As a busy member of MCS’s executive team, international trips frequently see our colleague-correspondents flitting to locations such as Bangkok or New York, places which are renowned for their value when trying to impress vague acquaintances at events involving ties, tall tables, and sparkling wine. Usually during such international jetset trips there isn’t enough time to indulge in irrelevant side quests such as tasting and reviewing coffee – there are usually important hands to shake or shady deals to be made. However, in this instance it seemed worth stopping for a few minutes to smell the espresso.
Our journey today took us to Paris, that beautiful and bustling city renowned for dog poo as far as the eye can see on the pavements, shocked and disappointed Japanese tourists, and enterprising individuals trying to sell weed to anyone on the street who looks like they aren’t stoned.
While French food has its proponents, France has a well-earned reputation as fly-over country when it comes to coffee. Legend has it that someone on a beach in Brittany during the Napoleonic wars retrieved a waterlogged bag of coffee beans, presumably washed overboard from a passing boat from Brazil. As far as historians can tell, this peasant tried to eat a flotsam coffee bean, and was so incredibly impressed with this amazingly novel flavour, that in the 200 years since, everywhere in France, people have diligently been attempting to reproduce, as accurately as possible, the exact flavour of this legendary briny waterlogged saltwater-drenched coffee bean. This ritual has been performed whenever anyone orders a coffee anywhere in France in the time since then.
Needless to say, while the French would never understand why those who enjoy espresso would speak poorly of their nautical delicacy, their entire coffee culture would probably get about one out of five MCS stars (perhaps even –1 stars when you count the fact that they’ll also happily tell you that you’re wrong if you don’t think their sloshing tides of brown water are amazing). In fact, it’s probably worth having a look at our sister publication, francecoffeesucks.com, which is dedicated to complaining about French coffee. However, there are the odd happy exceptions to the tyrannical rule of bad French espresso, and it only seems fair to call those out, too.
A recent journey saw me stranded in Paris near the Gare du Nord for an hour or so, while switching trains. This neighbourhood is famously a vibrant melting pot, and well worth a visit. Since it was around lunchtime, I thought I’d indulge myself in patisserie roulette, that venerable tradition where unsuspecting tourists try to sample the local wares — not knowing in advance which pastry shops are world-class hidden gems offering amazing treats for a single Euro coin, and which are traps for the uninitiated, serving up soggy, defrosted mass-produced dreck which they are able to palm off with impunity on the never-ending stream of naive victims. With suitably low expectations, I entered Maison Bayat, boulangerie et patisserie artisanale, and asked for a double espresso (they had a serious-looking espresso machine, but that’s never a guarantee of anything except that your eyesight still hasn’t failed you) plus a Sticky Thing, and awaited to see whether I had heads or tails.
As it turns out, after already having spent almost a week in France, this was one of the tastiest espressos of my visit! What a nice surprise. Previous coffees were almost all hilariously bad, in their own unique and surprising ways. Even that one time in Bordeaux, where we specifically sought out the locally-roasted hipster coffee bar where the bright-eyed barista spent five minutes extolling the qualities of the coffee, heightening our expectations, only to serve us too-hot cup-fulls of sour brown water with thin rippling white foam where you’d expect a layer of crema – a drink barely worthy of the name allongé – totally dashing our spirits (this was at “Authentic Coffee” at Place Pey Berland in Bordeaux, give it a miss). This was in a specifically hip espresso bar, and we were given what amounted to Australian servo coffee. So strange.
Anyway, back to our good experience. The coffee was good, and as a bonus, they weren’t wrong about their artisan sticky fare – it was definitely a solid 4/5 “Pretty Acceptable All Things Considered”. But their coffee would probably also earn a solid 4/5, maybe more, given what else is available nearby. All in all, I’d say that this patisserie scraped through into the illustrious group of Does Not Suck-Award recipients. Congratulations! As for France and their coffee more generally – beware and godspeed thee intrepid traveller.
Unfortunately, as for French coffee in general, we can only give a maximum of 1/5 stars.