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I love France but mon dieu, the coffee sucks

A short and entertaining account of trying to find great coffee in Marseille and its surroundings

When you think of the south of France you might think of lush lavender fields, smelly cheese, crisp rosé, rich twats cruising the Côte d’Azur in 20 meter yachts and Bernie Ecclestone. Do you think of great coffee? Probably not.

When my friend Meg and I went to Marseille and surroundings for a long weekend recently we had a long list of things to do, see and taste. Coffee was somewhere on that list, although what kind of coffee I would find there was a bit of a shot in the dark. I had done some research, desperately trying to google “Marseille coffee roasters”, “Specialty coffee in Marseille, Montpellier or Aix-en-Provence” etc… in both English, French and even Catalan, but to no avail. Gosh, could it be true that the Provence simply didn’t know specialty coffee yet? It couldn’t be.

The gorgeous coastline outside Cassis

The gorgeous coastline outside Cassis

As a last resort I logged into my old couchsurfing.org account to post a cry for help on the Marseille page. Thankfully, my call was heard and a local couchsurfer called Florian who gave me a long list of tips for places to eat and drink. Somewhere in that list he mentioned a small coffee shop that roasted its own single origins and blends. BINGO! I simply couldn’t imagine that there wouldn’t be any specialty coffee roasters in the land of the nouvelle cuisine.

On the first morning of our short holiday we wandered down towards the vieux port to soak up some Marseillaise life. The fish market was packed with locals and tourists and Marseille was shining with funky architecture that was especially erected to celebrate it being European capital of culture 2013. The city had a real electric buzz going on. It was great! As we approached 11am, I said to Meg: “Can we go find one of this little caffe that I was told about? Kinda gagging for a good coffee right now.” – “Nah, we’ll find it on the way back. Gotta check out other stuff first,” she said. Umph.

My coffee at A Gout du Monde

My coffee at A Gout du Monde

For the next few hours we meandered around Panier, checked out the new docklands, headed up to Cours Julien and had a long lazy lunch in the sun before my wish was finally granted. As we navigated the steep streets on the south of the vieux port I started getting excited about the prospect of drinking an expertly brewed cup of coffee. “It’s number 46, it must be over there,” I explained to Meg while stretching my neck to try and spot Cafes Debout, that infamous local coffee roaster that has more than 20 single origin coffees. When I stood before the shuttered door I almost cried. Bloody public holidays are really taken quite seriously in this country. Around the corner I spotted the Green Bear Coffee, which was also closed. Unbelievable.

Smelling my Carribean coffee at Debout

Smelling my Carribean coffee at Debout

Right, I wasn’t going to give up so easily. The next morning I stormed out of the apartment, luckily in more glorious sunshine than the day before, to get that coffee in before our check out time at 11am. I almost somersaulted into Cafes Debout when I saw the chairs on the pavement and the door being wide open. And there they were, coffee beans from all around the world. The smell was great, just what I had been missing. The lovely shopkeeper approached me in French to ask what I wanted and this is where the conversation went, well a bit pear shaped. I asked her: “Oh, madame, where do you roast these coffees?” “No English monsieur,” came the answer. Oh, damn. “Je voudrai un cafe silvouplais” “Oui, £$%^ D£@£!@@£%%&&* ([6705^%&**((*^$$?”

Coffee beans from all over the world

Coffee beans from all over the world

Fuck, I really should have polished up my French before coming here. Eventually she gave me a menu that listed all the different single origins and blends. Haiti? Hm that sounds interesting. I vehemently gesticulated at the coffee, which was being kept in a container next to a number of other coffees. The lady smiled and handed me one bean. I was a bit confused. 1 bean doesn’t make a cup of coffee lady!

Then she made a chewing motion and indicated I put it in my mouth. Okeeeeey. I followed her invitation to chew on the coffee bean, which was dry and bitter. No, this is not how I want my coffee. Eventually I made her understand I would go for the Colombian single origin instead and that I would like it made with several beans please. Thanks.

The menu at A Gout du Monde

The menu at A Gout du Monde

Forget about asking for a Flat White. Well, I guess I’ll just see what happens, I thought to myself as Meg and I took a seat outside to wait for our coffee and tea, respectively. When the coffee came it was what it was: A cup of coffee. Not a bad one really but nothing to write home about on a postcard either. Afterwards I went inside and decided to take some coffee home with me. I chose 250g of a Carribean coffee, which the lady said was “tre bon”. We shall see.

The coffee shop in Arles

The coffee shop in Arles

Later that day Meg and I stopped for a quick wonder in gorgeous Arles. This roman city with its dominant colloseum was so relaxed and pleasant to walk around in, no wonder Van Gogh spent quite a bit of time here after cutting his own ear off. At the tourist information I asked if there was any local coffee roasters. There was! One. Unbeweavable. After wandering through the sunny historic center we found a little coffee shop that looked just as old school as the one in Marseille. After peeping inside, I had the strange suspicion that it was some sort of franchise. It literally looked the same. The shopkeeper at Cafes de la Major looked up from his newspaper as we walked in and wished us a “Bon jour”. “Oh bon jour monsieur, I was wondering, is this shop related to Debout in Marseille?” “CERTAINLY NOT!”


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Oh, well that’s funny because it looks exactly the same. I was just asking. No need to get angry. Meg and I slowly walked out backwards with our hands held high to signal our resignation. No coffee to be drunk here.

On our last day in France, I dragged Meg to the last place that I had on my list, which was located in Aix-en-Provence. Au Gout du monde was meant to be owned by travellers who loved meeting other travellers. This had to be a good place to get great coffee. When we walked in on that Sunday noon, we were the only people there.

The lady behind the counter at first refused to speak in English (although later it turned out that her English was actually not bad) and I ended up going for the biological Mexican coffee that was featured on the menu. The selection of coffees seemed decent, what I didn’t see was a decent Espresso machine or any other form of making a good slow coffee. Only a small office style coffee machine. Surely they wouldn’t, or would they?

ThecoffeevineFrance4

After placing our order the lady disappeared into the kitchen and we heard her turning on a gas stove, presumably for Meg’s Chai tea (which ended up costing twice as much as my coffee). When the coffee came it was really weak and lacked a lot of flavour. My guess was that it was not freshly ground and probably not fresh either. Goddammit!

Well, looking back I can’t really complain. We had a fantastic trip to one of Europe’s most beautiful regions and I definitely put on a few extra kilos but if you’re looking for great coffee, your best bet might even be the S word. I didn’t say it!

What our reader said

Uts said:

I have not found any good coffee like I found in Hong Kong. I'm looking for nutty coffee, less acidic with soft and thick foam, locally roast so that it's fresher. Haven't got any luck so far. I tried Mana, I think that's the best so far in Aix even though the flavor is not what I'm looking for. I'm so desperate. If you guys happen to be in HKG, I recommend to try N1 Coffee, Knockbox, The Cupping Room, and 18 Grams.

admin said:

Dear Katherine, indeed things will have changed there. This article was published well over three years ago! We'd love to hear what you find in the south of France. Best, The Coffeevine

katherine conaway said:

Went to Coogee today in Marseille & it was quite good :) I had just ranted to my dad and sister on the phone last night about the struggle of finding good coffee in France & she sent me this article today haha... I knew I wasn't the only one! Will check out Mana Espresso in Aix this week. Anyone have tips for good Bordeaux coffee places?

Timor said:

Yes, hélas, you would expect a little more from a country that gets praised so much for its cuisine. Though there is a great coffee in Aix-en-Provence: "Mana Espresso". Unsurprisingly, the owners there are not originally French. And unfortunately "Cafeism" has been closed and replaced with a... regular coffee.

Matel said:

france has terrible coffee. period sans a few purple unicorns in paris. nespresso does not really count as "coffee." Nor does the instant cafe of freeze dried nastiness. even the us has pretty decent cafe except for that charbucks corporate feces. france---PLEASE learn about coffee because there IS a clientele that would drink. Merci.

Tess Flynn said:

In Arles for a few days so I googled good coffee Arles in the hope of finding a good coffee. Enjoyed your blog. Tried a place called Coffee and Me that came in the search and it was really bad. Bitter, over roasted beans with uht milk. There are lots of places in Paris that serve great coffee these days particulalry in the 3rd, 4th and 10th arrondisments but neve found anywhere really good in rural France though we did have a good coffee in St Malo. We're here after 3 weeks in Crete where we had some fantastic coffee. A few places have been opened in Heraklion and Chania by people who really understand coffee.

Simon said:

I second 'Cafeism' in Aix.. Go there for a good Kiwi style flat white!!!

admin said:

Dear Louise yes France is really picking up speed. We haven't been to Montpellier in a few years so we wouldn't know what it's like today. But we're glad that you have come across a few nice places. Coutume is one of our long time favourites!

Louise Day said:

I am Australian and have had the same struggle in France trying to find great coffee. Last year stumble across a fantastic coffee shop in Paris called Coutume and wrote a review because the coffee was by far the best we'd had in Europe and the cafe was funky and had great music playing something coffee shops in Europe lack. This year we have discovered another fantastic coffee shop in Montpellier called Coffee Club. OMG they knew what a latte was and it was awesome. 12 rue Saint Guilhem.

admin said:

Next time I'm back I'll check them out! Thank you :)

Stuart said:

Just in case you ever come back, coffee has arrived in Provence. Marseille - Coogee https://www.facebook.com/coogee.co/ Aix - Cafeism https://www.facebook.com/coffeetogo.as/?fref=ts It's a start

CoffeeAddict said:

Great blog! Just discovered it yesterday while searching for coffee places in London and Amsterdam. I'm French, and live in the South and there's no coffee culture in France, that's obvious! I came back from Melbourne, where I have spent 1 year (and worked in a café) and dicovered the coffee culture there which was simply awesome. I wish we had the same vibe in France...I've heard some places have opened in Paris, but still for a capital I don't think that's enough. It's also something realted to people mind...French are not really into those kind of places, unfortunately. That's why I decided to move to London or Amsterdam where I read and found so many independent cafés opened...that will remind me of Melbourne's vibe. My foreign friends don't believe me when I tell them coffee "sucks" in France!! I will show them up that article! Great job and I can't agree more than that! Cheers!

thecoffeevine said:

Hi Lea great to hear from you! Indeed I didn't get very lucky while sampling coffees in France. I heard Paris has some amazing places to get coffee though. Would be great to go back there soon and find out. All the best, Alex

Léa said:

haha I came accross your post about coffees after making searches on google about coffee machines and accessories, and also where to buy stuff in my own town which is...Aix-en-Provence. The thing is I just got back from Australia-NZ-South-East Asia where I learnt how to like coffee and where I found the best coffees ever. Indeed, since my trip to Vietnam, I just melt while waiting for each new cup of it. But since I am back home and get the chance to experience the ones over here, I have been terribly disappointed. Where is my scrumptious cappuccino...?! Damn, I am sorry to hear that you had the same feeling about the French barista skills! Anyway, I had a really good time laughing at your words, thanks! :)

Francesco said:

dear coffeevine, i dare you, late summer (september), Stijn (CC Treublaan) and myself will take our bike and ride to paris, in 2/3/4 days. come with us, and I show you some good coffee in Paris! <3 love!


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