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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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