"Bonjour, un café, s'il vous plaît," I ordered with a big smile. To my surprise, I was served with a small cup of espresso. I sat there staring at my tiny cup of very strong coffee wondering what just happened. This took place in a train station in Paris during my first time traveling alone in France.
Never in my wildest dreams have I thought ordering coffee can get so tricky anywhere. I have traveled and effortlessly ordered coffee throughout many cities in Europe, Asia, Middle East and America and never ever even once faced a problem.
The next episode I found myself in was when I went to Mc Café on my own. Yes, Mc Café in the middle of a small town in France. Based on experience, the further you get away from major cities like Paris and Nantes, the more English ceases to exist. Or should I say, English becomes non-existent. French language is pretty much spoken everywhere, like it or not. Feeling confident, at that moment I knew, nothing could ever go wrong. I will finally have my black coffee in a big cup.
Well, not until I saw the menu board.
So there I was, tempted to shamelessly ask the server for a "Café Americano" and then I stopped myself. Café Americain was not on the menu board. There was a long queue forming behind me and so I asked for the person behind to go ahead while I solve the puzzle.
With the help of internal reasoning, I ruled out any coffee with milk on the menu and I sort of guessed that the closest coffee to what I wanted was "un café allongé" To make sure I get it right, I asked the lady at the counter for "un cafe noir dans une grande tasse." (A black coffee in a big cup)
"Ah! un café allongé!" She smiled.
Yay! I mentally did a victory dance. She then served it in a larger white mug. Oh sh*t, I wanted it for take-away.
I think what makes it seem complicated is the fact that France has different words for everything. Compared to the rest of the world, they have their own standards, their own coffee culture and they want to keep it that way.
Café /Café Express - espresso that comes in a teeny tiny cup
Café Allongé (kuh-fay ah-lahn-jay) is drip style coffee, espresso diluted with hot water. If you want your black coffee served with milk, you can request, "Un café allongé avec du lait à côté, s'il vous plaît."
Café Crème/ Grand Crème (a bigger version of cafe creme) / **Café Latte **- milky espresso based coffee with foam. Forget café au lait. It's hardly ordered here by locals at all.
Cappuccino - similar to Café Crème thus having cocoa powder or cinnamon on top of the foam and slightly more expensive.
Noisette (nwah-zett)- Noisette means hazel nut referring to the color of the coffee. It is actually a hot espresso with a dash of cream.
Un Déca / Café Décaféiné - decaffeinated coffee
À Emporter - To go. Take Away.
Sur Place - For on-site consumption.
Coffee Culture that I Have Seen in France
The morning coffee at home is served in bowls where they're happy to dip their baguette or sometimes brioche or any type of viennoiserie in. In brasseries, restaurants or cafes, coffee is served in cups. They only drink milky coffees for breakfast. Anytime past that, everyone switches to dark coffee even after their meals.
Coffee is a social thing. It is consumed for catching up and lingering conversations. This is why coffee to go can only be ordered in certain places.
Coffee in a paper cup is not really the norm. They're meant to be appreciated, one sip at a time. It is customary for locals to have coffee at the terrace in brasseries / bistros or inside a restaurant after a meal, or even at a bar counter for a quick espresso.
One can hardly spot a Starbucks-style coffee shop in small towns and if they do, they're not as popular at all and understandably, it's hard to beat an authentic french café across the street.
On the contrary, McDonald's Mc Café, blended in really well. Can you imagine they sell macarons in Mc Donald's? They have Café Gourmand, a coffee served with a dessert plate of tiny pastries. They even have a separate café counter with a large display glass case filled with yummy french pastries.
Around where I stayed for several months many years ago, we usually had coffee in brasseries, but most of the time, coffee, for me is better enjoyed at home or at a family or friend's terrace where conversations last till dinner.
"What I love is that coffee is very much ingrained in their everyday life, " says the coffee addict.
How was your coffee experience in France? Do you like coffee? How do you like your coffee? What is the coffee culture in your country?