How to drink your coffee in the French style

How to drink your coffee in the French style
Photo: Lucas Barioulet / AFP
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.

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.

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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. 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.

  2. 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.

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