Paris; it opened in 1686.  Today Le Procope, is no longer a traditional café, today it is a smart restaurant and not an inexpensive one.  Nevertheless, Café Le Procope offers history, excellent food including a fresh seafood bar, and of course, excellent coffee.

The Outside of Le Procope Today.
Photograph Courtesy of Wallg
Through a Flickr Creative Commons License.
The original owner of Le Procope was an Italian immigrant from Palermo, Sicily, Francesco Procopio; unfortunately, Francesco was not available for an interview the last time I visited.  Le Procope’s traditions include the claim to have introduced ice-cream to France.

The Inside of Le Procope Today
Having a coffee in Le Prcope today.
 If you visit Le Procope today when all you want is a coffee and an ice-cream, along with a feeling of history, then do so outside their regular lunch and dinner hours.  At lunch and dinner, every table in Le Procope is taken. Later, while you sip your coffee consider that you may well be sitting at the same spot where in the past  sat John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Pain, Benjamin Franklin, Voltaire, Danton, Marat, or possibly Robespierre. That is real coffee history.
The oil in the bean is far more important than the roast.
The packaging of most branded coffees will tell you the type of roast but little else; however, the amount of oil in the bean coffee affects the taste far more than the roast. The perfect roast cannot produce flavor from dry, oil-less, beans. For those who will visit France and Italy on the same trip you may taste the difference in their coffees. The French use the oiliest beans followed by the Italians.
Grains de Café, Coffee Beans.
Photograph courtesy of Apple’s Eyes Studio through

The two beans that fight for your business.

Behind the scenes battling for market share are two coffee beans; the Robusta and the Arabica and their various hybrid family members.  The Arabica has 50% less caffeine and is considered the best for flavor, but it is much more expensive and so nearly all coffees on the market are blends of the two beans.
Inside a coffee importer’s warehouses there are highly trained and highly paid coffee blenders; these employees, the blenders, like the blenders in the great Champagne and Cognac Houses, have unique taste and olfactory buds. For their most valuable customers; the café and restaurant industry, they prepare  special blends for each customer.  After blending and roasting these blends will have a taste and smell that does not vary from batch to batch, month to month or year to year.

The barista, the most important individual in the cafe.
In the best French cafés, the espresso coffee machine will be under the control of a maître de barista, a master operator of an industrial espresso machine. The title barista comes from the Italian, as the Italians invented the espresso coffee machines and own the name.  A barista has nothing to do with a British attorney, a barrister! Coffee gourmets will tell you that only an expert barista can dispense a perfect cup of coffee every time.  The correct heat of the water, the correct water pressure and the correct packing of the coffee for the espresso machine completes the work of the coffee blenders. The makers of the various espresso coffee machines run training couses for baristas.  To make a good cup of coffee the barista has to be trained like any other professional.

My own coffee production
I am not an expert barista, but I have owned, at various times, filter coffee machines, percolators and at least ten different espresso coffee machines.  Today, balancing taste with convenience, I make a reasonably good espresso coffee at home using a Nespresso machine. We have the technology, and I enjoy good coffee at home without the stress or the mess.  For the true café aficionados my coffee may not be good enough to make the top grade, but when these experts are in my home they are kind enough to remain silent. I have tried similar coffees with other machines in the homes of friends who use other coffee brands and most of those coffees have also been excellent, though not quite as good as mine.

A Cappuccino.
Photograph Courtesy of Akeeris though
How the French make coffee at home.
In French homes, a cafetière, a French coffee press, is the most popular method used for making the morning café au lait. Filter coffee machines are sold in France, but they are not very popular today and in French cafés and restaurants espresso coffee rules. In a French home if they do not use French coffee press then they will probably use a coffee percolator.
A cafetière, a French coffee press.
This cafetière is an Alessi Cafetière by Guido Veturini
N.B. The cafetière, despite its French and  English names like the Espresso machine is an Italian invention.
Great drawings that show how a French coffee press works.
To order coffee in a French café click on this post:

Connected Posts:
Bryan G.  Newman
Behind the French Menu
Copyright 2010,2011,2012, 2016.
For information on the unpublished book behind this blog contact Bryan Newman

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