Thursday, June 10, 2010

Coffee: The Rhythm of Life

Like a majority of people in the mornings, my day does not officially begin until I have my first sip of coffee.

However, a coffee like Folgers just doesn't cut it. It is much too...weak.

Perhaps I should take a moment to discuss my background. I live in the touristy city of Miami. In this town, the drivers on the road seem bent on mowing you down viciously if you drive too slowly (meaning "at the speed limit"). An excursion on the highway becomes an example of survival of the fittest; if the raging creatures careening in their status-symbol SUVs sense that you are a placid weakling with no instincts or reflexes, they will take advantage of this flaw and hunt you down.

Apart from the drivers, navigating in a city like Miami requires extreme concentration. As you try to dodge the bullet-speed lions zooming past, your attention is diverted to seeing where you are headed. Unless you are a local who truly embraces the Miamian lifestyle, you will get lost trying to find your way. One moment, you think you are on the correct path, but then in a few seconds, you are forced to make a right turn because the street becomes "right turn only." By the end of the famous Calle Ocho, you are faced with a labyrinth of turns that never go in the direction you want. You become a mere pawn to the inebriated fool who designed the city's plans.

Or, in my case, this concentration is needed when your mother frantically calls you from her job to see if you can quickly record the start of FIFA World Cup when you have NO IDEA how to work a frickin' recorder. (Thanks, Mom.)

As I stated, Folgers does not suffice for the Miamian way of life. That is why the locals imbibe the Cuban-style expresso of coffees Bustelo and Pilon. This coffee ties in with the significant culture of the island expatriates. They have the café con leche (coffee with milk) in the mornings and supply their afternoons with a caffeine buzz from a shot of colada. The colada is essentially an extremely sweet expresso that must moderately drunk in shots. If one were to drink an entire cup of this black elixir, one would remain in a jittery wide-eyed state for the rest of the week. The potency of Cuban-style coffee is so well-known that the locals have dubbed it "Cuban Crack."
How effective is café Cubano? One sip and I was jamming to Shakira's "Hips Don't Lie."

Coffee is also prevalent in France's culinary culture. I quickly learned the difference between un café and un crème. The crèmes come in either petit or grand and have milk. Un café is just straight-up coffee, and not at all as liquid as American coffee. At the end of their extensive-course meals, the French opt to have un café. I also noticed that, unlike Cuban coffee, the French present their coffees without adding a drop of sugar. The cafés ration you to two cubes per drink. I admit that I had to adapt my taste buds to using less sugar in my drinks.

Some of my best memories of France are based on the many hours I spent with friends drinking a petit crème at Dijon's Café Les Grands Ducs. We would walk in front of the impressive Palais des Ducs set on Rue de la Liberté and then make way to the brasserie-style establishment situated only a few feet away. Mirrors everywhere and comfortably lit, I would spend time staring at the café's stained glass tributes to the four Dukes of Burgundy: Philippe le Bon, Philippe le Hardi, Jean sans Peur and Charles le Téméraire.

My friends and I would order our drinks, pay for them and then sit at the tables discussing our lives. I remember that when we weren't talking about possible trips to Paris, Lyon and Italy, we spent our time plotting out ways to remain in France (legally). We would do this a couple of times a month. As the visa's expiration date breathed down our necks like a ravenous monster stalking us, our conversations switched from joyful trips to our imminent return to our home countries...

One of the last places that I visited in France was a café in Paris. I met up with a friend who also faced a long plane ride back. We walked around the Parisian streets trying to find a café that sold reasonably-priced coffees. By Dijonnais standards, Paris is indeed very expensive. In Dijon, a crème would have cost between 1.50 and 1.80 euros, and one would have been able to sit down to drink it. We eventually found a place that sold crèmes priced at 2.30 euros au comptoir. A word to the wise: places sometimes charge you more by where you decide to sit. If you are frugal (or just a flat-out monetary cheapskate), you will opt for having your drink at the bar. At the bar, my friend and I glumly drank our coffee and stared at each other blankly. Gone were the days when we would joke about leaving France; that moment had arrived. Standing near the comptoir, we looked like a couple of sad alcoholics.

"Well," I said "since we are already here, why don't we also order a few beers to help us drown our troubles?"

We didn't order the beers. We only went in for a coffee.

One Métro ride and a kiss on each cheek later, we said our good-byes and returned to our hotels.

Charles de Gaulle airport (Roissy) has probably some of the most expensive crèmes I have ever purchased.

I spoke to my friend today and we both yearn for the days when we would shelter ourselves in Les Grands Ducs from the rainy and frigid Dijonnais weather. That is something that will never be erased from our past.

Barb the French Bean


  1. I'm something of the odd Spaniard in that I (intensely) dislike coffee (sacrilège!!!) and would kill for a decent cup of tea (which is impossible to find in this country!), but I hear you on the coffee problem in the States! All coffee lovers I know (i.e. all of my European friends) shudder at the idea of "un americano". My grandfather used to call it "agua con colorete" (water w/ food colouring) :p

    Now what I couldn't get was how a superbe chocolate country like Belgium couldn't manage a decent hot chocolate?! They just stick a thing of cécémel in the microwave... ugh! That's NOT real hot chocolate! ;o)

  2. I agree that Spanish hot chocolate is to DIE FOR, especially when it is accompanied by warm churros.

    While in Spain, I discovered my new love in the coffee world: el bonbon! Espresso with a dash of leche condensada...*drools*

  3. and to think... the Chocolate con Churros season starts NOW!!! Did you go to the Chocolatería Valor when you were in Campello? A bit pricy (compared to a regular cafetería), but the best chocolate in town! yummmmm

    Although nothing really beats choc+churros from a street vendor at 5 a.m. on your way home for a night's fiesta ;o)

    Leche condensada... tempation by the devil!!! Almost enough to make me drink coffee... but not quite! :p

  4. Just accept the know you want to...;)

    I didn't go to the Valor Chocolate factory (GASP!) because I was *literally* whisked away from Alicante straight to Murcia. What I saw of Alicante was the bus station, a very quick drive from the port to my uncle's house in El Campello then to Murcia. :P

    Oh, well. I guess this means that I have to go back at some point in my life. Maybe now is a good moment considering how churro con chocolate caliente season is starting, ha ha!


Apparently, leaving comments on this blog is a hit-or-miss game of Russian roulette: you are either lucky and can comment away, or you are required to log in when the settings are CLEARLY set to allow trouble-free commenting (sorry 'bout that, folks). If anything, the Facebook page is always a viable option. :) -Barb