Lousy Parisian Coffee



In general catch-up mode, I've just seen a piece by Oliver Strand, the New York Times's coffee man, on why coffee in Paris is so bad. This is a topic I've been undiplomatic on since I first published The Joy of Coffee, in which I posited that the reason Parisians became accustomed to inferior coffee is because of policies favoring buying coffee from French colonies; Martinique, one of the first islands in the Caribbean in which coffee was introduced, wasn't as well suited to coffee with subtle flavor—arabica, which needs cool nights of the kind in high regions of Jamaica and Guatemala. So robusta, the low-growing, heat-tolerant kind, was what the French got used to. Welcome, fellow Paris coffee-basher!

Strand quotes me as saying the drinking robusta is like putting balsa wood in your mouth. It's not uniformly disastrous in very low quantities, I think, particularly in espresso—a view that will get me drummed out of many connoisseur's circles these days, and I'm willing to be educated on new kinds of dry-processed arabica (for the difference between this and washed coffee, buy the book!). But for now, not just robusta-rich coffee prevails in Paris but also a high tolerance for stale coffee brewed with stingy proportions of coffee to water, not to mention bad barista technique. There, I said it! Take that, Paris. (And if you think this is blunt, try Strand's "It sucks so bad.") For years, anyone who wants decent coffee there has looked for the decal of an Italian coffee company in the window.

But, of course, Paris is Paris, so nobody's going to stop going, And Strand has visited, as I haven't, an actual cafe that cares about good coffee, or the kind we enlightened Americans now know is good: La Cafeotheque, whose website is so geared to foreigners that the home page is in English, and, unsurprisingly, features Strand's piece. It also, unsettingly, advertises the availability of kopi luwak, the must-to-avoid coffee I recently called the horsemeat of the coffee world. Ah well. I'll still head there next time in Paris, before or after hitting the macaron shop du jour.