25 September 2015

Le café selon moi

When I first started coming to France in 1970, I liked the coffee you got in cafés and restaurants, and also the coffee people made and served at home. It tasted richer than the American coffee I was used to. Back then, there were basically three styles of coffee available — café filtre, which was drip coffee made by the cup using a little stainless steel apparatus; Melitta coffee, which was also drip coffee but often made by the pot, using a paper filter and a plastic cone; and finally expresso, or café express, which you got in most cafés and restaurants — un express — UN ! was what the waiter would yell at the barman.

I especially liked the expresso (now called espresso, I think). The other two kinds reminded me of American coffee, even though I though they were better. It had to do with the kind of beans used. I like Arabica beans, and that's what I buy these days. Robusta beans are less rich-tasting. Back then, you couldn't make expresso at home, so I had a Melitta filter cone and would buy the paper filters. That's still what I do today, except that I have a fancy drip pot that automates the process.

The other thing about French coffee way back when was that it wasn't easy to find decent coffee except as whole beans. You had to grind them yourself, and it seemed that everybody except people who drank café soluble — instant coffee — had an electric coffee grinder at home. I came back to France in 1972 and moved into a small apartment. Before long I had acquired a coffee grinder. I still have it, but I never use it any more. It's a bivoltage model. Back then, some towns or neighborhoods had 110V current as in the U.S., but others had 220V current. Bivoltage appliances were widely available.

Because this was a coffee grinder that I could also use in the U.S., where the current is 110V, it was handy. The problem was, back then, that you didn't really find whole-bean coffee in very many places over there. Nearly all the coffee sold in most parts of the U.S. was already ground into powder. For years my coffee grinder didn't get much use in America. But I spent many years in France back then (1970, 1972-73, 1974-76, and 1979-82) as well as many years in America.

Eventually, the coffee bean situation reversed itself. Nowadays, it's hard to find coffee beans out here in the French countryside — I'm sure it's easier in Paris and other cities, but not here. And in the U.S., at least in places where I lived from 1982 until 2002, coffee beans were widely available. So I started using my coffee grinder over there too. I actually bought a second French grinder, but I hardly ever used it because it wasn't a bivoltage machine. Actually, I just donated that one, like new, to Emmaüs (Good Will). The older one, as I said, I'll keep, and at the age of 43 years it still works just fine. (By the way, the same flip-flop thing happened that happened with coffee beans in the U.S. and France also happened with butter, but that's another story...)

So here and now we buy our coffee not as whole beans but in powder form. Twelve years ago, I picked up a brique (vacuum-packed block) of Intermarché coffee, just to try it. We were on a strict budget back then, and the Intermarché coffee was, well, cheap. It cost 75 eurocents for 250 grams (just over half a pound). And it was (and is) good. It's 100% Arabica coffee. Nowadays it costs 90 cents a block, or less than two euros a pound. I've been buying and enjoying it for twelve years. House guests often comment on how good it is.

Walt and I have a small collection of coffee pots of different kinds, but we don't use them all that much. Actually, for years I drank tea instead of coffee in the morning. I lost my taste for coffee for a decade when I quit smoking cigarettes back in the early 1980s. Tea suited me better. I've gradually come back to morning coffee over the years. We do use our French-press (plunger) pots from time to time, especially for after-lunch or after-dinner coffee. We hardly ever use the Italian metal pots, but I like having them. And I always use the same brand of coffee no matter which pot I'm making it in.

We used to enjoy making coffee with a fancy espresso machine (La Pavoni brand), but at some point 10 years ago it sprang a leak. We've never managed to repair it or have it repaired, so it sits unused in a cabinet down in the garage. One day we'll have to get a new coffee-maker (the one we use is now 12 years old) and I'm sure it will be another drip model. I don't see myself using those Nespresso capsules or the Senseo packets. I like the Intermarché 100% Arabica coffee and I hope they don't quit selling it in my lifetime.

French people still drink their morning coffee out of bowls, I think, but mugs (conveniently called mugs) are now widely available. Of course we have a supply of them that we moved over here from the States. We also have two sets of demi-tasse cups, eight in all, that we've had for more than 30 years now. One Christmas in the mid-'80s, Walt and I each surprised the other with a gift of little cups and saucers — it was a funny coincidence (les grands esprits se rencontrent..., they say).

French people used to put chicory in their coffee too, and I know that some still do. A few weeks ago I was at the check-out counter over at Intermarché and I had picked up a few briques of the store-brand coffee. The man ahead of me in line, who must have been even older than I am, looked at what I was buying and asked me if I liked that brand of coffee. I told him I did, and that I'd been buying it for many years. He asked me if I added some chicory to it when I made it. I said no. He said he'd always drunk coffee made that way and didn't want to give it up.

Coffee is like bread. What some people consider to be very good coffee or bread, others think is inbuvable or immangeable. Les goûts et les couleurs...in other words, there's no accounting for taste.


  1. There's a commenter on this blog who will be very happy with this post! Enjoy it! Coffee is not my cup of tea!

  2. That woke me up....
    rather than making me hungry!! ;-)

    We have a Moulinex coffee grinder in the same colours as yours....
    it is Pauline's and dates from the early '70s...
    but the bowl is inside the plastic moulding...
    so must be a later model than yours.
    It is now our spice grinder... it is excellent and powerful!
    It does, occasionally, get used for coffee...
    when I spot something different in beans.
    To me there are a zillion different coffees out there to try...
    but for everyday use we are like you...
    we use LIDL's Familial [30% Arabica/70% Robusta]...
    because we like it... but I noticed that the one we always bought over here had a "F" on the base....
    and tasted rounder and richer than the one from LIDL UK... which had a "GB" on the base...
    suddenly, with the new packaging... the "F" has gone!
    But I wonder if they still taste different... or was it just the water...
    although we've always used Britta filtered water... so it shouldn't have made a difference.
    It is interesting... all these flavours... teas as well!

    We have just bought a new coffee maker.... surprise, surprise... from LIDL...
    but, instead of a heating element to stew the remaining coffee....
    it comes with two, one litre, Thermos jugs to keep the coffee hot.
    So, when entertaining, you can make the coffee for a crowd in advance.
    Haven't tried it out yet... the worktops are full of apples, tomatoes, courgettes, eggs from eggplants, french beans, peppers........

  3. The paint is knocked off the bowl of my old Moulinex coffee grinder because the way I always got the coffee to fall out of the grinder and into the filter was to bang on the bowl with a metal spoon.

    As for the LIDL coffee, I can imagine there would be different blends of Arabica and Robusta coffee for different countries or markets. I'm not sure most Americans would enjoy the Arabica coffee so much.

  4. Almost everyone of our acquaintance has been sucked in to buying a machine that only takes capsules. This is very annoying when we rent an apartment because you never know in advance which proprietory model it will have and therefore can't buy a stock of the infernal capsules. The things are so pervasive that I've noticed how much the choice of loose coffee has diminished in the supermarket. Apparently the man at Phillips who invented the first one is now ashamed of himself, mainly due to the waste they produce. At home we have a drip filter and for camping we have an Italian stove top percolator. In Australia I bought coffee beans in bulk and ground them just before use. We gave the coffee grinder away when we left, thinking we wouldn't be able to use it in the UK. In London I bought from a specialist coffee merchant who ground the beans for me. Here I just buy pre-ground in the supermarket. My rule in France is never buy coffee in a red packet -- it's always awful.

    1. "...has been sucked in to buying a machine that only takes capsules"....
      Well said Susan! I'm glad the man is ashamed!!
      At least the coffee bag machines can be used with REAL coffee...
      you can get paper bags, cloth or stainless inserts to put your own coffee into...
      so there is some choice with those models!

      And Pauline et moi have also noticed the way REAL coffee is being pushed into an ever tighter little space in the supermarkets...
      as for the RED packets...
      now I know why LIDL changed their packaging!!

  5. When I was young I drunk only Robusta. Now I prefere Arabica , it is more "aromatic" and Robusta is very strong.

  6. I've been served those capsule coffees by hosts many times and they are fine. But I object to the waste too. My coffee grounds and the paper filter just go into the compost. Intermarché sells coffee in red bags, but I've never tried it. I think it's mainly ground-up Robusta beans.

  7. When I was very little I wondered why my grandmother drank her coffee from a small bowl instead of a cup. Mom said that is how some French people drink their coffee. Blogging has brought back little memories I did not know I had.

  8. I can remember on my first French school exchange, the breakfast café au lait (in a bowl) was the boiled up leftovers from the previous evening. As someone brought up on the idea that coffee was a rare, mid-morning only, grown-up gourmet treat, that was a bit of a shock. In my lifetime, I've had coffee made in just about every machine going - stove-top percolator, the Cona glass percolator, a reusable fabric filter (called a Coffeesock, I kid you not), cup-top pre-filled filters, a single-cup stove-top espresso pot (only, the made coffee comes out into the cup, which has to sit on the base and gets too hot to pick up for quite a while), and a Nespresso (very disappointing flavour). In the end I've come back to a simple filter machine, but use a cup-top filter to make a single mug at a time, but there's quite a collection of gizmos in a kitchen drawer.

  9. Bonjour Ken

    Maintenant je connais votre secret.

    Next trip to France , we will make sure to look for it at InterMarché. Y has tried different brands when we go to France ( he likes his morning coffee ) but to no avail . Now we know :-) Thank you.

    My grand-mother used to serve us coffee ( more a café au lait since she would pour boiling milk into the coffee) in bowls when we were kids.

  10. The coffee machine/maker graveyard.... I just gave away my little espresso machine, but keep the french presses (of varying sizes like yours), and italinan stovetops, too, but have gone back to chemex. It is a nice routine in the morning.

  11. YAY!!!!!!! Thank you SO much, Ken!!!! i'm smiling from ear to ear. :-) i dont like those "pods" either.... and was so happy to see your espresso makers. i wonder if i can find "your" brand of coffee online... i'll check. in all the time i visited france i never was served au lai in a bowl... but once, i think, in Switzerland. when i moved back here to Ohio from a very coffee-centric city i got in a heated argument with the guy at starbucks about the appropriate preparation of one of their drinks. i even made him get their handbook and i pointed to the page and declared myself right. from then on i was known - from by my voice in the drive thru - as that lady with foam issues. now i just make coffee at home...and sometimes i sneak into the Big City where they have finally come up to speed on "real" coffee.. or UN! as i shall now demand.

    thanks so much for this - you've made my day!

  12. Interesting post. Nice to have a product for 43 years that still works. I wish everything could be that way.

    As you say, here in the US and particularly in LA, coffee bean choices are everywhere - most of the groceries offer several brands of whole roast beans. Many cafes source, blend and roast their own proprietary bean brands.

    In French Canada I think plunger was called piston.

  13. Very interesting post.....I would love to hear the story about butter!

  14. I've been drinking coffee since I was a kid drinking a little coffee in my milk. I like the french coffee in the bowls and remember having it on my first trip when I was fifteen. Strong coffee is fine with me. When I worked in the bank in Paris we ate at the canteen and stopped for an espresso at the cafe afterwards. I always bring some french coffee home with me to make my trip last a little longer. I'm still tasting mornings in France now.
    I like the looks of your antique coffee grinder.

  15. lol. that looks like my cupboard .. I have such a collection of coffee makers but only ever use the electric one. I like it that it makes the coffee in the morning and all I have to do is stagger into the kitchen and pour it.


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