Un café, s’il vous plaît

Coffee beans, Mark Sweep via Wikimedia Commons

Coffee fuels the French, who have a penchant for strong black espresso-type coffee. Having to use coffee substitutes during World War II must have been a real hardship in that case. A chance remark to that effect during a recent dinner conversation with friends got my blogging antennae going.

New-fangled drink

Coffee was first introduced to France, via Marseille, in about 1644. However, it didn’t arrive at the court of Louis XIV until 1669, courtesy of Suleiman Aga, Sultan Mehmet IV’s ambassador.

Coffee’s commercial significance took a while to prove itself, but by the early 18th century, coffee plantations were established in French overseas territories, such as Guiana and Martinique.

Not everyone was convinced at first. Madame de Sévigné famously remarked, “There are two things the French will never swallow – Racine’s poetry and coffee.” However, she was proved wrong and coffee houses were soon opening in France’s main towns and cities. By the end of the 18th century, there were more than 800 in Paris alone. This was the start of the café culture, when intellectuals and revolutionaries used cafés as meeting places.

Café at Limogne on market day. No self-respecting French village is complete without one, although they are fewer nowadays

Along with the drink went ingenious ways of preparing it. The Archbishop of Paris invented the percolation system in 1800. Given his day job, you do wonder how that came about. A rudimentary espresso machine came next, using steam, and a more sophisticated version was showcased at the World Fair in Paris in 1844.

Consumption

Apparently coffee drinking really took off in the early 20th century. Between 1910 and the 1930s, coffee consumption increased by 60%. This juddered to a halt during World War II, when imports were seriously disrupted and the French had to find substitutes for their morning coffee. Roasted chicory, barley and acorns were the most widespread. You often read about this in French novels set in wartime.

Alternative to caffeine

Interestingly, despite the French aversion to being deprived in the war, Nestlé successfully introduced Ricoré® in 1953. This is a blend of powdered coffee (30%) and chicory (60%). Add hot water to make a coffee-like drink without most of the caffeine. We sampled it once at our neighbours’ house and, while it’s quite pleasant, I prefer my coffee unmodified. The brand is still going strong.

Today, the French consume around 5.8 kg of coffee per head per year. This is well behind the Finns (13.8 kg) and the Swedes (13.7 kg). I can personally vouch for the fact that the Swedes like their coffee very strong.

A coffee lexicon 

What terminology to use in a café or restaurant often causes Brits some confusion. Here is my attempt to demystify it.

You don’t need to ask for “un café noir”. This is taken as read if you just ask for “un café”. This is how 60% of French café goers take their coffee, i.e. an espresso served in a small cup. You can, however, ask for “un petit noir”, although I have a feeling this may not be used so much these days.

Coffee made with hot milk is café au lait, which is a popular breakfast drink. In a hotel, it will usually be served with the hot milk in a jug on the side. In a café, you can ask for un petit or un grand crème, meaning a large or small coffee made with milk.

Une noisette is a single or double espresso with a little cold milk, often served separately in a small jug.

Voilà.

Naturally, these days there are all sorts of other permutations, reflecting the coffee revolution that has spread from the States. The ones above are the traditional French ways of taking coffee.

P.S. Never, ever click your fingers and call a waiter “garçon”. Not unless you want to experience the legendary hauteur of Parisian waiters first-hand.

You might also like:

Is the French Rural Cafe Dying Out?
French Restaurant Capers

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About nessafrance

My husband and I moved to an 18th-century farmhouse in SW France in 1997. I am fascinated by French history, rural traditions and customs and enjoy seeking out the reality behind the myths. I run my own copywriting business and write short stories and the occasional novel in my spare time. My husband appears here as the SF, which stands for Statistics Freak, owing to his penchant for recording numbers about everything.
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17 Responses to Un café, s’il vous plaît

  1. Katy says:

    I never associated France and coffee. Excellent research work!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The other day I read on the internet that the spread of coffee and tea largely contributed to the Enlightenment. Allegedly earlier, because of contaminated water supply, people used to drink alcoholic drinks, which must have been impeded the emergence of philosophical thoughts.

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      I suppose coffee and tea are stimulants, which may have helped to stimulate brain power, at least temporarily. In rural France, people drank wine, but the alcohol strength was much lower than it is today. Even so, it can’t have done them a lot of good to drink it on a daily basis.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Elly Wright says:

    Like it strong too Vanessa. Those little capsules don’t do it for me either. Love the photo of Limogne Sunday market and the article. As you comment, the svp is so important. Look forward to having a coffee (or something stronger) with you soon. Just booked a flight for 31 August so Sept and Oct in my little corner of paradise. X

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      I’m not a fan of coffee that’s very strong (unlike my Swedish husband – hence the reference in the post). But I do think those capsules just standardise the taste and, for me, the variety each time you make it makes coffee more interesting. Great that you will be back in Sept and Oct – often the nicest time of year here. Look forward to that. 🙂

      Like

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  5. Chris Robinson says:

    Interested to see in writing, for the first time, the phrase “Un café, un!” at the head of your blog. I’ve heard it countless times in cities (in villages I invariably go to the bar myself) and always assumed it to be “Un café, hein?” You have opened my eyes, Vanessa! C

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      I guess the repetition of the number was, first, to ensure the waiter was heard and, second, to avoid any doubt about the quantity of coffees required. You will also hear the other multiples in busy city bars. In the smaller village ones, of course, it’s simpler to order it directly yourself.

      Like

  6. Jill Brown says:

    Interesting about the history Vanessa. In the morning I often drink a café crème. The problem usually arises whether this will be strong enough i.e. single dose or a double so now I tend to ask for a double espresso avec du lait chaud à coté or some such thing. Yes, it’s getting more complicated with the macchiatos and so on taking over in autoroute cafés.

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      Coffee machines with dosettes are now, of course, standardising the strength, which I find rather a shame. When we first arrived in France 20 years ago, a capuccino was unheard of, but now you can get them in most restaurants.

      Like

  7. Beth Lamb says:

    sat at he café at Limogne last week, sir usually asks for a café alonge often drink chocolate.

    Liked by 2 people

    • nessafrance says:

      I forgot the allongé in my lexicon of coffee terms, but it’s a relatively recent innovation, if I’m not mistaken. I sometimes like a hot chocolate if we’re staying in a hotel – otherwise I always drink coffee for breakfast.

      Like

  8. On my first ever trip to France, alone (age 15), I felt very sophisticated ordering a cafe au lait-not something we Yorkshire folk had much time for in those days.
    However, when I moved to this part of France three and a half years ago, not having spoken french in the intervening decades, I found that requests for cafe au lait were met with a blank stare. Quoi? Pardon? It seems it no longer exists down here and the ubiquitous cafe creme has taken over.

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      I can imagine that Yorkshire folk might look askance at café au lait. Interestingly, if we ask for the latter in hotels, it is instantly understood. But in a café it as to be a café crème. Just part and parcel of the mystery of France…

      Like

  9. Osyth says:

    My first faltering steps into living in France were in the cafe in the square in Champs on market day where I would bravely ask for un allongé and sip it decorously with The Bean on my knee. It made me feel French even if I spoke with a while sack of hot potatoes in my mouth. France without coffee is unthinkable and your researched histories are veritable treasures.

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      I never quite knew what to ask for when I wanted a coffee in a café and there seem to be various different permutations which actually amount to the same thing. We don’t think about it anymore, but I can remember the excruciating feeling of being an outsider.

      Liked by 1 person

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