A Coffee Crisis: Paris vs. Berkeley

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in: Soapbox

L. John Harris

Why am I still searching for a perfect cup of coffee in a coffee-cluttered culture? You’d think that living in Berkeley, Calif., the epicenter of America’s revolution in coffee consciousness (Peet’s Coffee, 1966), I’d at least have my favorite cafes identified and the technology and beans for sublime home brew. Well, I do.

So what’s the problem? Well, I’ve been spending summers in Paris, and its less-than-revolutionary coffee has cast a spell on me. Returning home each autumn I find myself taking issue with Berkeley’s highly nuanced (somewhat fussy) and often muscular (overly-strong) extractions. I’ve fallen for Paris and its subtly seductive cafe culture enticements.

Still, I can’t help wondering if my crise de cafe is really about coffee, or rather something more complex and existentially fraught. I am reminded of Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1960 film, “L’Avventura,” which I saw recently for the first time in decades. In the film, the mostly young, jet-set characters arrive on a small island after sailing in the waters off Sicily. They eventually notice that one of their group, Anna, has gone missing. They commence a search, but all but one of the characters, Claudia, soon give up and resume their superficial lives. Only Claudia (marvelously anxious as played by the stunning Monica Vitti) remains distraught and continues the search for Anna. At the end, we realize (with the help of analysis from a noted film critic) that what Claudia is searching for is, symbolically, her own authentic self, not her friend.

In Berkeley, it’s as if I’m Claudia, plagued by a fruitless search for my “missing friend” (a happy self/a pleasant cup of coffee). Back in Paris, though, I become one of Claudia’s shallow compatriots reveling in the self-indulgent pleasures of cafe culture and the captivating “courtesan” of Paris coffee, the café crème (espresso with steamed milk).

My little existential, transcontinental, cinematic coffee crisis notwithstanding, I do think it’s true that in Paris the focus is more on the cafe’s culture than the actual beverage.

In Berkeley, au contraire, it’s all about the coffee, and it better knock your socks off. And whether you prefer the heavily branded and darkly-roasted (burnt, some would say) coffees served at mega chains like Peet’s and Starbucks, or the excellent single estate varietal coffees brewed in Berkeley’s more gastronomically hip cafes, it’s unacceptable to simply drink the stuff in Berkeley. You need to know everything about it: where it comes from, how it’s grown and traded, how it’s brewed, and what its taste characteristics are. At micro-roast meccas like Philz Coffee in North Berkeley, or Local 123 in West Berkeley’s newly-gentrified “Left Bank,” the filter drip coffee, which can exceed $3 a cup, seems to scream for attention, and not just from your wallet.

When I first read the prominently-posted “tasting notes” for the coffees being served at Local 123, my taste buds jumped for joy. My brain cells jumped for cover. Coffee, in Berkeley, is the new wine. Consider the posting for the Elida Estate coffee from Panama:

Varietal: catuai
Process: natural
Roaster: Verve Coffee Roasters
Strawberry jam; sweet, clean and juicy; lightly floral, round; beautiful balance

It was a fine cup, but TMI! Especially in the morning when the only information I want is the weather forecast, the closing Dow Jones average and perhaps the latest on striking London college students.

Meanwhile, back in Paris, I don’t know where the coffee comes from, how its made — “hand-crafted”? brewed by a robot? — or what the “notes” on the palate are. In fact I don’t think there are any notes. For all I know, Paris’ café crèmes and café au laits are made with mediocre, over-processed beans (from some surely unsustainable coffee-roasting conglomerate) such that any subtleties are lost, leaving only the taste and smell of … well, coffee. I know I should care more about my coffee varietals and fair-trade-ness, but I just don’t when I’m nursing a crème on the bank of the Seine with a view towards Notre Dame Cathedral.

American To-go Coffee Culture vs. European To-stay Cafe Culture

American To-go Coffee Culture vs. European To-stay Cafe Culture

The other dimension of my coffee crisis can be summed up simply as “to-go” (American coffee culture) versus “to-stay” (European cafe culture). In many of the Berkeley cafes that I frequent, most customers are drinking from to-go cups – usually with the lids on — even when they are going nowhere. At the original Peet’s on Vine Street recently, I noticed a woman reading her morning paper while sipping her coffee from a tiny plastic straw protruding from the slit in the cup’s lid. I stifled an urge right then and there to purchase a one-way ticket to Paris — to go and to stay forever.

For this lady, the smell of the coffee rising with its steam, the look of it in a traditional cup, glass or bowl, the taste and texture of the brew as it makes full contact with the oral cavity, and the warm feel of the cup cradled in the hands — these things are no longer part of her coffee experience. Might as well just inject the brew directly into the body with a syringe, or better yet, an IV drip, bypassing all together the sensorial (limbic) dimension of brewed Coffea arabica.

Coffee Drip system IV 4 cartoon by L John Harris

Not that to-stay cafe culture in Paris always evokes Proustian epiphanies. One of my cafe culture copains in Paris is David Jester, a young American working there as a translator. David has old-school gourmet sensibilities and bemoans Paris’ shrinking cafe standards in food, coffee, service and even wine. He calls his thirtysomething friends who have succumbed to the creeping Americanization of French coffee “one-armed zombies” because they walk the streets of Paris carrying to-go cups. But not withstanding the validity of David’s concerns, as we sat last summer at the iconic and still-thriving Left Bank cafe, Les Deux Maggots, where the coffee is secondary to its many non-culinary charms, I just could not find fault with my cafe crème or my baguette jambon.

And so it goes, back and forth between Paris and Berkeley, cafe culture vs. coffee culture. I suppose I could break the cycle by either abandoning coffee in Berkeley or moving to Paris full time. But the French have a lovely expression that synthesizes dialectical conundrums such as mine: Vive la difference!

 


Zester Daily contributor L. John Harris is a food writer, filmmaker, artist and the former owner of Aris Books, publishers of cookbooks in Berkeley, Calif. Harris’ most recent book is “Foodoodles: From the Museum of Culinary History,” a collection of his food cartoons and texts about America’s culinary revolution. (www.foodoodles.com)

Illustrations by L. John Harris.

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