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Pause Gourmande

Mr Creosote - Monty Python's ultimate gluttonA Gourmand or Gourmande, depending on if you are speaking to a man or a woman (the feminine form has an "e" at the end) can be gentle teasing way to call someone a glutton.  A pause gourmande, pronounced Pose Gor-man-d, is a little gourmet break, a delightful snack.  A good way, I think, to introduce a quick post about eating in France.


I was having lunch with J recently and he noticed on the menu, hiding amongst the desserts, something called “Café Gourmand”.  It was priced at 7€50, slightly less than the other desserts yet much more expensive than a coffee.  Because he knew both meanings of Gourmand, he cynically joked that it was the owner who was the glutton, gouging the customers with his overpriced “gourmet” coffee.

In fact, this is a recent trend that has started to appear more commonly on Paris menus.  A Café Gourmand is not an overpriced “gourmet” coffee, but three small desserts paired with a little espresso.  Or for those in the know, a Noisette.  A great guilt-free dessert where you often get to sample three mini-versions of the desserts on the menu.   It’s the perfect end to a nice lunch and ensures you get “just a bite” of dessert without having to cajole your friends into ordering a full dessert to share.

During the course of another lunch, with MC, a close friend who frequently inspires my posts, we talked about table manners.  Her French husband is quite a stickler for the rules, even though he breaks them with abandon himself.  He shrugs off protests from his family with the classic comment “its okay to break the rules as long as you know what they are”

We were having Terrine de Fois Gras, a chilled version of Fois Gras, usually served with little Brioche toast points and some sort of sweet relish.  That day it was a mild Mango Chutney.  As we ate the Fois Gras, MC explained to the others at the table the proper way to eat such a dish.  Voila, more rules about eating in France.  You see, there is a tendency for people to spread the creamy rich fois gras on the toast point and then happily eat it like a breakfast Tartine, akin to an open-faced peanut butter sandwich. 

The word tartine (Tar-Teen), comes from the verb tartiner (Tar-Teen-Ay) which means to spread.  A Tartine is a 3-4 inch long half baguette spread generously with butter and sometimes jam too - if you are a gourmande.  This is dipped in the bowl of coffee for breakfast.  Well, just like a big milky coffee, that’s the end of “tartines “ – “spreading” for the day. 

Here’s the rule, aside from breakfast you should never - tartinez- at the table.  So, taking a big chunk of Fois Gras and spreading it all over the toast to make a sandwich is not correct.  With the tip of your knife, you pick up just enough Fois Gras for one bite and you put this on the corner of the toast.  Then you take a bite of the toast along with the morsel of Fois Gras.  Then savor the perfect bite...

I already knew this rule about Fois Gras, but MC called me out a bit later when I was liberally spreading the amazing Bordier Smoked Salt Butter all over a piece of bread.  It turns out that the rule “No spreading after breakfast” applies to butter as well.  You are expected to put just enough butter for one bite and never to spread the entire piece of bread with butter, take a bite and set the rest down on your bread plate. Well, on the table actually. 

That is another odd thing; if you have been to France you know there is almost never a bread plate.  Once you have taken a piece of bread, between bites you set it directly on the table to the left of your plate.  This is probably because that the French use bread the way the rest of us use a knife so it rarely gets put down.  Any time you need to push something onto your fork it is more polite to use the bread than a knife.  Most important of all, you must never “sauce” with bread.  This is using the bread like a sponge to wipe up any remaining sauce and pop it into your mouth - Very tempting with most French sauces.  One exception, allowed only at home, is to spear your bread with the fork and “Sauce” using your fork to hold the bread.

The last and most counter-intuitive point in French table manners is that you are never allowed to put your hands in your lap during a meal.   I had heard this early on, but didn’t really believe that this could be considered impolite.  After all, I’d been badgered in the opposite direction for years as a child. 

One day over lunch with Jacqueline, a very feisty friend in her seventies, who I consider to be my French Grandmother.  At a moment between courses, I placed my hands politely in my lap.  Hey, she said “Qu’est-ce tu fais là-bas” essentially, “What are you doing down there”?  A bit embarrassed at being accused of who-knows-what, I put my hands above the table.  No elbows, just the forearms and hands.  “C’est mieux” – “That’s better” she said and we resumed our conversation. 

"Souper chez le Prince de Conti", 1766 by Michel Barthélémy OllivierI don’t know the origins of this rule come but one imagines the famous intrigues of “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” and other clandestine love affairs between gentlemen and their mistresses.  Affairs that went on under the noses of husbands and wives, perhaps at dinners with all parties present.  In such a case it would be very important to know what people were up to “under the table.”

In the immortal words of Julia Child, a fellow alum from the Cordon Bleu Cooking School - "Bon Apétit!"


How to order coffee in Paris

It would seem that in the past couple of decades, America, Canada and the UK have caught up with the rest of the world, namely Italy and France with their understanding and taste in coffee.  One notable exception seems to have been Australia.  Even when I was living there in the 80s you could get a good Italian style coffee drink at any corner milk bar or sandwich shop.

Out went the dishwater-bland over perked coffee our parents and grandparents favored for the rich, dark roasted coffee that comes in a dozen forms.  In the US and UK, the point of reference for naming coffee drinks is Italy.  We have all become familiar with the words Cappuccino, Latte, Espresso and the like.  So today, an American or Brit travelling in Italy can order coffee in Italian like a native.  For the same reason, I’ve always felt a certain comfort going to Italian restaurants in countries where I don’t speak the language.  Because, even in the furthest reaches of Anatolia for example, the menu is in “English”.  Well, it’s actually Restaurant Italian which simply seems like English.  Who wouldn’t feel comfortable seeing the words Lasagne or Spaghetti Bolognaise on a menu in Turkish.  

Well, in Fance, things aren’t often as easy.  As my good friend J always says “Those French, they’ve got a different word for everything” and this is certainly true for coffee.  So here’s a quick primer on how to get a satisfying cup of Joe just like you enjoy on your way to work back home. 

The first thing to forget is the Café au Lait.  This is what many people seem to associate with coffee in France, but no Frenchmen are ordering this in their local café.  The closest thing is a Café Crème which comes in two sizes, one called a Café Crème and the larger a Grand Crème.  This is a steamy combination of espresso coffee and steamed milk topped with foam – much like a Cappuccino.  For those of you that prefer a drip style coffee, there is the Café Allongé.  This is espresso diluted with hot water.  Sorry, but aside from a few hotels, real drip coffee is only made at home here.  If you like drip coffee with milk, and I’m sure you do, then you have to ask for it.  You’ll say “Café Allongé avec du lait à coté” – Cafe ah-longe-ay ah-veck doo lay ah co-tay.  If these seems too complicated, you’re right.  I say unless you drink your coffee black, stick with a Café Crème.  

After that, if you only know one French word for coffee you’ll probably order a Café and perhaps be disappointed when you are served a tiny espresso.  But here’s where it gets complicated, or for some of you -- interesting.  Like nearly everything in this food obsessed culture, there are rules about coffee. Just like the rules for cutting the cheese or what to serve at a dinner party that I've written about before.  Okay, these are not really rules, but more like cultural expectations.

The big milky coffees favored by Americans are only drunk in France for breakfast.  At home, morning coffee is usually from a bowl, not a mug.  This makes it easier to dunk the leftover baguette bought for dinner the night before into your coffee.  Yes, besides the idea of ordering café au Lait, the idea that Frenchman head out merrily each morning to buy a baguette is also something of a myth.  Sure, people head out to buy croissants on the weekends and perhaps the odd occasion when they want to impress someone new who’s spent the night.

After about 10am, most people have switched to café (espresso) and after a meal they'd never ever order a big milky coffee.  I’m not sure what comparison to make to define the puzzled look sometimes seen on waiters’ faces, but it’s akin to ordering a bowl of cereal for dinner anywhere but a 24-Hr Diner.  When you think about it, having a big steaming mug of hot milk with a small dose of espresso after a three course French lunch with wine and cheese does seem a bit strange,  if not a bit hard to digest.  But who knows, maybe I’ve just gone native.

“Hey, wait a minute” I hear you saying, “I hate coffee without milk.”  Well so do I.  So here’s a trick to order like a local and still get a really nice mid-day or post-meal coffee.  Order a “Noisette”.  In French, Noisette (Nuh-wah-zet) means Hazelnut and might refer to the color of the coffee.  It is also a cooking term used in recipes to describe a small amount of butter.  In the UK they say “add a knob of butter” where the in French one says “ajoutez une noisette du beurre” so who knows.  Besides, we need to order a coffee.

A Noisette is an espresso, with a dollop of foamed milk and a tiny bit of milk.  Just like a Macchiato in Italy or a Café Cortado in Spain.   In better restaurants and some cafés they bring you an espresso with a tiny pitcher of milk so you can make your own blend – my personal favorite.

That covers the options for what to order, but budget conscious visitors will be interested in one further tip.  When you are in an average neighborhood café in Paris, you have three options where you can order and consume your coffee.  Outside on the terrace, inside at a table or at the counter. “Au Bar”.  The prices are different between the bar and the tables.  A simple Café is 2.50€  or more when served at a table, but rarely more than 1.20€ at the bar. Often 1€.  So if you want to have a quick coffee break and save money, order and drink at the bar.  It’s also the fastest way to use the restroom without any hassle, if you are having trouble finding one.  This applies to all drinks, so you can have a budget aperitif at the counter as well.  If you are unsure if the café you've entered serves at the bar, look for the tell-tale sugar bowls set out on the bar to indicate they serve coffee there.  After all, coffee without sugar is as unthinkable in France as coffee without milk in the states.

One last tip for ordering coffee in a Café, if you arrive around lunchtime and only want to have a coffee on the terrace, choose a table that is not set with silverware and glasses.  Those tables are reserved for people eating, not drinking coffee.  So you will likely be shooed away.  The same is true in the evening when you might like to have an aperitif on the terrace.  But if most of the tables are empty, just ask and they will often let you sit there.


English / Italian    French                  What to say           Prononced
Espresso                         Café                      Café                       Ca-fay
Cappucino                     Café Crème        Un Creme              Uhn Khrem
Macchiato                     Noisette                Une Noisette       Eywoon  Nuh-wah-zet

Tartine photo credit - Croque Madame

How to order coffee in Paris