Saturday, March 19, 2011

Holy Grail

You would be sorely mistaken if you thought you could get a good cup of coffee in Paris. A city that has a cafe virtually on every corner, serves the most atrocious excuse for a coffee I’ve ever come across in my life, after the American’s that is. I’ve even had outstanding takeaway coffee in an airport...albeit it was in Venice. I knew I was up against it before I arrived. My keen interest, ok ok ‘keen interest’ is being somewhat diplomatic...”My name is Taliya and I am a caffeine addict”...there! addition lead to watch a documentary made by a former World Barista Champion, who happened to be Australian, and his tour of the globe in search of the great cuppa. It is he who warned me years ago that I would be bitterly (quite literally) disappointed with the standard of coffee in Paris. So my search for the perfect coffee has now become a quest for the Holy Grail. Does it possibly even exist?

My first coffee in Paris on the day I arrived was a cappuccino, that was also the last time I had a cappuccino. I knew that it was a mistake when I ordered it. The waiter brought it over and I nearly died of embarrassment. The froth resembled a miniature Mount Everest it was that tall. Think a lemon meringue tart with large wisps of egg whites, well that’s what was delivered to me, it screamed ‘tourist’. Not only was it 5.50, by the time I actually got to the coffee, it lasted all of two sips. Nope, never again!

I have to find a new standard coffee, and I don’t have much of a choice. It’s either a ‘cafe’, which is a short black, a ‘noisette’, which is a short macchiato or a ‘cafe crème’, which is a flat white. Oh I was in trouble. Cafe Creme  it is, ever so reluctantly.

Having a great cup of coffee is my simple little pleasure in life and I look forward to it every day. Now, whilst I’m a self-proclaimed caffeine junkie, I keep it in check during the week day where I would only have two coffees. It has to be to espresso based coffee. None of this instant or brewed coffee shite!

The weekends are another story. I would think nothing of having two coffees in one sitting. Or spending the afternoon cafe hopping down my beloved Carlisle Street, St Kilda East with my housemate and best pal Stan, who is surely the President of CAA (Caffeine Addicts Anonymous) where we would have a degustation of coffee starting with my cappuccino (possible strong, depending on which cafe we went to) and his double macchiato, followed by the same agian, then finishing with a short macchiato for me, and a espresso for him.

That’s all but a distant memory for me now. I often try and explain to people in Paris my quest for the Holy Grail that is the perfect coffee. It starts with the roast of the coffee bean. It has to be a strong and rich. It needs to be ground according to the season. Courser grain in winter, and finer grain in summer. In filling the basket with the ground coffee, it needs to be cleaned of any previous coffee granules. The barista needs to tamp the coffee into the basket (i.e. push the coffee in) with ideally 7 pounds of pressure, and the water should be filtered through the group set with approximately 9-10 atm of pressure. The barista needs to make sure that the pour of the coffee is stopped at just the point where the coffee has stopped producing the golden crema that is sitting on top of the velvety black gold underneath. The milk should be heated in the jug to a temperature where it is ever so slightly too hot to touch the bottom of the jug. The coffee machine spout heating the milk should’ve been fully submerged to ensure that it creating a perfect creamy texture. Poured into my coffee, the froth should not be airy, but creamy and dense. I don’t think I’m asking for too much, am I?

The French, whilst they make coffee drinking a profession, they do not respect coffee and the art and skill it requires to make a good coffee. I have stood at the bar, which like in Italy if you drink coffee standing at the bar of a cafe (some bars have stools though), it’s cheaper than sitting at a table, and I have watched a French barista. There is no cleaning of the basket after empting it of the previous coffee, there is no tamping of the coffee grains, the machines often look like it has never been turned off and properly de-scaled, it’s no wonder I’m drinking dishwater.

Not to mention how the French prefer their coffee served, which is super super hot, often burnt meaning bitter, which someone affectionately called “French Roast”, and if it’s with milk it’s just that, milky.

So what is a girl from Melbourne to do - where she comes from the city which serves the best coffee in Australia, and where a cafe has to be able to serve a killer coffee, if not, they’d quickly be out of business – note to Starbucks, that’s why you failed in Melbourne.

Perhaps inspired by my recent trip to the ancient holy lands and the stories of the Knights Templar, I launch my very own Crusade is search of the Holy Grail. My journey lands me one Friday evening about a month ago with a group of random Australians who I hadn’t met before. It was in this random gathering that I was predictably ranting about the terrible coffee situation and how bleak my search for the perfect coffee was seeming. It was then that one of the Australians announced that he was in the process of opening a new cafe where it was all about the coffee. Coutume Cafe it was called.

Like an oasis in the desert, was this real? Was this the place where I would find the Holy Grail? The legendary cup of beautiful delicious coffee, the only one of its kind in Paris.

Grand Opening - Coutume Cafe
I was eagerly awaiting the cafe’s grand opening which happened to be last Saturday evening. A kind invitation from Cafe owner Tom Clark, ensured that I was there enjoying the free coffee all night, and the wine and nibbles which were also on offer. Coutume Cafe which is in the 7th district, conveniently only up the line from my metro station, and is located in a hip part of town. Only a stone’s throw from Bon Marche, which is a beautiful designer department store. Upon entering the Cafe, the paint stripped bare walls gave me an immediate sense of Melbourne tres chic style. The minimal decor, together with interesting pieces such as the sinks that act as planters for the indoor flora, made me immediately realise that I was at home.

Tom and I

Straight up to the barista, Kevin from Iowa, I order a short macchiato. We discuss at length what kind of macchiato it is that I’m after, as the cafe is going to cater to the Frenchies as well and serve them super hot coffee. The short macchiato lands in front of me, it looks good, I take the short glass and hold it to my lips for my first sip. “Please let this be it” I’m thinking to myself, and it surely was!

Also serving a Japanese method of perculating coffee

I then spent the good part of an hour talking to Kevin about what my perfect cappuccino would be like, the idea of latte art – that fact that I had photos of latte art in my phone thanks to Stan’s daily pictures proved I was an addict, and that I would be spending my weekends there. This was all over another short macchiato and then my second only cappuccino in Paris – brilliant.

I also spoke to Antoine, the in-house roaster, at length. Antoine spent 5 years in Melbourne, “ah-ha, no wonder”, and whilst he was in Australia he won a roasting competition. Coutume Cafe blends its own coffee which incorporates Brazilian, Guatemalan and Ethiopian beans. The roast is such that it has an initial chocolaty taste and finishes with fruity flavour notes. It means that I only have to put minimal sugar to coffee. Oh and the sugar is another story. It is gorgeous single origin cane sugar from South America which has a wonderful molasses after taste.

I befriended Nicholas, the waiter, also. I figure I better get to know them all, as they will be seeing a hell of a lot of me. I’ve subsequently told anyone in search of a great coffee, and surprisingly there are many people out there, a great deal of them Australian too, to head to Coutume.

That’s where you’ll find me on a Saturday afternoon, reading the Financial Times weekend edition, sipping from the Holy Grail.
My second cappucino


  1. Find a good hot chocolate alternative and think of me Talz xxx eliza

  2. Cafe Coutume

    47 Rue De Babylone
    75007 Paris