Arriving in Paris from the San Francisco Bay Area, home of many Italian espresso bars, we wanted more in the mornings than the café au lait [kah-FAY owe LAY] favored by the French. (Strong filtered coffee with hot, often foamy, milk). Granted, we enjoyed many delicious au laits but…it was not comparable. We had been spoiled by the espresso bars in Berkeley since the 1970’s.
We longed for the earthy, robust espresso with its blanket of foamy whole milk. (For some at the French coffee bar, an espresso with a slice of lemon was the morning starter of choice but my digestion demanded some milk with that, thank you very much!)
Saturday was a shopping day but it always included at least one stop for coffee bar research. With our long walks in various arrondissements (districts), we learned that the price of a coffee varied tremendously from one arrondissement to another, even if the quality did not. For example, in tourist “hog heaven” between the Louvre and la rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré (where the designer shops are found), we paid 10 euros for a café au lait at an outdoor café. (A lesson for me for not knowing that would be the case…!) One of the lowest-priced au laits, less than 2 euros yet good quality, was in the 10th arrondissement where immigrant storekeepers set up shop and tourists were less inclined to wander.
Our best “find” was the Italian Ristorante near the Musée Pompidou. There we got coffee, service, and full-body Italian where each tenth word was accompanied by a hand or head gesture. To be honest, in Italy coffee with milk is a morning-only drink. In Paris, where there is a lot of competition among restaurants, we were assured of a cappuccino any time of the day or evening.
Our exploration continued during a two-week trip to Provence and the Piedmont area of Northern Italy. We “hit pay dirt” when we walked into a gelateria (gelato shop) in Susa, barely across the French-Italian border, and enjoyed an afternoon cappuccino. So delicious it was that, as we each ordered a second, the owner raised his eyebrows in curiosity. In French, I explained how “deprived” we had felt in Provence and how grateful we were for his excellent cappuccinos.
Replying in Italian, he told us that we were most unusual because the French had their own reasons for coming to Susa. The town was famous for its discounted liquor, not its cappuccinos.