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French Café Culture - what you need to know!

if you've been at all exposed to the French culture as portrayed in the films, TV series and magazines, you probably already have an image of a stylish Parisian woman sitting on a café terrace, smoking a cigarette, and nursing an espresso. It seems to sum up everything that is French - good food and drink, fashion, people watching, being sociable, taking the time to enjoy the smaller things in life........... What you probably didn't realise was that the coffee this fictional lady was drinking was an over-roasted, garishly bitter, and most likely over-priced attempt at an espresso. Traditionally, Italian coffee has been far superior to its French counterpart. However, with the influx of anglophone coffee addicts (we have the Aussies to thank in particular for this) a craft coffee culture has been born, driven by skilled and passionate baristas who know exactly what they're doing with their beans. 
The café culture is now split between these hidey-hole joints (situated on unlikely side-streets and barely signposted) and the traditional cafés on the grands boulevards, perfectly primed for people watching. One remark that I often hear first-time tourists making is their surprise at how the seats are lined up so that patrons are facing outwards to the street rather than looking at each other. I don't think they're realised that Parisians go to cafés for themselves to be seen just as much as to watch others. At the first hint of sunshine, Parisians, both men and women, young and old, can be found sitting on those pavement cafés, sipping an espresso, a beer or a glass of wine, soaking up the sunshine. The decision of which café to go to is based on which direction the sun is coming from at that particular moment, behaving very much like a sunflower really. 
If you come to Paris, or any French town or city for that matter, here are some of the tricks of the trade that you ought to know.

Tip #1 - How much should you be paying?

The sign below was displayed in the window of a café/bar between the Marais and Hotel de Ville. What do you think the three sets of figures on the right hand side represent?
French Café Culture - what you need to know!

Well, obviously they are the prices - I told you I was talking about pricing after all - for the items listed on the left. (Don't worry if you can't translate them, just carry on reading until 'Tip #2'!)

However, what is not apparent at all at first is that, in tiny writing at the top, it sets out the price discrimination. I promise this is not going to turn into an Economics lesson, but what that means is that they have different prices dependant on several variables.

"Bar Jour", "Bar Nuit" and "Salle Jour"

"Bar Jour", "Bar Nuit" and "Salle Jour"

The left-hand column is the prices at the bar in the day time ("Bar Jour"), the centre column is for the bar in the evening ("Bar Nuit") and the right-hand column is for if you're sitting at a table during the day ("Salle Jour.")

Essentially it boils down to the following:
  • If you really need a caffeine hit, for example, stand at the bar during the day and your espresso will only cost you a bit over 1 euro. 
  • However, if you've been busy shopping or sightseeing all morning and you really need to sit down in the lounge, the "salle", well you'll be paying 3 euros for that same cup of coffee, but with a mark up for the pleasure of resting your feet!

N.B. Some café/bars have bar stools you can sit at and still only pay bar rates. If you do want to sit down, see if you can perch at the bar and I promise you'll save a few euros.

Tip #2 - Know what you're ordering!

Un café, un petit café, un café serré, un espresso all mean roughly the same thing.... you'll get a small, strong cup of black coffee. It's likely to be even smaller in quantity than you're used to if you're not from continental Europe - but whereas the Italians might drink their espresso in one go, the French linger over it. The ability to spend half an hour sipping the smallest drink imaginable is something French people seem born with!

Un café noisette - if you want to seem French but you can't quite stomach the strength of the black coffee, try this. It's an espresso with a blob of frothed milk on the top, giving it the appearance of a hazelnut - hence the name!

Un café au lait - that's a very, very milky drink (most similar to a latte) only drunk in France for breakfast. If you want a coffee with milk, you should order a "café crème."

Un café allongé - an espresso-based coffee but made with more water. (Most similar to an Americano in the UK.)

Un déca (pronounced "urh day-caa") - decaffeinated coffee.

Un chocolat chaud - hot chocolate.

Un limonade - no, what you probably want is a citron pressé. Limonade is typically given to children, citron pressé on the other hand is made from fresh lemon juice and is absolutely delicious and very refreshing on a hot summer's day. It's typically made to order, and will be served with a carafe of cold water and some sugar so you can dilute and sweeten it to taste. I thoroughly recommend this during the summer. Try it!

Tip #3 - Where to go?

So now you know roughly how much to pay, you know what to order, now all you need to do is work out where you should go. As I mentioned in the introduction, if you're looking for the craft coffee scene, I'd direct you to the likes of Telescope, Café Lomi and Ten Belles.

If you would rather the traditional experience, trust me, they are everywhere so you won't struggle to find one. (If you're unsure about which one to pick, use the wisdom of the crowds reasoning and head for the busiest!!)

The Café de Flore and Les Deux Magots on the boulevard Saint Germain are probably the most famous cafés in all Paris because of Sartre, Hemingway, Simone de Beauvoir and the other intellectuals who used to frequent them... I'm not going to stop you from going, but the tourist hype will unfortunately lead to their downfall. They used to be dimly lit, smoky, a bit quirky and underground and definitely very politically charged. In my opinion, they've become so touristy now that they've completely lost all that. The last time I was there, I saw taxi after taxi dropping off very wealthy tourists. 

On a side-note, if you want an amazing hot chocolate, try Angelina or the Café de Flore and if it's a good cup of tea you're after, I'd direct you to Mariage Frères. 

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