You’d think that the French would know how to make good coffee. L’espresso may be an Italian word, although that is contested. The French claim it too.
Certainly an Italian called Angelo Moriondo registered an Italian patent for a steam driven “instantaneous” coffee beverage making device in Turin in 1884. But hey, Italy is just next door and the French spend hours sitting in cafés drinking the stuff.
My recent experience in France makes me disinclined to believe that making good coffee is something the French know or care much about.
And even if they do, that knowledge has not spread to New Caledonia where I spent a week recently, a good deal of it in search of a decent brew.
In the breakfast room in our four star hotel there’s a push button machine for a selection of coffees, not the real thing, but we came to know this as very standard in supposedly sophisticated Noumea.
These machines are like a large version of Nespresso. They make an indifferent coffee but there is plenty of foam, but it is not a genuine créma, nor is it adequate in its strength, flavour or temperature.
However there is an offer of a free coffee from the pool side café for every guest every day on production of the relevant card. It’s either espresso or cappuccino and it’s served in paper cups.
Our first one is properly made and well up to Wellington standards.
Later at the Café Fare on the beach front I order a cappuccino. It arrives with whipped cream piled up, around and over the cup. Yes, there is coffee inside somewhere as I spoon off the cream and taste the already sweetened coffee.
This is not a ‘cappa’ as Kiwis would know it. The free coffee poolside was more recognisable that this white monster of calories and cholesterol.
On the subject of coffee, the pot we ordered with a room service meal is the usual thermos flask but the coffee is not much better than lukewarm. From a nation that pioneered classy food and worships haute cuisine, where can one get a hot, well-made coffee? So far not in Noumea.
In the soon to be revamped lobby bar of the Méridien Hotel after eating too much at the buffet I order l’espresso – le double, s’il vous plait. It arrives hot, strong, black and with a morsel of chocolate on the side. The coffee is bliss, properly made and flavoursome – finally some evidence that the French can make it properly in the provinces.
Finally a good and proper cappuccino is to be had, of all places, at the Coffee Club. Yes, that frightful food chain has an outlet in Noumea.
I have eschewed the Coffee Club even since I had a chicken Caesar salad in their Lower Hutt outlet several years ago, and was given uncooked croutons of stale bread. (The debate over what chicken is doing in a Caesar salad at all is a story of a culinary battle lost and will keep for another day.)
In Noumea the meal was good, cheapish, and reliable in that it delivered what it promised, and the Coffee Club had the singular virtue of being open, which at 6pm on a Sunday afternoon in Noumea is surprisingly important. We had decided to eat early because the bus service stops at 7pm and we have not seen a taxi in all our time here.
Eventually I figured out what was so wrong about the coffee making technique. Proper expresso machines, the kind every two bit café in Wellington and Auckland has as a standard item, are largely absent.
There are a variety of inferior alternatives: Nespresso machines, the various push the button jobs and even the old Cona drip models. In France it was the same. In London a good Wellington style coffee could be had at the Prêt à Manger, chain of food stores where I found that a ‘strong latté‘, (that’s the shop’s description) was closest to a good flat white Kiwi style.