For members


How to drink your coffee in the French style

You may think it's pumpkin spice latte season - but the unwritten rules of coffee drinking in France rarely change, no matter the time of year.

A waiter serves a cup of coffee to a seated customer at a Paris terrace cafe
Photo: Lucas Barioulet / AFP

Good news for a country that thrives on coffee – it even has a method of roasting beans named after it – drinking up to three cups a day has been linked to decreased risks for stroke and death from cardiovascular disease, according to research presented at the recent European Society of Cardiology Congress in France. 

It is also said to help protect against Alzheimer’s disease and may have health benefits for those with type 2 diabetes.

According to history buffs, coffee officially arrived in France in 1669 when the ambassador of the Ottoman Empire brough bags of beans that made what he described as a ‘magical beverage’ to the court of King Louis XIV. 

Within two years, the first coffee shop opened in Paris, run by an Armenian who went by the name of Pascal. The rest, as history buffs probably don’t say, is history.

French café culture is also rife with codes and codicils that can fool the unwary and earn them a Paddington Bear-level hard stare from a waiter.

For a start, there’s usually nothing approaching a US-style menu unless you’re in one of the ubiquitous big-city Starbucks. At most cafes you’re basically expected to know what you want when you order.

Then there are the rules.

The first rule of French coffee drinking is: milk is for mornings. Generally, like McDonald’s breakfast muffins, milky coffee is considered off the menu by 11am. That said, milk-in drinkers will probably get away with ordering a cafe au lait or cafe crème in the afternoon. But, be warned, at some cafes, you may get the horrified waiter stare. 

Breakfast coffee may be served in a bowl rather than a cup – you can use two hands – and you can dip your croissant or other morning pastry in it. If you’re okay with pastry bits in your coffee, dip away. 

READ ALSO The strange French habits that foreigners just don’t get

The second rule of French coffee drinking is: unless you have somewhere else to be quickly, take your time. Sit down, watch the world go by. Once you’re at your table, it’s yours for pretty much as long as you want. 

If you are in a bit of a rush and need a quick pick-me-up, head inside your chosen cafe and stand at the bar – that’s where you’ll find the other drink-n-dashers, and the coffee is sometimes cheaper too. Coffee to go does exist in France but it’s the exception rather than the rule. Coffee time is break time – a chance for a pause.

The third rule of French coffee drinking is: know your order. Here’s a few of the orders you could make – and what you’ll get if you ask for it.

Un café / café noir / espresso – order any one of these and you’ll get the same thing. An espresso, that short, sharp shot of strong black coffee. 

Noisette – this is an espresso with a splash of hot milk. It’s the colour of hazlenut – hence the name.

Café au lait – breakfast coffee in a bowl with viennoiserie for morning drinking only.

Café crème – an espresso with foamed milk, like a cappuccino.

Café allongé – An espresso coffee diluted with extra hot water for those who don’t like the punch of a full espresso hit. If you want milk, you have to ask for it.

Déca – a handy suffix to all of the above if you prefer your coffee decaffeinated. Not, necessarily, available everywhere.

French press – ironically the term French press (a pot of coffee sometimes known as a cafetière) is not well known in France, so requesting one of these is likely to get you a blank stare.

And the final rule… Greet your waiter with a bonjour and say s’il vous plaît when you place your order. After all, what price politeness? Don’t forget to say merci, too, when your waiter brings you your chosen coffee.

READ ALSO What does the way you order coffee in French say about you?

And if you’re a British tea devotee then it’s probably best to just forget about ordering tea in a café as it’s highly unlikely to be made how you like it.

If you’re coffee-d out, the other option is a tisane, or what would be a called a fruit or herbal tea in the anglophone world. Most cafés have a good selection, but be warned they can be expensive considering you’re basically just getting a teabag and some hot water.

Member comments

  1. Good thing Bretagne is so different to the rest of France – pretty chilled coffee culture here and some places do a mean cappuccino (I am looking at you Roscoff). Interesting about being able to sit and take your time over a coffee. After years spending time in Italy that feels like anathema, unless you want to pay a lot more for said coffee.

  2. Let’s be real though, the coffee is one of the worst things on the menu in a typical Parisian cafe. Most of the developed world now has high quality espresso coffee in easy reach, not the case here at all. A few expat oriented places sell a global quality espresso but they are the exception.

    1. Thank you for saying that. I thought I was the only one that felt that way. We still buy our coffee beans in from Italy to grind and brew our own. Roscoff and Quimper aside (that have really good coffee shops), we simply go without when out.

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For members


Bio, artisan and red label: What do French food and drink labels really mean?

From home-made to made in France, organic to artisan, AOP to Red Label - French food and drink products have a bewildering array of different labels and quality marks - here's what they all mean.

Bio, artisan and red label: What do French food and drink labels really mean?

In France, there are many different types of étiquette to be aware of when purchasing food, drink or other products. However, this étiquette does not have to do with behaviour – rather it is the French word for label or sticker that might designate certain properties about an item being purchased.

Here are some that you might run into while shopping in France:

Wines and other beverages

French wine often has several different designations and labels that you might come across. In France, wine is labelled based on region rather than grape.

Cru – the word “cru” – translated as ‘growth’ – on a wine label signifies that it was grown in high-quality vineyard or growing site, and provides further proof to where the wine was produced. 

Vin Bio – this designates a product, and in this case, wine as being organic. You will also find a bio (pronounced bee-yo) section of fruit and veg in most French supermarkets as well as plenty of other products with a bio label. Most towns and communes regularly host a marché bio –  a market where all the products on sale are organic.

Here is an example of what the label looks like:

Photo Credit: Economie.Gouv.Fr

To be certified as bio, producers must follow a set of EU specifications around how products are grown, which limit the use of chemicals such as fertilisers, pesticides and weedkillers. The bio brand is a protected mark.

Vin natural – While bio refers to how the grapes are grown, ‘natural wines’ refers to the process of turning the grapes into wine.  

This is more vague than organic as there isn’t an agreed set of standards for what constitutes a ‘natural wine’. Producers label their bottles vin méthode nature (natural wine method) but you’ll also frequently see and hear vin naturel or vin nature to describe these products. In general, it means a wine that has no additives used during the wine-making process and no or few added sulphites, which can mean that natural wines taste different.

Not all organic wines are natural and not all natural wines are made with organic grapes, although the two tend to go together.

Vin biodynamique – Growers who embrace the biodynamic method go a step further and as well as cutting out chemicals they also plant and harvest their crop according to the lunar calendar.

Biodynamic isn’t a protected mark and a biodynamic wine isn’t necessarily organic or natural, but vine growers who go to the trouble of following the lunar calendar are generally pretty committed to producing their product in a more natural way. 

Champagne (capital C) – The sparkling wine known as Champagne can only be produced in the French Champagne region, otherwise it’s just sparkling wine. In fact, the Champagne industry has a skilled team of lawyers tasked with insuring that the name “Champagne” is not being used inappropriately or incorrectly. Champagne is a famous example of the French AOC (more on this below).

READ MORE: ‘The price of glory’ – Meet the Champagne industry lawyers charged with protecting the brand name

Geographic designations and traditional techniques

In France, there are three different labels that determine where a product comes from and whether it was made according to certain traditional standards.

L’Appellation Contrôlée (AOC) – This designation can either indicate that a product comes from a specific geographical area or that it was produced following a certain traditional technique. Under French law, it is illegal to manufacture and sell a product under one of the AOC-controlled indications if it does not comply with the criteria of that AOC. In order to make them recognisable, all AOC products carry a seal, with a number as well as the name of the certifying body.

You can see an example of the label below:

Photo Credit:

The colour of the seal indicates the product classification: green for field products and red for dairy products.

It is worth keeping in mind that simply being considered an AOC product does not necessarily mean that the quality will be better than a non-AOC product, as it is focused on either geographical location or technique used when cultivating the product. The AOC designation is typically applied to certain wines and cheeses, though it can be extended to other products too.

READ MORE: What does the AOP/AOC label on French food and wine mean – and are these products better?

AOP (Appellation d’Origine Protégée) – the European Union operates a similar geographical protection system that recognises products that are the “result of a unique combination of human and environmental factors that are characteristic of a given territory”.

The two labels are pretty much the same, but the AOC is French and older, while the AOP is recognised on a European level. 

In most cases, in order to apply for AOP designation, the product must already have an AOC recognition at the national level and then it is later registered with the European Commission. 

For France, the AOP concerns certain dairy products – specifically, 45 cheeses, 3 butters, and 2 creams – other foods like “Grenoble walnuts” are also listed as AOPs.

As for non French products, Gorgonzola cheese is an example of an Italian AOP.

La Spécialité Traditionnelle Garantie (STG) – In English this would be referred to as the “Traditional Speciality Guarantee”. This is another European-wide label. It attests that a food product has been manufactured according to a recipe considered traditional.

The first French STG was “Bouchot mussels” which are collected using a traditional aquaculture technique. 

Quality labels

Label rouge – This French label allows you to identify superior quality products. It has been in existence for over 60 years – according to the French ministry of economy, Landes chicken was the first food product to be awarded the label. Label rouge can be applied to food products as well as non-food agricultural products, such as Christmas trees or flowers.

For example, a Christmas tree might qualify for the Label rouge if it is: from the Nordmann or Spruce species, free from parasites (fungi and insects); fitting the proper aesthetic criteria for shape, colour, symmetry and density; and fresh – meaning cut down after November 21st.

Nutri-score – this five letter label designates food products based on their nutritional value. This is regulated by public health authorities. The logo is on packaging and ranges from A (dark green, most nutritious) to E (dark orange, least nutritious).

Artisanale – this is a protected “appellation” (title) that was created in 1998, and it regulates ‘craft’ products according to French law – the most common usages are for bakeries and breweries but it’s used for a wide range of products. 

People running the business must be able to prove a certain relevant education and qualification level and register with the trade organisation or guild for their craft.

For example, bakery owners must register the boulangerie with the Chambre des Métiers et de l’Artisanat and take a preparatory course.

Typically, artisan producers promise to use non-processed materials and they must also follow certain quality rules. For example, bread sold in these artisan boulangeries cannot have been frozen.

French bread and pastry designations

When buying your baguette at the boulangerie, there are some differences to be aware of.

Baguette Tradition – As suggested by the name, this designation means that the baguette was made using the traditional ingredients – only flour, yeast, salt and water. These were decided upon as part of the French government’s ‘bread decree’ of 1993. It also indicates that the baguette is free of any additives or preservatives. 

Baguette – A regular baguette could contain extra ingredients like grains, cereals or nuts – or any chemical additives or preservatives.

Boulanger de France – This label is relatively new in France – it was launched in 2020 in order to help differentiate artisinal bakeries from industrial ones. In order to obtain the label, then the bakery must respect certain quality regulations (eg. salt dosage used in bread, and specific recipes and manufacturing methods). Also, boulangers who apply for this label also commit themselves to favouring seasonal products.

Other French labels you might come across

Fait maison – this means ‘home made’ in French, and the logo for this type of dish looks like a little house.

You might see this label when at a restaurant or when buying food. In essence, it means that the dish was cooked on the spot. It also means that the dish was made with unprocessed ingredients, and that the only processed ingredients are those listed HERE.

Made in France (or Fabriqué en France) – It may be a bit misleading, but the label “Made in France” does not mean that 100 percent of the manufacturing steps for the product were carried out in France, but it signifies that a significant part were indeed done in France. This label is applied primarily to “consumer and capital goods”, but it can also be attributed to certain agricultural, food and cosmetic products, according to the French ministry of economy.

In order to qualify for this label, a part of the French customs body (Direction générale de la concurrence, de la consommation et de la répression des fraudes or DGCCRF) must authorise the label. If a product simply contains colours associated with France or a French flag, that does not necessarily mean it was entirely produced in France.

The penalties for falsely using a “Made in France” label, which are laid out in the French consumer code (article L. 132-2) are up to two years imprisonment and a fine of up to €300,000, which may be increased, depending on whether there were benefits derived from the offence.

Origine France Garantie – This label is awarded by the “Pro France association” to both  food and non-food products that can prove to have had the majority of manufacturing operations (at least 50 percent of its per unit cost) carried out in France and that the parts of the product that constitute its ‘essential characteristics’ were manufactured and produced in France.

Terre textile – This label attests that at least 75 percent of the textile product’s manufacturing was carried out in the French geographical area that it references – for example the label would indicate a part of France, like Alsace, and then below it would say “Terre textile”.