Paris, France

James C. — naturellement — has achieved something unusual: he has found good coffee in Paris. He traveled by train northward from his hideout in the rural Italian Alps to catch a flight to the US in Paris, and had a day to look around. He writes:

So yesterday morning I was walking through the 15th arrondissement when I spotted the Sanremo espresso machine through the window of this brasserie (Le Borromée…good name!). I was in like a shot, and I was right: good coffee! In Paris!

As if I needed anything more to get me excited about Paris. What is it about Paris that stirs my emotions in a way that London never could? Is it the quintessential European capital city? It certainly looks the part. It was the first city I ever saw with my own eyes outside the USA (15 years ago in June), and arriving at Gare de Lyon on Wednesday evening, just as the sun was setting and the lights of the city began to cast their magic spell, I felt the same frisson of joy as when I first glimpsed it.

An evening and a morning was enough—-it was like I had never left. I did what I imagine a Parisian does on his day off: coffee and pastries at a café, strolling and smelling through an outdoor market, watching (and, even better, listening to) people, wandering aimlessly and unhurriedly through street after street, square after square, garden after garden. I stopped into the church of St Vincent de Paul to see his relics, and inside there was a mass going on, which I attended with about 60 nuns in the pews.

Julie and I will be leaving for Paris two weeks from today. If you’re in Paris and want to come say hello, here are the times and places I will be speaking. Also, I will be in Tours giving a talk on the evening of Tuesday February 13. and then in Souvigny, in the Auvergne, at an annual meeting of French Catholic agrarians on February 17-18.

About French coffee, it is a mystery to me why it is not that great, especially when French bread and pastry is so divine. Similarly, it is a mystery why Italian coffee is so miraculous, but Italian pastries and breads are only okay. I’m not kidding when I say it is easier to find a good cup of coffee in the US today than it is to find one in Paris. When I first started visiting France, in the 1980s, this was not true. But we have had a coffee revolution here, and good coffee is now easy to find in most places (though you can certainly still get a truly bad cup of coffee here too — something I have never had in France).

When my family and I lived in Paris for a month in the autumn of 2012, we finally had to surrender to Starbucks. Yes, Starbucks. We aren’t crazy about Starbucks coffee (too burned-tasting), and certainly didn’t want to go to an American chain while in Paris, but it was the best we could find in our neighborhood.

I’ve said it before in this space, but it bears repeating: without question the two best things to happen to the American culinary scene in my life time have been the revolution in coffee, and the revolution in craft beer brewing. I’m old enough to remember going to the supermarket and having the only choice in beer (aside from mass-produced, watery American brands) being Heineken, St. Pauli Girl, and Beck’s. Sometimes you would find Moosehead or Molson, and every now and then the store might have Sam Adams. But that was it. It’s an entirely different world now, and at my local supermarket — not Whole Foods, but a Louisiana chain — there are shelves of delicious beers made right here in Louisiana, beers made by small, local breweries that taste much better than any of the mass-market brands.

That’s progress.