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The history of coffee in France

Waiter in a cafe in Paris takes an order for coffee from a seated client

There’s a thriving coffee culture in France and for first time visitors it takes a bit of getting used to. Generally French cafés don’t have a menu of types of coffee. You’re expected to just know what to ask for (find a handy guide at the end of this article). But how did it get to be so popular in the first place?

Sue Aran, an American, who lives in the gorgeous Gers department, AKA Gascony, and runs fabulous tours, tells the tale of France’s love affair with coffee…

Madame Sévigné, one of the great French literary icons remembered for her extensive and opinionated letter writing said, “There are two things the French will never swallow – Racine’s poetry and coffee.” Fortunately, she was wrong about both.

Coffee had been around almost a thousand years before it reached France. Legend has it that in Ethiopia where the coffee plants grew, in the 9th century monks made an infusion with the berries after witnessing a goatherd eating them and clearly being invigorated by the experience. Coffee travelled round the world. It was seen as a medicine and an aid to prayers. And by the 16th century coffee houses were established in Constantinople (now Istanbul).

It wasn’t always popular

By the early 17th century, coffee was introduced to Europe through Venetian merchants. It was met with strong resistance from the Catholic church. However, when Pope Clement VIII was asked to declare the “black, sooty beverage” the invention of Satan, he replied, “Let me taste it first.” He did and proclaimed “This devil’s drink is so delicious we should cheat the devil by baptizing it!” After his pronouncement coffee spread through Europe like lightning. Venice’s first coffee house opened in 1645. England’s in 1650. And France’s in 1671, although coffee arrived in the port of Marseille in 1644.

The royal penchant for coffee

Painting of Louis XIV of France posing in royal robes of ermineCoffee was first introduced to Paris in 1669 by Suleyman Aga, the ambassador to the court of King Louis XIV of France. Aga was sent by Mohammed IV with sacks of coffee. He described it as a magical beverage when mixed with a small quantity of cloves, cardamom seeds and sugar, which in those day was bought by the ounce at the apothecary’s shop. He also brought the apparatus used for the preparation of the Turkish style coffee drink. It included china dishes, and small pieces of muslin embroidered with gold, silver, and silk, used as napkins. He became the darling of Parisian society, remaining in the city long enough firmly to establish the custom he had introduced.

Paris gets its first taste of coffee

Two years later, in 1671, an Armenian whom everyone called Pascal, opened a coffee-drinking booth at the fair of St. Germain. He offered the beverage for sale from a tent, supplemented by the service of Turkish waiter boys, who peddled it among the crowds from small cups on trays. The fair was held during the first two months of spring. It took place on a large open plot just inside the walls of Paris and near the Latin Quarter. As Pascal’s waiter boys circulated through the crowds on those chilly days the fragrant odor of freshly made coffee encouraged many sales of the steaming beverage. Soon visitors to the fair learned to look for the “little black” cupful of cheer, or petit noir, a name that still endures. This marked the beginning of Parisian coffee houses.

The oldest coffee shop in Paris

Interior of the Le Procope cafe in Paris, its walls reflect hundreds of years of existence

In 1686, the Café de Procope was opened by Sicilian chef Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli. He had come to Paris from Italy acquiring a royal license to sell spices, ices, barley water and lemonade. As a keen business man he added coffee to the list and soon attracted a large and rather distinguished clientele: noted French actors, authors, dramatists and musicians. With the opening of the Café de Procope, coffee became firmly established in Paris.

The first merchant licensed to sell coffee in Paris was François Damame, who secured the privilege through an edict of 1692. He was given the sole right for 10 years to sell coffee in all the provinces and towns of the kingdom, and in all territories under the sovereignty of the king. Every city in France soon had its coffee houses.

The drink of Kings

Louis XIV (1638-1715) grew his own coffee beans in greenhouses on the Versailles Palace grounds. He handpicked the beans, roasted them, and ground them himself. He loved to serve his own coffee to guests of the Palace. In 1714, he received a present from the Dutch, a coffee tree for Paris’s Royal Botanical Garden, the Jardin des Plantes. The Dutch had successfully grown the coffee tree on the island of Java. This inspired the king to consider Martinique for growing coffee. He gave a clipping to a young naval officer, Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu who sailed for Martinique. Pirates nearly captured the ship and a storm nearly sank it. Drought followed, water grew scarce and was rationed, but de Clieu gave half of his allotment of drinking water to his stricken cutting. Under armed guard, the cutting was planted and grew strong. In the next 50 years it yielded a whopping 18 million trees.

Voltaire (1694-1778), a French writer and public activist, allegedly drank between 40 and 50 cups a day which he mixed with chocolate. He credited coffee for the inspiration and stimulation behind the development of his philosophies. He paid hefty bonuses to his servants who could find his favourite coffee beans.

Coffee become the king of drinks in Paris…

A coffee shop on every corner

Corner cafe in Paris, lit up at dusk, the Eiffel Tower in the background

During the reign of Louis XV (1715-1774) there were 600 cafés in Paris. At the close of the 18th century there were more than 800. With the invention of the first percolation system coffee maker, “La Débelloire,” by Jean-Baptiste de Belloy, Archbishop of Paris (1802-1808), the number of cafés increased to more than 3000.

Napoleon Bonaparte had a passion for coffee reportedly drinking up to 50 cups per day. It’s said he claimed “I would rather suffer with coffee than be senseless.”

Coffee is still loved by the French – though not as much as that…

Sue Aran lives in the Gers department of southwest France where she runs French Country Adventures, which provides private, personally-guided, small-group food & wine adventures into Gascony, the Pays Basque, Tarn and beyond…

How to order coffee in France

Blackboard gives prices of coffee in a cafe in France - cheaper if you say please!

Café/café noir/espresso/café express. Though the French word for coffee is “café”, if you order “un café” at a French coffee shop, don’t expect coffee with milk, you’ll get an espresso in a small cup called a demitasse.

Café au lait: Coffee with milk is for breakfast only. Some places still serve it in a bowl, the old traditional way but not that much these days. It’s espresso from lunch time onwards and only between or after meals, even late at night… French people are horrified by milky coffee drinks after 11am!

Café crème: Espresso with foamed milk, like a cappuccino,

Café allongé: An espresso diluted with extra hot water. If you want extra milk, you’ll need to request lait supplémentaire

Noisette: Espresso with a splash of hot milk that’s hazelnut coloured – hence the name.

Café Crème: Esperesso coffee with extra water and a drop of cream (or cream and milk).

Café décaféiné: Decaffeinated coffee.

Coffee like the locals

Drink your coffee like the locals do, at the bar or in a café, not in a large paper cup in the street!

And whatever coffee you choose, always use S’il vous plait – please…

More on Paris food and drink

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Stohrer, the oldest cake shop in Paris

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