Shifting ground

Naintara Maya Oberoi | Updated on January 15, 2018 Published on March 17, 2017

Image: Shutterstock

Nayantara Maya Oberoi   -  BUSINESS LINE

The simultaneous invasion of Nespresso machines and a wave of cafés serving artisanal hipster coffee has Parisians sitting up

Until recently, the only way to get a good coffee in Paris was to unobtrusively tail an Italian person until they stopped for their mid-morning espresso. Though un café, taken standing up at the zinc counter for maximum bar chat or sitting at a pavement-facing table for maximum people-watching, is a part of daily life, in Paris the coffee itself is just an excuse for socialising. Even worse, it’s usually le jus de chaussette — sock juice — over-extracted, bitter and watery.

Considering the number of cafés in Paris and the sheer number of people with espresso cups in front of them at any given moment, why is the coffee so bad? How can a people who have an annual jury argue about the aeration of baguette crumbs and a medal for the year’s best fishmonger, be so offhand about their coffee ?

Historically, French colonies in Vietnam and Africa produced low-cost robusta beans, which make for more bitter coffee than pricier arabica beans. The dark French roast style was developed to hide this, and the watery shot popular with French coffee-drinkers also counteracts the harsh notes.

Today, the market is dominated by big industrial producers like Cafés Richard, whose branded cups can be seen in every brasserie. Industrial robusta blends are ground in the morning, and steadily lose their taste and smell through the day. When you order your espresso, the coffee’s already stale, and sterilised milk, lots of water, and sputter-y machines don’t help.

Asking for un café serré (a “tight” coffee), a short coffee like a ristretto (“restricted”, in Italian) sometimes works. Only a small amount of water is allowed to come in contact with the grounds, which gives you a rich, concentrated tablespoon of coffee with a little foam hat of crema. Drowning your brake fluid in sugar is also an option, but asking for milk will only bewilder your server (Parisians don’t drink milky coffees after breakfast) and earn you shelf-stable chalky milk from a Tetrapak. Saying things like “low-fat”, “skim”, or “soy milk” will confuse them further.

In recent years, however, a change has swept the city. The simultaneous invasion of Nespresso machines and a wave of cafés serving artisanal hipster coffee has Parisians sitting up. The new hot spots — both roasters and cafés — with inscrutable names like Holybelly, Cuillier, Boot, Hardware Societé, and Téléscope are brimming over with customers. Their coffee is local, roasted in Paris at Belleville Brûlerie or Café Lomi, ground fresh and drawn just long enough, by trained tattooed baristas, to make an acidic, intense cup, each bean and roast type distinctly identifiable. Espresso machines and grinders are flying off the shelves, whether pump espresso makers, percolators or pod-consuming automatics, and Paris is learning a new vocabulary (single-origin, artisan roast, flat burr, flat white, crema, cupping, cortado and so on).

While the roasters and baristas come in all varieties — French, Australian, British and so on — the shops themselves suffer from an odd minimal uniformity: Nordic-Brooklyn-chic, pale wood, wifi, Edison bulbs, succulents, Garden Grown typography, and customers curated from the Urban Outfitters catalogue. You might be in Sydney or Stockholm, and that’s a shame for the old zinc-counter bars in Paris struggling to survive.

But how to choose between excellent, expensive coffee served with ironic beards and cheap, bad coffee served by non-ironic beards? Either way, it was time to stop paying for sock juice, I decided. My trusty Bialetti stovetop puts out a good filter coffee, but espresso is beyond it. I worked in an American coffee shop for a while, and the prospect of returning to the slow coffee rite — grinding, measuring, tamping, and finally pulling a short, perky little shot of coffee, not to mention the fun of angling the steamed milk to draw designs atop a flat white — was irresistible.

But after a few days among the impenetrable world of coffee geeks, buying an espresso machine seemed more complicated than buying a spaceship. I began to have disturbed dreams where I had to produce espresso out of a saucepan. E61 grouphead, I burbled in my sleep anxiously. Automatic. Manual. Semi-automatic. Unpressurised basket. Pre-infusion. Built-in grinder. Temperature surf. Froth. It was time to get off the internet and taste some coffee.

“Oh yes, I can show you all that we have!” said the sunny salesman on the tea/coffee floor of the home appliances store. He began to bounce around the rows of coffee machines. Each had a test model brewing coffee.

“Here, try this,” he said, giving me some coffee in a paper cup. “The thermoblock is very reliable and....”

“Now this one pre-infuses the coffee before it starts, so the natural oils release –”

“You want a fine grind, I myself use a handheld Hario...”

Nine models and nine cups of coffee later, we were ricocheting in perfect harmony down the aisles of tea- and coffee-makers. “Such good extraction —”

“Oh yes, and notice the oils!”, “Ah, the oils!”

Now my hands were beginning to shake, so I twirled strategically up the escalator, promising to be back.

After lunch, I returned to pick up my chosen espresso maker from my caffeinated dance partner. A slim manual machine, with the pre-infuser that had driven us to rhapsody among the teapots.

“Excellent choice!” he sang. “And would you like a cup of coffee while I wrap it up?”

Published on March 17, 2017
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor