The Irony of the French Café

In America and many other countries around the world, the bold, fancy and flavorful coffee demand has skyrocketed. The creation of the latte, macchiato, americano, cappuccino and frappaccino has only given us more reasons to love the coffee bean. What better way to spend your Sunday afternoon than sipping from a freshly brewed cup of jo in a local café?

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Doesn’t it seem ironic that France has been known for its traditional cafés for centuries, yet few actually serve coffee? Even the places where coffee can be found, supply a mediocre bean resulting in a bitter bite unappealing to a regular coffee drinker. That is, a regular coffee drinker, from just about anywhere outside the French border. So, how exactly did the word café come to double as the french translation of the american essential: coffee? In a recent article, Anna Brones says “Mention the word coffee to anyone that likes caffeine and has spent time in France and you’ll get an immediate eye roll. It simply is not a French strong suit.” To the locals, a café is a place for getting a beer or a glass of wine.

A more recent flood of new craft roasters has allowed a few ambitious café owners to step outside the box. However, many French are sensitive to change and conflicting opinions have come with the new agenda. While some welcome the new roasters with open arms, others seem to be critical and less accepting of the essentially foreign product. Nico Alary, co-owner of Holybelly, a café that opened last year in the Canal Saint Martin neighborhood, shed some light on the topic. “It’s that French people have this 20, 25 years heritage of terrible coffee, and their palate is used to it. That means that changing the coffee culture isn’t going to happen overnight, and it requires doing it one Parisian at a time,” he says.

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Holybelly café. Photo by Anna Brones

In the midst of the battle for change, I couldn’t help but notice a particular French café that has made it’s long standing success based off just that: change.  Café Le Procope, the first and oldest French café was opened in 1661 by two Armenian brothers. While it has grown from a traditional café to a small restaurant, Le Procope is still known for it’s ice cream and excellent coffee. The coffee, however, is still made for French taste. So whether the average coffee-drinking American would also enjoy it is questionable. Le Procope’s reliable reputation could make it one of the best contenders for introducing these new roasters to their customers.

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Café Le Procope. Photo by Wallg via Bryan Newman.

Surely, it will take more than a few optimistic owners to make a real change in the café scene. But, someone has to get the ball rolling, right? It will be interesting to see how the traditional minds adapt to the idea of changes within the cafés. Will France remain known for it’s café culture or will it slowly develop a universal coffee culture? Only time will tell.

 

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