When it comes to coffee culture in Europe, French coffee is one of the first images that come to mind. Think of the cobblestone streets of Paris on a fine spring morning, the cafés throwing open their doors and the aroma of fresh coffee wafting in the air. While you soak in this mental image, let’s take a quick stroll through French coffee culture.
What Is French Coffee?
French coffee is a style of consuming and preparing coffee and not a particular type of coffee. It’s a rich cultural tradition focused on enjoying your coffee, paying attention to your drink, and the whole coffee experience. You sit down in a café and enjoy your coffee rather than getting it to go, or you stand at the coffee bar if you’re in a hurry. Either way, it’s about the ambiance of the coffee shop, the ritual of drinking coffee, and developing a taste for strong, often black coffee.
French coffee culture is characterized as preferring bitter, dark coffee but don’t forget that French coffee is about a way of life and not any French coffee drink in particular.
The History Of Coffee In France
Coffee culture in France can be traced back to the 17th century, with the first true Parisian coffeehouse being established in 1686. Prior to this, coffee was sold from street carts rather than in establishments where you could sit down and take your time.
Coffee fueled literary, social, and political change through the camaraderie of the coffeehouse. Coffee shops became an inviting space to gather for socializing, where you could drink this energizing beverage while conversing and debating with different people. Coffeehouses were egalitarian spaces, often with communal tables that promoted mingling among the patrons.
Coffeehouses were the epicenter of cultural and political change during the Enlightenment and revolution. Still, coffee was expensive and remained something for the upper classes to enjoy. Gradually it became more commonplace and coffee had enmeshed itself into French culture. Coffeehouses become the place you went to socialize with friends and neighbors, where you got the local gossip, and where you went when you wanted to relax and think.
Café culture in France during modern times has seen many dramatic shifts from smoking bans that reduced café foot traffic to rapid digitization. The rise of artisanal coffee has prompted renewed interest in reviving French coffee culture. With a clearer understanding of transparency and traceability, French coffee culture can be a force for good.
Most Popular French Drinks In Cafés
Café Noir or Café Express
You’ll recognize café noir from its more popular name: espresso. Café noir, café express, or simply café refers to a strong, dark espresso served in small cups and to be consumed in shots. This is the most popular and common coffee order in France, unlike other places where the staple is usually filter coffee. If you walk into a coffeehouse in France and ask for a ‘café’, don’t be surprised if you’re handed a small cup of very potent brew. If you can’t stomach espressos or just black coffee, you’ll have to specifically ask for additions like water, cream, milk, or sugar.
Allongé or café allongé is another quintessential French coffee order. Allongé is an espresso diluted with hot water. This makes it quite similar to an americano (or Café Americain, as it’s called in French) but is a more acceptable order than demanding an americano. This is a good coffee to order in cities as well as the countryside since it’s milder than a pure shot of espresso but not so out of the place that you stand out at the coffeeshop while trying to order. Café allongé is much easier to find than filter coffee (café filtré) and easier to stomach while travelling.
Another classic French coffee order, the noisette is a shot of espresso with a dash of hot milk. ‘Noisette’ means hazelnut, which refers to the brown color of the drink (not indicative of any hazelnut flavoring!). You can also replace the hot milk with cream instead. Many compare the noisette to the Italian macchiato, which has a strikingly similar recipe. You can order ‘une noisette’ with the milk on the side if you’re picky about your coffee. This is a must-try in cities like Paris, where you can sit in quaint coffeehouses and soak in the ambiance of French coffee culture.
Café au lait
In more familiar territory, we have the café au lait which literally translates to ‘coffee with milk’. Café au lait is commonly only served for breakfast and is often something you have at home rather than something to order at a coffee shop. Most versions of café au lait use filter coffee but you can also find places that make this drink with a shot of espresso instead. Café au lait and other types of milky coffee are reserved for mornings and early afternoons. You won’t see any locals drinking coffee with milk after lunch, preferring a simple espresso instead. Keep this in mind if you’re a tourist and want to blend in.
Café crème is a dressed-up version of café au lait. Café crème is made with a standard espresso shot topped with a generous helping of foamed milk. Think of it as similar to a cappuccino but better. This milk coffee is popular for morning meals and is usually accompanied by a croissant, buttered baguette, or pastry if you’re feeling decadent. Café crème is commonly served in a bowl or wide cup. If you’re craving a cappuccino in France, do like the locals and order ‘une café crème’.
A few variations you can consider:
- Un deca- decaffeinated coffee
- Café Viennois- this is a light espresso with chocolate powder and whipped cream
- Café Serré- this is a very bitter espresso made with half the amount of water than usual
- Café Gourmand- coffee served with snacks or little desserts
What Do French People Drink For Breakfast?
Unlike their English counterparts, a French breakfast is relatively sparse and utilitarian. A typical French breakfast would be a hot beverage like coffee (this is the time for coffee with milk or cream, if you prefer that) along with tartine which is a horizontally sliced baguette, covered in butter or jam. A croissant would also be acceptable. Do French people dip croissant in coffee? Maybe not everyone but it’s fairly common. After all, morning coffee like a café crème is even served in a bowl so you might as well dip your tartine or croissant.
French Coffee Etiquette
Coffee etiquette is a simple way to blend in with local culture while immersing yourself in a unique coffee experience. Now that you know what to order, here are some tips on how to be polite while doing it:
- Coffee with milk is ONLY served in the mornings. It’s frowned upon to drink café au lait or café crème after lunch, for the proposed reason that it interferes with digestion.
- Don’t walk around with your coffee. French coffee culture is all about savoring the coffee and taking your time with it. Ideally, you should order your coffee and have it ‘sur place’, meaning at the coffee shop. If you’re in a hurry, you can drink your coffee standing at the bar but never while walking down the street.
- Don’t mix food with your espresso. Food is only served with coffee when it’s breakfast. Once again, the reasoning behind this is that coffee will interfere with the proper digestion of your food.
- Get to know the cafés in your area and soon you’ll be saying “un café, s’il vous plait” like a local. Keep in mind a few useful phrases like ‘au lait’ (with milk), ‘plus sucre’ (add sugar), and ‘deca’ (decaffeinated).
Ultimately, French coffee is all about savoring the experience and being in the moment when you drink your coffee. This mindfulness towards the coffee experience is perhaps the most enduring part of coffee culture in France.