Seven Lessons Learned – Paris

Paris is a city that is well known for many things: romance, the Eiffel Tower and art. What it is not known for is coffee. Most coffee blogs you come across will warn you of this fact, but this can seem like pure snobbery and nothing to be taken seriously. Unfortunately, it is true. Coffee in Paris is treated with the same care and attention that condiments are: cheaper is better. If you’re reading the blog, I hope you will agree that this is a massive oversight and, frankly, a surprise from a European culture that invented the ‘French Press’. Below are seven important lessons I learned from my break in Paris, and I list them here in the hopes that other coffee travellers don’t repeat my mistakes.

7. Coffee names are not the same

That’s right. Beware of ordering a Cafe Latte, unless you want it foaming like a coke float. They take it as a Cafe au Lait, which is more like a cappuccino (1/3, 1/3, 1/3) than a Latte. The closest thing to a Latte is a Cafe Creme, which is coffee with warm cream in it and is very tasty, but also full of fat. An espresso is still the same, so just stick with that when confused.

6. Roasting is not the ‘done’ thing

In the UK, we are becoming more and more used to the idea of in-house roasters being used. Not so in Paris, there are no Square Mile or Origin-like roasters that roast and sell their beans on. This lack of diversification in the market place means that even the roaster I managed to find does not sell its beans to other shops in Paris.

5. The Set-Menu is the ‘done’ thing

This is less coffee-specific but a useful learning curve nonetheless. I was having lunch in a restaurant full of locals, and should have noticed that everyone was ordering the ‘Menu Aujourd’hui’. A simple entree and main that was on a specials board. At a mere 16 euros (in a rather expensive restaurant), I thought that it was worth giving a swerve. But, as it turns out everybody orders the Set-Menu for lunch because it is the best value, and usually the best food. In the whole restaurant, I think I was the only person to order a la carte. The Set-Menu is to be trusted.

4. Shops don’t multi-task

I’m sure this is an exaggeration, but it seems to me that individual restaurants are so small, and usually family owned, that if the place you walk into is a sea food restaurant, you shouldn’t dare stray from that line. In terms of coffee, this means that unless the place is JUST selling coffee that it’s not worth trying it. A Patisserie therefore may do excellent pastries, but there’s no point in ordering coffee. In France this is because of the separation of suppliers: you wouldn’t get your groceries from the Boulangerie.

3. Order small

Do not get tricked into ‘larger is better’. With coffee it rarely is, and the chances are that the milk you get served will radically outweigh the flavour of the espresso. On no occasion did I get the barista increasing the amount of espresso in my coffee, they just increased the amount of milk… And this is never going to end well. Actually… scratch this last piece. If a coffee shop is offering coffee in ‘large’ sizes, then leave. It’s a very good indicator of poor coffee.

2. If you’re walking in off the street, look out for…

Look, the likelihood is, if you’re walking off the street, you are not going to stumble upon fantastic coffee. But there are ways you can minimise the chance of getting horrible coffee. ‘Cafes Richard’ is a sign to avoid. It is sort of like Lavazza or Illy (which are also to be avoided). These are great ways to filter out the bad coffee. A more subtle tell is whether they have a good espresso machine or not. La Marzocco machines are a good way of finding out if a place has really got some passion about their coffee. Ideally, of course, you’re looking for beans that are of a high quality, but if not look out for a barista who is freshly grinding his coffee (the grinder should be going off whilst he’s pulling out the grounds) and who then tamps the coffee correctly, by pressing down hard on the coffee once its in the basket. This latter attention to detail guarantees that the barista cares about the coffee and so should produce a passable cup, even if it’s just a domestic brand of beans that is being used.

1. When researching coffee shops online…

If you’re like me, then you’ll want to have a look at some coffee shops that might be en route on your journey through Paris. After my trip, I have some ‘approved’ bloggers that I found to be highly useful, and I will acknowledge these people over the next couple of reviews. However, in general, you should pay attention to references to ‘branded’ coffee as a nono. Finally, remember the golden rule of coffee in Paris: if you can find it too quickly, it’s no good! Coffee shops are shy beings against the Parisian backdrop, and so it will take time to hunt them down. Bring a good map, and be patient. The good coffee shops are there. But like all good things, they come to those who wait.

My thoughts of Parisian coffee have been quite negative so far. Over the next few days I will be posting a couple of reviews of coffee shops in Paris that stood out for providing the artisan quality that I always look out for. Please look out for these. Finally, I would like to give one last word of warning. Traffic signals in Paris seem to be more or less voluntary. If you are going to Paris, please be warned that the green man does not guarantee that there will not be cars coming at you. It merely increases the chance that cars will brake before they hit you. I was in severe, mortal danger on numerous occasions from this system, and I hope others will learn from my skittishness.

  1. You are so right about the lights. We always wait for crowds or baby strollers to make our move. We are hoping that the drivers don’t want to take out a mob of people. Another tip, I learned today. Do not move without looking when waiting for a bus. This guy on a bike whizzed me on the 6″ he had between me and the curb. I was an inch from being seriously hurt! Marilyn

  2. Thanks Marilyn. I put that half-jokingly, but it can be a shock to go from a more structured traffic system to the more ‘casual’ approach to safety that you find in some places on the continent.

    • Hmmm, that seems to have missed out the quote I was referring to:

      “Do not get tricked into ‘larger is better’. With coffee it rarely is, and the chances are that the milk you get served will radically outweigh the flavour of the espresso.”

      That’s the advice I was referring to 🙂

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