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.
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.
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.
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^%&**((*^$$?”
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.
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.
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?
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!