Café Culture in France

Thursday, 26 July 2018

A coffee stop away from the Tour de France, dare we say a look at a “French cultural thing”? Many foreigners and perhaps some French people too complain about the way coffee tastes in France but what if actually getting a coffee during your ride was the real problem?

Is French coffee bad?
Every year the Tour de France brings complaints from followers on the Tour de France about their hotel breakfasts and café pit stops about the bad taste. Ask someone in France and they’d probably disagree, after all the French consume tons of it even if the stats say they drink more tea per year than coffee. Maybe there’s a touch of ethnocentrism about the complaints, nobody goes to France for the coffee, just like nobody goes to the Tour of Britain for good weather; nobody expects good beer at the Vuelta. Still the “complaints” about coffee are usually good natured if the café as in the place is celebrated, the coffee rarely is.

One explanation for the taste difference could be colonialism. In an article on Slate.com French coffee shop owner Aleaume Paturle explains that in the past coffee from French colonies could be imported back to France duty-free and the crop planted in places like Vietnam and Laos was the Robusta variety rather than the more prized Arabica. Robusta, as the name suggests, is more hardy but the taste isn’t as rich and sometimes it’s over-roasted to give it more aroma. In general this makes for a more bitter, rougher taste, more notes of burnt wood and ashtray than chocolate or vanilla. All the same if you buy some Segafredo in Italy it tends to have this same taste, compared to the smoother varieties from Lavazza or Illy.

Coffee culture like we see in other places has been slow to catch on. Order un café and it’s a small shot, an express or better known by the Italian espresso. You can have varieties on this like a café serré which is like a ristretto in Italy or a café-au-lait which is a milk white coffee. But that’s about it, there’s not the same variety as you might find in a London or Melbourne coffee shop, a typical café in France is more of a bar and a communal space rather than the cloned assembly of exposed brickwork, led filament bulbs and vintage sofas you find all around the world. As for Wifi, it’s rare, maybe there’s payphone instead. For the cyclist though these dusty village cafés offer a quick pick-me-up and you can ask for a free carafe of water to fill your bottles up. Do it right and you can be sitting on terrace, browsing the house copy of L’Equipe on a stick and watching the world go by and personally this beats any single-estate-brew-artisanal coffee with a pattern made in the froth on top… although it’s even better to do this in Italy, read La Gazzetta and all for one Euro.

But whether the coffee tastes good or bad, an increasing problem can be simply getting one when you’re out on a ride in France. Cafés are closing at an astonishing rate. According to an article in Le Parisien there were 600,000 cafés and bars in 1960 and just 34,669 in 2015. That’s 30 closures a day, every day, for the past 55 years. Another report says there were 200,000 in 1960 which is still eight closures a day on average and over the past decade if an average of 2,200 new establishments have opened per year, 2,700 have closed meaning an average net loss of 500 a year.

Why? This is a significant issue in France and there’s plenty of reading from magazine articles to industry analysis and government reports and statistical surveys. Here’s the summary take:

  • many villages are declining as populations move away remote rural areas towards the cities and suburbs
  • a smoking ban introduced in 2007 may satisfy many cyclists but it’s deterred core customers
  • drink-driving is reducing meaning passing motorists are less likely to visit for a quick one
  • annual alcohol consumption in France has almost halved since 1970
  • coffee is easier to make with machines at home and the workplace reducing the need to drop by the café
  • once upon a time the café might have been the only place with a TV; more recently it was a place to read the newspaper but today most have a TV at home and many get their news online
  • improved food hygiene standards have required investment that some cafés haven’t been able to meet
  • bakeries supply sandwiches and drinks these days meaning the village bistrot no longer has a monopoly on fast food and snacks
  • employing kitchen staff is relatively expensive and selling dishes for €5-10 makes it hard to recoup the money
  • finally a personal observation that many places are old with dusty interiors and if they’re struggling they stuck in a vicious cycle, unable to make money to invest in more comfortable or cheery interiors so people go elsewhere

There’s no single factor here, just a series of societal changes that have undone what was surely never a lucrative venture in the first place. Reading some of these factors the decline doesn’t sound so disastrous if some cafés were smoke-filled hubs that relied on passing trade from drink drivers while poorly-paid staff served up unhygienic dishes.

Conclusion
Bitter and rough tasting, French coffee is often not as a smooth as its transalpine variety. The tale of colonialism, import duties and agronomy makes for a nice hypothesis, whether it’s true, who knows? Either way it’s a bitter dose of caffeine to start the day or for a boost during a ride. There’s no problem in towns and cities and the tourist visiting Paris is spoilt for choice. The cyclist traversing rural France will find things harder, they’re closing at an astonishing rate and can be hard to find in villages, time after time you’ll see the shutters closed and this leaves an even more sour taste in the mouth and any coffee can.

Bob July 26, 2018 at 12:29 pm

Oddly Spain and the Balearics don’t seem to have the same problem – and of course notin Italy. I also keep coming back to Lavazzo crema gustoso, in the orange bag.

Morten reippuert July 27, 2018 at 2:27 am

There is a significat difference in costs between France and Spain/Italy – Even within Italy there is a gigantic differnce between north and south. Mostly due to average income for for lower, midle and upper midleclas.

France is above Germany and approacing Scandinavia/Benelux levels, UK and the Italy is below Germany. Spains is significantly lower.

It’s simply no longer posible to run a cafe, a grocery shop etc in small villages in rual france and ern a decent living.

Ecky Thump July 26, 2018 at 12:52 pm

Why haven’t the big coffee chains that have proliferated in the UK for instance not spread to France?
The last time I was in Paris, I don’t recall seeing any Costa Coffee, Caffe Nero etc…I gather there are some Starbucks though I don’t remember (but why would I?) them.
Is there a French cultural reluctance about the big coffee chains or local authority planning restrictions?
Or is it just purely down to economics?

Rooto July 26, 2018 at 1:39 pm

There are a couple of Starbucks down here in Nice, but – in terms of societal change – what’s really growing (as inrng mentioned) is the number of bakeries selling drinks and sandwiches/pizzas/salads, and with a terrace outside. The boulangerie is becoming a bit of a one-stop-shop for snacks and lunches. This could be more serious in a village economy. Is Larry about to tell us if there’s an equal phenomenon happening in Italy?

jc July 26, 2018 at 2:08 pm

The bakery selling coffee, snacks etc is found just about everywhere here in Germany, usually open on Sundays and Public Holidays too when everything else is closed. They all have a coffee machine, usually the press button type rather than the full Italian chromed version. Even so the coffee they serve is almost always perfectly drinkable even if served without the same panache as getting “un caffe, per favore” from a cafe on an Italian street corner.

DaveS July 27, 2018 at 6:34 am

Belgium also for the bakery approach. And standards are very high. The coffee produced by the modern Bean to Cup machines is really very very good now, though some of the ritual is lost perhaps.

The Inner Ring July 26, 2018 at 2:19 pm

Can we turn this around, what’s made these chains such a success in the UK? You don’t see many in France, Belgium, Netherlands, Italy, Spain etc, seems more a British/Scandinavian thing, no? By contrast things like McDonalds and Burger King are very popular in France.

jc July 26, 2018 at 2:47 pm

Maybe the fact that there was little “coffee culture” in the UK until relatively recently is a factor. Until about 15 years ago coffee in the UK meant a large mug of brown milky liquid probably made using powdered instant “coffee” also known as “builders coffee”. Places like Bar Italia in Soho where you could get “proper coffee” were exotic and uncommon, though there was a good number of Italian run “greasy spoon” type caffs which would serve espresso etc on request.

When Costa started off they suddenly discovered a market for places which were not working class greasy spoons, not pubs and which were attractive to families and especially women. This has changed people’s tastes, how many people would now even contemplate buying a jar of Nescafe Instant Coffee?

Where there was already a significant coffee culture there was no opportunity for the likes of Costa?

Ecky Thump July 26, 2018 at 3:55 pm

That is true but I would expand on that.
What the coffee chains are selling is, essentially, a slice of perceived Continental culture.
Indeed, some of the chains are owned / run by often Italian ex-pats.

So, perhaps it would be a case of like selling coals to Newcastle, as we’d say here in the UK.

What I’ve also seen – and used in extremis – are coffee machines in petrol stations, motorway stores etc. It’s not *that* bad, better than the French coffee maybe judging by some of the comments?
Perhaps that could be a way to obtain a quarter-decent coffee in a rural French village?

Mark H July 27, 2018 at 3:33 am

Coffee culture in the UK has existed for hundreds of years, in the 1700s there were hundreds of “Coffee Houses” which were significant cultural and political places, it’s only later that this changed so i’d argue what we have now is just a return to the way it used to be.
Bar Italia was part of the 2nd wave of Italian style espresso, which was extremely popular in the 1950s amongst teenagers, and now we have the 3rd wave of ‘artisan’ style coffee houses.

Davo July 26, 2018 at 3:53 pm

As you point out, cafe culture and coffee culture are very different things but it does seem that the quality of coffee here is improving, courtesy of boulangeries and pattisseries. Purely anecdotal, of course but as Rooto points out, these places are starting to sell coffee as an aside to a chocolatine or croissant. In general it seems to be of the capsule type coffee, as peddled by George Clooney and lacks the bitterness of old style robusta,. (The joke goes that it should be served with a glass of water to wash the taste away), but the quality is pretty good.
Sadly, it does not replace the old style cafe for somewhere to pass an hour reading yesterday’s newspaper or hearing about the mayor’s mistress. I guess you can’t have it all.

Morten Reippuiert July 27, 2018 at 2:39 am

Franchise coffe chains is not a scandinavin thing except in the larger urban arreas or cities.

Cafe’s, Pubs, small grocereries are even more scarecly spread out than in rual France here – Even in Denmark which is more densely populated than france (and just about any european country in europe except Netherlands and Belgium.

Scandinavia is basicly just cultural extension of the north german plains… which also includes how buisness is organized. There is not much difference between Berlin, Copenhagen, Hamburg, Oslo or Stockholm.

Mark H July 27, 2018 at 3:28 am

“Scandinavia is basicly just cultural extension of the north german plains”
Haha, only a Scandinavian is allowed to say that without getting in trouble though

Mick July 27, 2018 at 5:19 am

Great summary of Scandinavia . . .

Anonymous July 27, 2018 at 5:57 am

Since they have a hundreds of years shared past in the Hanse, the European Trade Union of it’s time, that’s no surprise.

DaveS July 27, 2018 at 6:39 am

I listened to a lecture which suggested that, along with things like expensive mobile phones and TV contracts, expensive ’luxury’ coffees were an affordable luxury that helped people deal with NOT being able to afford to buy a home in UK anymore. There were some interesting points . . .

SLO_cyclist July 27, 2018 at 9:49 am

These coffee chains are also a bit of a city thing, I can’t believe you’ll see many in villages in the UK…or am I wrong? In the Netherlands, cities are full of coffee chains btw, Starbucks, Coffee Company, etc.

Might be due to the fact that the coffee consumption per capita is the highest in Scandinavia, the Benelux is following closely. Doesn’t explain the UK trend in this case, since they don’t consume much of it though.

https://fusiontables.google.com/DataSource?docid=1C-fn6nSe21acP0xJIO1T1x0wohqfMYCQyJjbqdk#rows:id=1

Neon Gabriel July 27, 2018 at 11:04 am

I will posit two theories why Britain, I don’t know the Nordics, has embraced coffee chains with greater enthusiasm that continental European countries.

First is the lack of a cafe culture in the UK. What seems to have happened is that the dominant pub culture has been replaced by a more complex mix of refreshment services, the hipster cafe, the bookshop cafe, the food cafe bistro etc. In this retail space the coffee retail brands have been able to exploit consumer naivety to forge dominant positions in terms of the cultural references to coffee. For example in France, Benelux, Italy and Iberia coffee and its surrounding cultural references is more embedded into daily life of the local bar/cafe.

Secondly the UK high street is dominated by large brands that suggests that the British are either happier in the comfort that a trusted brand gives to their customers or suffer from consumption status anxieties therefore need the branded experience of Starbucks, Costa, Nero. I would tend towards the latter – the UK economy is a primarily a service economy and even in a city like Derby that has a highly skilled and well paid industrial sector the consumption component of it economy is very large. This consumption as leisure activity in the UK is often cited in retail parks which by design are the locations of branded coffee chains. However these consumption destination are in trouble and there is a scramble by the leading retail developers to consolidate their best assets and ditch their marginal one.

However with the restructuring of the chain restaurant business in the UK – Jamie’s Italian, Prezzo, Byron all downsizing might we see the dominance of the big three coffee chains threatened by the UK becoming a more mature and discerning coffee culture. It is possible, but I suspect that big brands will remain strong in the UK as consumption still is the driving force of the economy and with it goes status needs that brand associations fulfil.

The Grimp July 26, 2018 at 11:54 pm

I’d rather have no coffee than Costa Coffee. Horrible stuff.

Cat & Fiddle July 27, 2018 at 9:52 am

Nero is fine though, and unpretentious as the day is long.

Costa is muck.

Anonymous July 27, 2018 at 5:49 am

OMG, he’s pulling a full Marie Antoinette!
Coffee chains like Starbucks as an alternative to “Cafe Richard”?
If French cuisine restaurants are dying, Ecky would ask “why don’t they just grab a Happy Meal at McDonalds or diarrhoea at TacoBells?”
Must be an uncultural thing.

Ecky Thump July 27, 2018 at 7:23 pm

Ha, I’d much rather have a meat and tatie pie and a cup of bovril to be honest.

Chris July 28, 2018 at 11:39 am

My partner and I had a good chuckle at seeing there’s a Pret now opened in Galleries Lafayette in Paris, as if it’s some trendy pop-up. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big Pret fan, and in fact maybe it’s seen as so fancy for just this reason – it actually serves passable coffee, unlike most cafes in Paris.

Peter Linsley July 26, 2018 at 1:04 pm

“Industrial sludge”, as a riding partner of mine calls it.

A slightly less balanced take than you, INRNG, but it’s true that some truly terrible cups of coffee have punctuated my riding in France. Even so, the closing of rural French cafes is one of those brutal economic realities, I guess, and is a damn shame.

Bob July 26, 2018 at 1:34 pm

Sludge indeed. Next week I’m riding from Geneve across the alps to Nice, and you can be sure there’s a travel jug and bag of coffee in my suitcase. It’s impossible to contemplate this ride without at least one good coffee each morning.

Pete Linsley July 26, 2018 at 1:47 pm

Wise move indeed. Not a route to be contemplated fuelled by poor quality coffee!

The Inner Ring July 26, 2018 at 2:20 pm

Have a good ride, that’s a great route even with all the choices along the way.

Bob July 26, 2018 at 2:46 pm

Thank you. It’s only 850km and 20,000m climbing 🙂

jc July 26, 2018 at 1:06 pm

France is not the only place with poor coffee, Spain is not good either. I guess the issue is when you spend a lot of time in places where decent coffee is readily available, in my case Germany and London with holidays in Italy it comes as a bit of a shock to served crap cappuccinos in Barcelona or some sort of strange tasting brown liquid in Paris which is supposed to be espresso. I am sure some local partisan will be along to defend Catalan or Parisian coffee but to me it really is poor.

The cafe closing thing has echos in the number of Pubs that have closed (and are continuing to close) in the UK. People’s social habits are changing and that impact is often felt most in more rural areas. I read the article you linked to on twitter about Thierry Claveyrolat, sad but does show the challenges of taking on what seems an idyllic business but in reality is very hard work for little reward.

Morten Reippuiert July 27, 2018 at 2:50 am

I actually think they are pretty good at Espresso in Spain. experience mainly from Aragon, Basque Country, Astura, and non-coastal Andalucia + Canary islands.

Far better Espresso than in france, and easyly rivals nothern Italy. …just stay away from the nasty coffe drinks with cinnamon. And for gods sake stay away from classic postwar beat up ‘resort style hotels’. Skip the Cofé in the hotel and find the nearest Cofe house on the street.

James L July 27, 2018 at 10:59 pm

I agree Spain is average too, I think most people look beyond the average quality in Italy due to the warm smiles, great service and community feel. Not to mention their poorly French imitated (albeit good) pastries!

Wayne July 28, 2018 at 8:55 pm

I would agree coffee in Spain can be very hit and miss, but I’d still say it’s better than in France and in most bars in Spain they seem to want your business unlike in most of the places I’ve been when on the bike in France. 2 plus points for Spain would be price, you’ll pay between 1-1.20€ for an espresso and second even in the most run down one donkey pueblo you’ll find a bar that will serve you a coffee.

Rooto July 26, 2018 at 1:28 pm

I’m not a coffee drinker, so the paucity of French coffee has passed me by. Maybe this explains why, when I saw Team Sky’s Doull and Dibben in a cafe in Isola village last Sunday, they were drinking ‘pressions’!

mendip5000 July 26, 2018 at 3:03 pm

What goes on tour…

True Cutter July 26, 2018 at 2:55 pm

Hi All

INRNG’s post made me recollect an article in the NYT about a month ago discussing a movement in Paris to designate its cafes as part of France’s Intangible Cultural Heritage via UNESCO. Check it out if inclined and the weblink works.

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/16/world/europe/paris-bistro-cafe-unesco.html

Oliver July 26, 2018 at 2:55 pm

Marvelous piece. Especially the connection with colonialism. Of course the US and UK coffee shop phenomenon is relatively recent (mid-90’s?). I recall in the 1980s French coffee however bitter and overly strong was considered good stuff as compared to the weak soup that was being served in diners and carts in nyc, and there was no real coffee culture in the UK then either…. Italy of course was a different story…

Mark H July 27, 2018 at 3:25 am

The “third-wave” coffee culture is new, sure, but the “Coffee House” was established in the UK a very long time ago, certainly before France, and only just after the Italians “imported” the concept from the Middle East.

Anonymous July 27, 2018 at 6:01 am

I guess the tea-culture in UK is a far more colonialism driven thing than the alleged “bad coffee” in France. They lost the coffee culture when they stole India.

Ankush July 26, 2018 at 3:25 pm

I would love to read a longer, more elaborate version of this article while sipping coffee on a weekend. Thanks for it Inrng.

Bilbosdad July 26, 2018 at 3:38 pm

On our annual drive from UK to Italy I can find always adequate and sometimes excellent coffee from motorway services in Belgium, Luxembourg and Italy, however Autoroute coffee in France (and oddly Vignette regulated Coffee in Switzerland) causes chronic indigestion. The answer to staying awake through the agri-prairies of France has become chocolate chaud. But the first and last Autogrill in Italy ALWAYS gets some of my euros.

The Inner Ring July 26, 2018 at 3:44 pm

I edited out the tip to avoid autoroute vending machine coffee but worth sharing in the comments below.

jc July 26, 2018 at 7:34 pm

As long as you can cope with paying first then try to get served by waving the receipt at the generally disinterested serving staff

not yoda July 27, 2018 at 9:07 am

Interesting that Autogrill actually operates the starbucks stores in Belgium

http://jobs.autogrill.be/nl/brand/starbucks

Tim Mitchell July 26, 2018 at 3:53 pm

Tea. Yorkshire Gold.

Made at home is the best drink ever but, in the UK at least, teas in cafes, pubs etc is awful.

Can’t read French but the stats in L’Equipe are great but Het Nierwsblad is better.

The world is changing and as someone above said cafes and pubs are victims of this change.

Keep up the good work.

Peter Meyer July 26, 2018 at 4:24 pm

What a nice article to have during the Tour! This is one of the reasons that I check here every morning. Thank you!

Megi July 26, 2018 at 4:39 pm

And perfect for reading while watching this coffee break kind of stage in the pause between the first Pyrenees and the second Pyrenees.

Whale Oil Beef Hooked July 26, 2018 at 5:55 pm

I think the coffee, Prosecco, gin and any other recent consumer boom, surf on the wave of all the “look at me” type posts that seem to proliferate on social media etc. I’m sure fear of “missing out” has a part to play with a large section of the UK population. Isn’t marketing amazing?

I see colleagues arriving at work brandishing Costa cups when they could have bought much better quality and value coffees from 2 other independent outlets within 50m walk. You pays your money…

I’ve always found ‘une grand creme’ more than satisfactory when in France. I do try to aim for larger villages and towns for lunchtime refreshment now as I have had many rides extended looking for the increasingly elusive café.

Anon July 26, 2018 at 11:22 pm

Hands-down the greatest name of all time!

Eh? July 27, 2018 at 12:51 am

But not a name to be relished in NZ where it is the handle of a somewhat right wing, slightly disturbed and confused – but surprisingly popular in certain circles – blogger. The said blogger is famous for both his excess weight and his bizarre challenge of a bike race with a left wing politician. I think he did finish the race but not in the same decade as his opponent.

Andrew July 26, 2018 at 6:08 pm

I like bitter French coffee. And dusty French cafes. And old French guys smoking cigarettes in them.

Sven Van Andres July 26, 2018 at 10:21 pm

God, I love the smell of someone else smoking Gitanes

Anonymous July 27, 2018 at 6:04 am

Word! They don’t sell that smell at Starbucks clinical death shops.

Larry T July 26, 2018 at 6:15 pm

This post brought back some memories. Years ago we produced an Alpine cycling tour that crossed into France, sometimes in Briancon, sometimes in Val d’isere, etc. Rather than be outraged that so often they have the same Italian-made espresso machines as on the other side of the border, but just can’t make a decent caffe, I just skipped it. Same with pasta – the French just can’t do it. We’d spend only one night on the “wrong” side of the border so for me it was always the first bar on the Italian side where I’d get a cappuccino each morning.
Here in Italy, I don’t see bars closing, instead I think there are more opening! A few weeks ago we passed by one we’d stop at now and then, but it was their weekly day-off so the place was closed up tight. 300 meters down the road we found one we’d never been in before, who happily took care of us, saying they’d opened the place just two days before!
With the general quality of espresso in bars here combined with the Italian preference for small business over international franchises I doubt anything like the gawdawful “Fourbucks” will have a lot of success here.
On the other hand there ARE a lot of shops specializing in the capsules (like Nespresso) for home machines. The selection is vast, even in the supermarket, while the ESE “pod” (cialde in Italian) style seems to be going away:-(

Paul July 26, 2018 at 8:39 pm

Cappucino is a drink; it is not coffee!

Morten Reippuiert July 27, 2018 at 2:58 am

Cappucino is brekfast and you could/should go to jail if you attempt to order after 10 AM in Spain or Italy.

…or at least its the eqvivalennt to Brialsford in france defending Moscon after an one-way fistfight with a french rider live broadcasted to 1 billion viewers.

Davo July 27, 2018 at 10:15 am

Why on earthow would you order cappuccino in Spain, when you could order Choccolatte con churros. You can feel your arteries harden with each sip.

Anonymous July 27, 2018 at 6:36 pm

In Espana, I go full Carajillo or Trifasico in Catlunya. Milk with a splash of coffee, that’t what you give only to children, who are too young for a real coffee.

Larry T July 27, 2018 at 1:14 pm

OK, Mr. Expert 2 – where did I suggest anyone order a cappuccino after 10AM? For those who want milk in their caffe after midday it’s “espresso macchiato latte caldo” when ends up being pretty much a mini-cappuccino. Finally it’s breAkfast…or prima colazione in Italian. Happy now?

Larry T July 27, 2018 at 1:07 pm

It’s also spelled with two C’s Mr. Expert! And shitty caffe makes a shitty cappuccino IHMO.

Paul July 26, 2018 at 6:19 pm

The most disappointing thing about the French Cafe culture for me is the new habit of serving in a plastic or paper cup.

I recently rode from st Malo to Alicante and the bad coffee switch was flicked at Bayonne all of Spain was to my taste and guess what I saw cyclists actually riding in Spain

SPS July 26, 2018 at 8:03 pm

P’tit chapeau for this blog!
I’ve never had trouble ordering a ‘noisette’ in France – it’s just an express with a dash of hot milk and goes down like a less-frothy cappuccino.
On a recent trip to Paris, I noticed that many of the sidewalk cafe’s had Nespresso machines doing the work in the back.

Paul July 26, 2018 at 8:37 pm

This is one of the wierdest posts I’ve seen on Inrng! First of all, you need to distinguish the drip-fed coffee you get with most hotel breakfasts from a café espresso. Then different cafés cater to different tastes. There are some that give consistently good rich aromatic coffee and some that don’t. However, in general I’ve found that coffee in France is less bitter than in the UK, but Spanish, Italian and Portuguese coffee much more rounded and aromatic than France. I raed an article from the food critic Jay Rayner a year or so back that decried the increasingly poor coffee in the UK. On investigation he found that the UK consumers preferred a less roasted coffee which reflected the vegetable aspect of the bean, whereas in France and more so in Spain, they preferred the richer coffee of longer roasting. Maybe the végétalisation of coffee is invading France, but fortunately I can still find a good coffee in most cafés. They usually advertise their coffee supplier outside, so stick with one you like. And let’s keep flat whites etc etc out of France: all you need is serré, express, noisette (=café macchiato or pingado) or (very rarely) café au lait. There is good coffee and bad coffee everywhere – where has this all coffee in France is bad, all coffee elesewhere is good come from? Stick to cycling.

Anonymous July 26, 2018 at 11:08 pm

As INRNG is a good writer, the article doesn’t say “French coffee is bad”. It notes that during the TDF there are lots of other people saying so, and then explores various issues around that, and then goes on to talk about cafe culture, with references to other countries.

As others have mentioned, it’s a great post and is why we come here.

BenW July 27, 2018 at 1:15 pm

Whoosh. Stick to patronising.

Charlie July 27, 2018 at 1:28 pm

What’s wrong with a flat white mate ?

plurien July 26, 2018 at 11:18 pm

I read all this thinking that someone would mention les pois chiches and la chicoree in France’s coffee history. These were used to replace real beans in times of scarcity. Their inclusion in the drink that is le cafe in France goes some way to explain the liking/tolerance/acceptance/accustomisation of a bitter drink.
– Whatever next INRNG? A piece on whether it’s good or bad to stop when on a ride that’s less than 100k?

Simon July 27, 2018 at 3:18 am

The last time I had a good coffee in France was ’82 in a run down faded glory hotel near the Gare Du Nord. It’s been instructive to see how the coffee scene has morphed around the world since. Where I live in Melbourne you couldn’t get a good coffee until the early nineties unless you visited Italian cafes in the inner burbs. We all drank instant coffee or tea. Now we are the epicentre of good coffee and cafes are full each morning with clip clopping cyclists and others after their rides. The local cafe model offering very good consistent coffee and gourmets breakfasts has been exported to cities around the world. I can close my eyes in London when visiting some of them and feel like I’m back home. 15 years ago coffee in London was overpriced and undrinkable. When we travel overseas to France or Italy we take our own Italian style percolator much favoured by the Italian migrants who moved to oz post war and our own coffee. Having enlightened anti smoking laws since the late 80s, nothing would drag me into a smoky old cafe for bad tasting coffee.

Anonymous July 27, 2018 at 5:31 am

There is huge cultural thread to all of this (in addition to the economic and other factors mentioned by the INRNG eg. robusta beans from the colonies). From my outsiders observation (Warning: likely to be wildly inaccurate) the fact that Europeans are so rooted in tradition is both their strength and their weakness. I think the French are too proud to look elsewhere for coffee instruction or inspiration (to think the Italian’s could do anything better than them! Sacre bleu!). How can their coffee be so poor and universally derided when they share a border with Italy? The improvement in coffee available in Menton compared with Ventimiglia (11km away) is very noticeable. Modern France has the same ability to access quality beans and the relevant machinery to make perfect coffee as do Australians, Italians, etc. And from a nation that is so extremely epicurian.

Younger cultures such as Australia (home of this writer) are hot hampered by thousands of years of history and tradition and as a consequence are far more adaptable and willing to look outwards to take the best of what is on offer rather than assume that what they have is the best (in some ways the reverse problem – a lack of cultural confidence). As a consequence these places have taken the best from Italy and embraced the way that coffee is made by its greatest proponents (with no small thankss to its Italian immigrants). The English are similar, some would say they are the great appreciators – albeit still coming up the coffee curve.

We can reverse this discussion and talk about the French baguette. No one else can hold a candle and everyone tries (Italians, English, Americans, Australians, etc, etc). It is only flour, yeast and water. I don’t get it.

RooBay July 27, 2018 at 5:32 am

My post above (didn’t mean it to be anon)

Orbifold July 27, 2018 at 8:29 pm

With the above, I didn’t mean to reply to your post, but to the article. But I share your thoughts and don’t get it either.

Orbifold July 27, 2018 at 8:23 pm

Nice article! In Italy coffee is made with a blend of arabica and robusta, depending on the place you are. In the north, it is 100% arabica (you mentioned Illy from Trieste and Lavazza from Turin), and as you move south in the peninsula, you are more likely to find 50% robusta – 50% arabica. Segafredo Intermezzo (from Bologna) is supposed to be a blend of arabica 60% – robusta 40%. Meanwhile in Spain you can still find café torrefacto which is made by grinding beans which have been toasted with sugar, so part of the flavour and colour is from burned sugar, not the coffee.

Big Mig July 27, 2018 at 7:08 am

Another thought provoking and well researched post – thanks inrng. I live France and over past six years I’ve been here many cafés gave gone. Completely agree with your description of many being tired, old and dusty with poor service. Unfortunately this is a common theme in rural restaurants too – there is definitely a lack of dynamism in the food and drink scene compared to rest of Europe. Luckily I’m close to Switzerland and can count on a decent café in most villages, try one next time you’re en Suisse https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caffè_crema

Michael July 27, 2018 at 9:34 am

I just got back from a cycling trip in the Pyrenees, ending with the Col de Portet. INRNG, you are right. It’s a hard climb, as hard as anything of comparable length in Italy I have done.

Regarding the coffee, I have to agree that it generally doesn’t hold a candle to what is commonly on offer in Italy. I was pleasantly surprised, however, to find that the large café crème served for breakfast at our café-hotel in Argelès-Gazost was quite tolerable. Big bowls — no handle — of milky coffee are a breakfast staple in France, and if the basic raw material isn’t as good as it is in Italy, there is something very satisfying about a very large bowl of café au lait before starting out a long day on the bike. Btw, regarding Spain, I was in Mallorca this April and found the standard of the coffee there to be quite good.

George G July 27, 2018 at 10:42 am

My understanding when I lived in France 30 years ago was that it was cafe au lait before 10am but cafe creme any later – with no apparent difference in the content.

Richard Goodwin July 27, 2018 at 10:51 am

You forgot a noisette which is basically a French Macchiato. Good coffee in Paris these days comes from outsiders. But I’ll always give the French a break for never being fascists.

Gelato4bahamontes July 27, 2018 at 10:40 pm

Very interesting. The robusta/arabica thing would explain why the coffee is so different in courmayeur/chamonix and why i prefer lavazza to segafredo. I find some Swiss coffee to be good – hotel col forclaz I’m looking at you-and generally Spanish and Portuguese is fine. UK is generally rubbish unless you come round to mine – lavazza made in a moka pot.
So can anyone explain why the cucumbers are so different between Italy and France – small and knobbly in Italy, big and smooth in France

James Lechte July 27, 2018 at 10:45 pm

Australia, despite our size and relative youth, is experiencing this transition to some extent. I think there there may be a few couple of issues here:

– this cafe business model is pretty dead and has been in decline for some time as old world retail struggles to cope with a faster paced economy (even in rural areas)
– you still need to have a product customers want to buy, the less price sensitive the better
– peoples tastes are changing, coinciding with the increasing maturity of the products on offer

We must have more 3rd wave coffee shops in Victoria (state Melbourne is in) than the rest of the world, I think La Marzocco sells more machines there than anywhere else. Many country areas have been on a big decline now for some time, but of the ones that are turning around are providing more of a higher quality product people want and expect, that is worthy of a morning to dedicate to. We have some spots equalivent to Bourg d’Oisans such as Bright in the our ‘high’ mountains, that has great coffee (and a very popular micro brewery). Our higher than average salaries help this along with a propensity to get a take away coffee on a regular basis, another of the factors that make the business more sustainable.

Ive also spent some time in Italy recently and read about the 3rd wave there too, many newer operators are so remiss about the poor quality of the standard cafe they often put it down to that there is some form of legislation in Italy that demands everyone in Italy has the right to have a cup of coffee for 1 Euro. They suggest this has lead to a lack of innovation and product quality, towns like Turin and Bologna bucking the trend with modern roasteries and shops serving artisan brews. I wonder if something similar exists in France too, given the socialist bent of the culture.

@inrng ive come across a few third wave shops in France, albeit not in the most popular cycling spots, but they appear to be doing pretty well. A roastery closeby will usually signal better coffee times are not far away. Who knows what may be on the top of Ventoux in a few years time!

Luke M July 28, 2018 at 9:08 pm

I find the shift single-estate-brew-artisanal” in Europe really interesting. I’m a former artisanal barista/roaster from the UK recently moved to Italy. While this hipster-associated artisanal coffee culture originated in Australia, it has slowly spread from the UK across northern Europe but I struggle to find a similar level of coffee here even in Tuscany (there are one or two places in Florence and a single place in Pisa that I know of). The best comparison is that Italian coffee (and my limited experience of the French variety) is much like lager – while it’s refreshing, and you know exactly what you are getting, and it tastes almost exactly the same wherever you get it, where as craft beer offers much more variety and nuance albeit at several times the price. In my opinion French/Italian coffee = lager and “artisanal” coffee is more like craft/hipster/micro brewery beer. In the same way, a generic blended red wine will go down well with a hearty meal, but people will pay a premium for a specific grape varietal from a terroir they know and love (or at least sounds sophisticated in company).

On a more cycling related note, the cafes here are superb for a quick stop although it’s easy to find them shut on a Sunday spin. And while a shot of espresso is always appreciated, I’m still struggling to plan my route based on England. By contrast, many hipster cafe in the UK really play up the continental coffee + bikes culture (Rapha “club houses” not being the least of these). They often have a great vibe although perhaps somewhat idealise how these cafes actually exist on the mainland.

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