PARIS - In the last years of his life, French novelist Marcel Proust mostly fed himself with café au lait. Made by the two best roasters in Paris, Proust’s coffee came from freshly ground beans that were extracted drop by drop according to an unchangeable ritual.
Sometimes the verdict would be without mercy: “Celeste, how did you manage? This coffee is absolutely disgusting. Is it not too old?” Proust would say.
Proust was right. Coffee does not get better with time and must be consumed very quickly, in the year following its harvest (exactly like olive oil) and within three weeks of being roasted. After this, the coffee rots and loses its aromas…
Antoine Netien, founder of Café Coutume, in Rue Babylone, in the center of Paris, says that this is a fact that everyone used to know. “Up until the beginning of the 1980s in France, there still was a tradition of hand-roasted artisanal coffee. Roasters would sell their coffee to local restaurants and bakeries; the most famous ones supplying the presidential Elysée palace or the senate,” says Netien.
“But now 95% of the coffee is sold by supermarkets, already ground. Our grandmothers still used coffee grinders, because they knew that coffee loses its aromas and oxides itself in the five minutes after they have been ground.”
If coffee has become so disgusting in France, and if French people don’t know how to prepare it anymore, it is because of the big coffee manufacturing companies like Richard, Illy, Lavazza, Malongo Segafredo, or Nespresso, who have completely taken over the restaurant industry. “Using the methods of drug dealers and inspired by the Italian mafia, they give restaurants machines and coffee cups, and in exchange you have to buy their coffee for ever. These brands have imposed a certain concept of coffee on society,” says Netien.
Eric Beaumard, one of the world’s top sommeliers and director of the George V hotel in Paris, agrees with this analysis. He says each month he has to say “no” to lobbies that are more and more influential and determined to showcase their coffees in Paris’ most prestigious and famous hotels.
“In France, most of the luxury hotels and gourmet restaurants have already given in to these groups and offer coffee in capsules without feeling one ounce of guilt,” says Beaumard. “At the George V, we are driven by passion. Coffee deserves as much consideration as wine or tea. A capsule filled with additives will never compare to authentically grown freshly ground and roasted coffee,” he adds.
Never would a capsule filled with additives will be equal to a large, authentically grown, freshly ground and roasted coffee!”
Needless to say that with five-gram capsules being sold for 39-euro cents, a kilo of coffee ends up costing 78 euros – the price of a very high-end coffee.
After buying his coffee from Verlet – the most ancient roaster of Paris – for a very long time, Beaumard now gets his coffee from Hippolyte Courty, the founder of L’Arbre à café (The Coffee Tree), who has just opened a shop Rue du Nil, in the trendy Marais district in the center of Paris.
For this “mono-varietal” coffee fundamentalist, coffee can only come from one variety, one soil, one plantation, one harvest … “Whether they come from India or Costa-Rica, Hippolyte’s coffees are all fruity, refined and subtle, with a natural taste of cherry. They are full of freshness; we can drink liters of it and never get bored,” says Beaumard.
The new “real” baristas
These last few months, a multitude of “coffee bars” have popped up in Paris – much to the pleasure of students and foreign tourists, who were only to happy to be able to enjoy good coffee, coffee that tastes nothing like those horrible “short blacks,” which have an acrid soot smell and leave you with the taste of old cigarettes.
Whether it is the Ten Belles, near the Bohemian canal Saint-Martin district, Telescope near Palais-Royal, Black Market in Montmartre or Café Lomi and Café Coutume, these new coffee shops are all have a very cosmopolitan atmosphere. They have beautiful Marzocco coffee machines and their baristas – that look like they’re straight out of a Quentin Tarentino movie, with tattoos and muscles – are professionals.
The barista is both a bartender and a coffee sommelier – able to select a plantation, roast the grains and maintain the coffee machine. The barista masters all the different coffee techniques – filter, espresso, cappuccino, piston and siphon – and knows how to draw a tree or flowers in the foam of a cappuccino. “Latte art” is the signature of a real barista.
At Café Coutume, baristas are both male and female but most of them are foreign. They are Australian, American, Norwegian, Dutch, Siberian, Polish, Japanese etc. For only two euros a cup, these experts will serve you the coffee of your dreams – originating from the world’s best plantations: Aida Battle in Salvador, Carmo Estate in Brazil, La Esmeralda in Panama, or even Tekangu Karagoto in Kenya.
For Aleaume Paturle, the founder of Café Lomi, being able to get exceptional coffee is not enough – “you also need to know how to roast it without burning it so that it can develop its natural aromas and flavors: flowery, spice, buttery, woody etc.” In Italy, he says, coffees are over-roasted, to hide the defects of the grains. “If burned, the coffee becomes bitter which is why the Italians sweeten it.”
In France, the problem is different. “The espresso is made from a lower dose of coffee, with a shorter extraction time, and served in a bigger amount of water. The result is what we call “jus de chaussette” (sock juice – weak coffee).