As I know I’ve said before, good coffee in Paris is a rare thing. There is something about the way that the French make coffee that manages to significantly undermine the extraordinary efforts they make in other areas of the kitchen (you can have the most airy soufflé in the world, but if the coffee that accompanies it is watery and otherwise tasteless, the effect will be ruined).
This is a strange and sad fact, considering how close France is to Italy, at least in terms of its nationwide gastronomic fixation (to say nothing of its geographical proximity).
I think this problem goes beyond nationalistic rivalry when it comes to refusing to make coffee in the true Italian style. I fear that perhaps it’s something more thoroughly ingrained: for example, generally speaking, the French simply do not understand what they are doing.
Ok, so maybe I’m being a little harsh. Let’s try and be constructive about this and instead ask the question, where can you find acceptable coffee?
So far, the best Joe I’ve had in Paris was at Gocce di Caffè in the Passage des Panoramas. Run by the amiable Antonio from Milan who imports all of his Italian produce from Rome, the little café is open for your morning fix, a light lunch of typical Italian fare (eat there or take away) or your afternoon pick-me-up. The coffee brand, Guiducci, is not generally known outside of Italy, which is a pity as it is proffers a mild and generous flavour without being in the least bit bitter. If you are hungry, the authentic ciabatte and panini are freshly stuffed to the brim; the tiramisu is homemade whilst the 8.80 lunch menu of panini, a dessert and a drink is great value. Sadly this lovely little scenic spot tucked down Paris’s oldest (and one of its loveliest) covered walkways is only open during business hours, but it is well worth the trouble if what you are craving is a really good brew.
But what happens if you can’t make it to this side of town on a whim, let alone regularly? Well, as someone who has an obsession with the inky stuff (living with a food-obsessed Italian will do this to you), here are a few tips to aid you to in identifying other establishments that serve their coffee good, hot, strong and black:
- Check that the brand of coffee that the establishment is using is indeed Italian. Most coffee companies have agreements with café’s and restaurants that their product name is adequately visible throughout the business – such is the competition of the major brands. Lavazza, Illy café, Segafreddo etc are all reliable, reputable and well-known to most pundits, but there are smaller Italian houses who also make an excellent brew. This isn’t a guarantee of quality, but as long as it’s not French it’s already a good start (sorry guys, I revere your food but your coffee is dismal):
- Make sure the beans are being freshly ground on the premises. It sounds like a small point, but ask anyone who has worked in a decent café: the smell of freshly ground beans is almost transcendental, whereas stuff that has been sitting around for a while looses most of its aroma and thus much of its appeal.
- Really good coffee should be ‘short’, in that only a small amount of water is passed through the beans, thus providing a richer flavour. If there is anything more than about a tablespoon in your cup, with a couple of millimetres of lighter-coloured ‘crema’ crowning the espresso, you know it’s not worth your time. The Italians call the really short coffees un ristretto (as in ‘restricted’) – the French call the same a café serré (‘tight’ coffee): either way, just make sure it’s short and dark, as a full cup does not equal value for money – it simply equals a bad coffee.
- In Italy coffee with milk (caffè latte) is only served in the morning and is mostly drunk by children. So do as the Italians do and drink it short and straight (though sugar isn’t a sacrilege, so don’t be afraid to ask if you need it). If you are worried that the establishment’s coffee isn’t so good but you’re simply tearing your hair out with need for caffeine, order a noisette, the French version of a macchiato. This is (in theory at least) an espresso with a slug of hot milk. It may not be ideal, but the milk somewhat masks any acridity that may be lurking in your cup, and let’s face it – there is nothing worse than a bitter mouthful of gritty mud when what you want is a respectable coffee.
The art and the science of making a great coffee is a process that is much more complex than simply the type of coffee used or the person who makes the coffee (I won’t even go into the water, the type of the machine, how hard the coffee is pressed down into the filter etc etc etc… I’m sure you’re bored already), but if you have the above basics in place, it’s surely going to only narrow your chances of being served something undrinkable.
Good luck hunting down some of Paris’s better brews, and do let me know whether you find any places worth writing about – happiness shared is happiness quadrupled. And in the meantime drop by Gocce di Caffè and see how it’s really done. You haven’t lived until you’ve had a truly excellent Italian coffee, and to find a good place in Paris that serves one is one of the most perfect expressions of multiculturalism that I can think of.
Gocce di Caffè: coffee that tastes of mamma Italia.
25 Passage des Panoramas / 75002 Paris / (no contact number) / Hours: 8am - 4pm Monday to Friday / Métro: Bourse or Grand Boulevards