Expresso vs Espresso: The French Love for Coffee

Originally posted on & updated on 5th June, 2024

Coffee culture in France is a tradition woven into most people’s social fabric and daily routines. From the paved streets of Paris to the quaint villages and offices around the country, the aroma of coffee is omnipresent.

The distinctive gentle scent of freshly brewed coffee is often considered appealing and can make a positive impression on potential property buyers. But as we explore the intricacies of French coffee history and culture, an interesting debate often emerges: when in France is it Expresso or Espresso? This twist on the term highlights the French passion for coffee and their unique take on this beloved beverage, which started with a gift from Royalty in the 18th century.

Instant Coffee Love

I was first introduced to coffee at the tender age of seven when I moved to France as a young expat. At my grandmother’s house on Rue Abbé Torné in the Pyrénées, one of the first and most important tasks of the day was to make morning coffee.

I remember the sound and the smell of the coffee beans being ground in the old and noisy post-war Moulinex grinder and the delightful aroma of freshly made coffee that filled the entire house. Sometimes, my grandmother would create her own “blend” using different beans from the market and occasionally a touch of chicory.

Although I was too young to drink coffee then, I was captivated by its enticing aroma, and I knew I would remember that unique smell forever. You could say it was love at first smell! That was my first experience with proper coffee, and it was the beginning of my appreciation for this complex beverage. So grab a cuppa, sit back, and read on to learn more about the fascinating world of French coffee.

A Tale of Two Nations

The term “espresso” originates from Italy, where the first espresso machine was invented. Angelo Moriondo of Turin, Italy, is credited with patenting the first steam-powered coffee machine in 1884. This invention was later refined and commercialised by Luigi Bezzera and Desiderio Pavoni in the early 20th century, giving birth to the espresso machine as we know it today. This machine used pressure to force hot water through the finely ground coffee, creating a concentrated shot of coffee known as espresso, using a strong blend of robustas for extra caffeine and crema.

The French also made significant contributions to the evolution of coffee-making. In 1822, a Frenchman named Louis Bernard Rabaut invented a steam-powered coffee machine that laid important groundwork for later innovations. Though not an espresso machine by today’s standards, Rabaut’s invention was crucial in making modern espresso.

Moreover, the French press, also known as a press pot or plunger pot, was patented by another Frenchman, Attilio Calimani, in 1929. This device became a popular method of brewing coffee, distinct from the espresso process but beloved for its ability to produce a full-bodied cup of coffee. The French press, also known as the cafetière brewing method, is still embraced by millions of filter coffee enthusiasts who find it convenient for daily use at home or in the office. It’s a quick method and easy to use, requiring just four minutes of brewing time and no paper filters. They are usually economical to buy and long-lasting, making cafetières an essential household accessory, including in second homes and high-end hotels.

The Coffee Plant and the King of France

In the early 18th century, coffee was a highly valued commodity in Europe, primarily imported from the Middle East and Africa. Louis XIV, the King of France, avidly supported botanical and scientific endeavours. In 1714, the mayor of Amsterdam gifted Louis XIV a young coffee plant from the city’s botanical garden. This plant was carefully cultivated in the King’s Royal Garden in Paris, known as the Jardin des Plantes.

Gabriel de Clieu and the Journey to Martinique

In 1720, French naval officer Gabriel de Clieu acquired a coffee plant cutting and transported it from Paris to Martinique. He faced challenges such as a perilous sea voyage and hostile pirates. Despite the difficulties, he diligently tended to the plant, sharing his water ration to ensure its survival.

Establishing Coffee in Martinique

Upon his arrival in Martinique, Gabriel de Clieu planted the coffee seedling. The plant thrived in the island’s fertile soil and favourable climate. By 1726, the coffee plants had produced their first harvest, and from this single plant, coffee cultivation spread rapidly across the island and to other parts of the Caribbean.

The success in Martinique did not go unnoticed. Coffee plants were soon transported to other French colonies in the Caribbean and South America. By the mid-18th century, coffee cultivation had reached Brazil, which later became the largest coffee producer in the world.

Impact on Global Coffee Culture

Louis XIV’s gift of a single coffee plant had a significant impact on global coffee production. The plants grown from de Clieu’s original cutting became the ancestors of many coffee trees in Central and South America. Today, the coffee industry in these regions is a major economic driver, with Brazil, Colombia, and other countries leading global coffee production.

The Creation of the Paris Stock Exchange

The story of the creation of the Paris Bourse highlights the important role that cafés have played in the development of commerce and trade throughout history. In the 18th century, French merchants and traders began meeting regularly at a café in Paris to discuss and trade shares in the French East India Company. This place, called the Café de Foy, is considered the precursor to the Paris Bourse. It was a hub of activity for the French merchants involved in the growing global trade network.

The Café de Foy was a significant institution in developing the modern stock exchange; it was the first place where company shares were traded regularly and organised in France and was the precursor to the Paris Bourse, established in the 19th century. Coffee is an important commodity traded in international and global markets, such as foreign currencies. The global coffee market is large and complex and is influenced by various factors, including supply and demand, weather, and political and economic conditions.

The French Coffee Experience

In France, coffee is more than just a drink—it’s a lifestyle. French cafés are iconic, serving as social hubs where people gather to relax, converse, and enjoy life at a leisurely pace. A classic French café is where time seems to stand still, inviting patrons to savour their coffee while soaking in the ambience and taking “le temps de vivre”.

Regarding the coffee itself, the French have a penchant for various preparations and blends. While the term “expresso” is often used interchangeably with “espresso” in France, it reflects a broader appreciation for both the traditional Italian espresso and the French adaptations of coffee-making. In French cafes, you might find an “expresso” served alongside other popular choices like café au lait, where espresso is mixed with steamed milk, or café noir, a simple but strong black coffee. I like mine with a tartine in the morning; I’ll share more about my Parisian morning routine later.

Parisian Cafés: A Cultural Institution

Paris cafés are special in French culture, embodying the quintessential Parisian lifestyle. These establishments are not just places to grab a quick coffee and a croissant; they are social institutions where people meet, converse, and watch the world go by. The café terraces, lined with stylish wicker chairs and small round tables, offer a perfect spot for people-watching and enjoying the Parisian atmosphere.

Popular culture has immortalised Parisian cafés in films and television series, making them recognisable worldwide. The television series “Emily in Paris” showcases the modern charm of Parisian café life, where the protagonist frequently enjoys her coffee while navigating life in the city. Similarly, the film “Amélie” brings to life the magical ambience of Montmartre’s cafés, highlighting their role as retreats where stories unfold and lives intersect.

The Iconic Zinc: Heart of the French Café

In French café culture, the term “zinc” refers to the counter or bar of a café, traditionally made of zinc or another metal. This term is derived from the French word for zinc, chosen for its durability and resistance to corrosion. The zinc counter is often the focal point of the establishment, where customers can order and enjoy their drinks and ‘croque-monsieurs’. It’s an integral part of the café experience, representing French cafés’ relaxed and convivial atmosphere. Whether you enjoy a leisurely coffee with friends or grab a quick espresso on the go, the zinc is central to the café experience in France.

French Coffee Slang: Kawa, Petit Noir and Noisette

There are various slang terms used to refer to this beloved beverage. One of the most popular terms is “kawa” or “caoua,” which is a casual word for coffee often used in cafés and homes. This word comes from the Arabic “qahwa,” which means coffee. Another slang term is “Java”, often used to refer to coffee in a casual and informal way, usually for filter coffee. “Java” is derived from the name of the Indonesian island of Java, which is one of the world’s largest and most important coffee-producing regions.

If you want to order a strong, concentrated shot of espresso, you might ask for “un p’tit noir” or “un café serré.” For those who prefer coffee without caffeine, “un déca” is the term. In more laid-back settings, coffee is sometimes called “un jus.” If you like a bit of cream or milk with your coffee, you could ask for “un crème” or “un noisette,” a delightful blend of espresso and a dash of cream, délicieux. “Un allongé” is similar to an Americano, offering a longer, milder coffee that is still espresso-based. Whether you’re in a bustling Parisian café or a village bistro, knowing these terms will help you easily navigate the local coffee scene.

Caffeine Boost Drives Serena Win in Paris

During the 2015 Paris Tennis Open, Serena Williams created a memorable moment by ordering an espresso mid-match. Feeling sluggish during her second-round match against Anna-Lena Friedsam, Williams took the unusual step of asking for a caffeine boost. She later explained:

“I told them just to give me a shot of espresso. I asked them if it was legal - ‘Is it illegal to have a shot of espresso?’ - because I had never done it before. I needed an espresso.”

This quick-thinking move showcased her determination and resourcefulness and added a unique anecdote to the history of Roland Garros. Williams went on to win the match, attributing her renewed energy partly to the mid-match espresso shot.

Specialty Coffee and French Roasters

In recent years, the speciality coffee movement has gained huge momentum in France, bringing a renewed focus on high-quality beans and artisanal roasting techniques. French coffee roasters are at the forefront of this revolution, sourcing premium beans from around the world and meticulously roasting them to highlight their unique flavours. Roasteries such as Belleville Brûlerie, Café Lomi, and Coutume Café have established themselves as leaders in the speciality coffee scene, offering a range of single-origin coffees and expertly crafted house blends.

These speciality coffees are often brewed using various methods, including pour-over and siphon, allowing coffee enthusiasts to explore each bean’s diverse and complex profiles while developing their brewing skills. The emphasis on quality and craftsmanship has elevated the French coffee experience, attracting a new generation of coffee lovers who appreciate the art and the science behind each golden cup.

Speciality Teas and Chais

While coffee reigns supreme, France also boasts a tradition of tea drinking. Speciality tea shops and salons de thé offer an extensive range of high-quality teas, from classic black and green teas to exotic blends and herbal infusions. Brands like Mariage Frères and Palais des Thés are renowned for their premium teas, sourced from the finest tea gardens worldwide. Some British classic teas, such as Twinnings’ Earl Grey and Darjeeling or Yorkshire tea, are popular in France, with nationals and expats alike.

Chai, a spiced tea blend originating from India, has also found a place in the hearts of French tea lovers. Cafés and tea houses often serve chai lattes, blending aromatic spices like cardamom, cinnamon, and ginger with steamed milk for a flavourful drink. The appreciation for traditional and modern tea offerings highlights the French love for sophisticated beverages.

Early Risers and the Work Routine

In villages across France, the local café, often centred around the zinc, serves as a crucial meeting point for early risers, farmers, and workers starting their day. Here, a typical morning might include a coffee and a slice of bread, accompanied by lively conversation and the latest gossip or racing tip. The ritual fuels their bodies and strengthens community bonds, providing a shared space where people can connect before heading off to their respective tasks. The village café is more than just a place to grab a drink; it’s a social hub where the day begins, and relationships have been nurtured for generations.

While working in Les Halles in the heart of Paris, my morning routine included tartine beurrée with a café crème at Le Pere Tranquille café, some days en terrasse, with a newspaper as we all did in the early 90’s. After work, we’d often stroll across the road to Le Bon Pêcheur, for a couple of drinks during apéro time before taking Le Métro home. Happy days … oh wait … that was also the name of a friendly café we used to attend for coffee, play football table (babyfoot), and pinball machines (flipper). Happy days, indeed.

Coffee and Alcohol in Perfect Harmony

Coffee and alcohol are two beverages often enjoyed together, and they can be combined in various delicious and unique ways. One of the most popular and well-known coffee and alcohol combinations is Irish coffee, a cocktail made with hot coffee, Irish whiskey, and sugar and topped with cream or Baileys, sometimes both. Another popular coffee and alcohol combination is the coffee martini, a cocktail made with espresso, vodka, and coffee liqueur. It is a smooth and sophisticated cocktail perfect for any French soirée.

In France, people enjoy several traditional coffee and alcohol combinations, impressing guests at home or experimenting at a local restaurant. For example, café calva is a popular drink made with hot coffee and Calvados, a strong apple brandy from the Normandy region. The café calva is a comforting drink usually enjoyed during the colder months.

Finally, another traditional French coffee and alcohol combination is espresso with Cognac or Armagnac, a type of brandy from the Gascony region in the southwest. Espresso with Cognac or Armagnac is a refined drink, perfect for any occasion, especially after a delicious meal.

Coffee and Real Estate: A Perfect Pairing

How the Smell of Coffee Can Help Sell Your Home

The aroma of coffee is often considered one of the most appealing smells, closely associated with comfort, relaxation, and enjoyment. Because of this, the smell of fresh coffee can be a powerful tool for property sellers and real estate agents looking to impress potential buyers.

When preparing for a property visit or open house, consider the factors influencing a buyer’s perception and decision-making process. Alongside the property’s visual appearance and layout, the space’s smell and ambience can also significantly shape a buyer’s impression.

Property sellers can easily and quickly create an inviting atmosphere that could appeal to potential buyers by brewing a pot of coffee and placing it in a visible location. The smell of fresh coffee not only helps mask any unpleasant lingering odours but also creates a sense of warmth and familiarity that buyers will likely appreciate.

Coffee Keeps Real Estate Agents on the Move

For estate agents, coffee is an essential part of the job and a beverage consumed in large quantities throughout the day, in the agency and on the move. From early morning property visits to late afternoon open houses and evening appraisals, estate agents are constantly on the go and rely on coffee to give them the energy and focus they need to succeed. Whether grabbing a quick espresso at a local cafe or brewing a fresh pot at the office, estate agents are never far from their favourite beverage.

In addition to its role as a source of energy, coffee is an important tool for estate agents to receive and impress customers. A coffee machine is an essential accessory in any estate agency and is often used to prepare fresh cups of coffee for visiting clients.

The smell and taste of coffee can create a warm atmosphere, helping to put clients at ease and make them feel welcome. For this reason, many property agents consider coffee an essential part of their job and are always happy to offer a cup of coffee to clients visiting their town and agency.

Coffee and Culture: A Unique Blend

The French love for coffee is intertwined with their cultural identity. They typically have long, milky coffees in the morning, often paired with breakfast and served in a bowl-shaped cup. From the morning ritual of a petit déjeuner (breakfast) with a café au lait and a butter croissant to the post-meal espresso that signals the end of a leisurely lunch, coffee punctuates the day meaningfully.

In essence, the debate between “expresso” and “espresso” is more than a mere linguistic play; it symbolises the cross-cultural history of coffee and the unique ways it is enjoyed. Whether you are sipping an expectedly pulled espresso, a freshly brewed French press, or a carefully crafted speciality blend, the experience is a testament to the enduring love and appreciation for this magical beverage.

So, forget Starbucks and take away coffee for a moment. The next time you find yourself in a French café, take a moment to appreciate the history of the zinc and culture encapsulated in your tasse. Whether you call it “expresso” or “espresso,” you’re perpetuating a tradition that celebrates the simple joy of a well-made coffee.

If you’re considering a move to come, live and work, and enjoy this fantastic country’s lifestyle, brew yourself a cup of your favourite brew (tea or coffee), get comfortable and discover our guide to buying property in France.

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