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Thursday, June 16, 2005

How not to drink black tar in Paris?

Cafesamazone2

Two days back home, back to my very own Rancilio Silvia and Blue Bottle beans, I am wondering to myself why are French coffees so bad?

No, I'm not arguing that it's not at all possible to get a good cup of coffee in Paris. That's certainly not true. Verlet, Cafe Amazone, and Comptoir Richard sell the best coffees one could find anywhere. But what is absolutely true is how bad coffees at any random cafes in Paris are. Seriously bad. Burnt asphalt on the nose, black tar on the palate.

It's all in the beans, as my friend Ptipois said somewhere, the French market is saturated with Robusta beans, grown in their own former African colonies. Robusta coffees are high in caffeine content, and brew into dark, oily, acidic liquid that gives me a toothache just thinking about it. In countries that are known for better coffees, like Italy and Spain, the predominant type of bean is Arabica, which is much more aromatic and less acidic than Robusta.

In France, expensive restaurants, cafes, and tea salons serve the better and more expensive coffees made from Arabica beans as well. Those are delicious. But that romantic notion of walking into a random Parisian cafe and ordering a cup of coffee to drink standing up at the bar will get you a cup of dark, sticky, and oily liquid surely made of Robusta beans. The only thing that cup of black tar is good for is to kick you awake from your jetlag. So, yes, perhaps it does have some use, but from a taste perspective it is pure crap.

In a futile effort to make Robusta coffee drinkable, I would drink café crème, an espresso with hot milk, hoping that the milk would temper to bitter Robusta for me. Alas, that doesn't always work either, because of yet another problem with an ingredient, this time the milk.

Many cafes prefer to use sterilized milk in coffees, because they are cheaper and have longer shelf life than regular pasteurized milk. Sterilized milk doesn't need refrigeration even, not until after the container is opened. This nasty, nutrition-less milk can be found everywhere in France, in supermarkets and hypermarkets. They are displayed prominently on the regular, non refrigerated shelves.

Adding insult to injury, sterilized milk has a stench that is unmistakable. Well, especially if you grew up in Asia and had to suffer through years of drinking those horrible canned milk! I can identify that smell with my eyes closed. Ugh.

So, what to do? Well, if you were like me you'd opt for a Tisane, or herbal tea. Or you could make sure that you only drink coffee in expensive restaurants, cafes, and salon de thé, who are much more likely to use Arabica beans and would never touch the nasty, cheap sterilized milk with a ten foot pole. Another way is to look for signs that the bistro in which you are sitting serves Italian -ergo better- coffee, look for brand names such as Illy or Lavazza.

If you are lucky enough to have your own kitchenette, drop by Verlet, Cafes Amazone, or Comptoir Richard, where you could buy yourself a bag of flavorful, aromatic single origin Arabica beans grind to order, (or even sit down for a perfect cup of coffee made for you.) Pay a visit to the fabulous Bodum shop at Les Halles and get yourself a press pot, and then off to your local fromagerie or farmers market for good, fresh, possibly raw whole milk. That's a recipe for your very own fantastic cup of coffee, even in Paris.

Verlet
256, rue Saint-Honoré, 75001
close on Sunday and the month of August

Cafes Amazone
11, rue Rambuteau, 75004
open on Sunday

Comptoir Richard
145 rue Saint-Dominique, 75007

Bodum shop
Forum Les Halles
103 rue Rambuteau, 75001

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