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A Taste of Culture – Italian vs French Coffee

25 December 2019
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It’s caffè in Italian and café in French, but the difference between Italian and French coffee ⁠goes beyond that. Coffee is a big part of both cultures, and if you’re travelling to these regions to try their coffee, it’s best to equip yourself with some basic knowledge.

Coffee in Italy and France

a cup of black coffee served with almond biscotti on the side
The Italians pretty much invented espresso, or caffè. Pair it with a classic biscotti, or Italian almond biscuits. Photo from Jonathan Pielmayer

Let’s start with caffè. The Italians pretty much invented espresso, or caffè — their quick-to-make, good-to-wake coffee. Espresso is the Italian standard, go-to coffee, much like the Australian flat white and the Indonesian kopi tubruk. If you ask for un caffè, you are getting a small, but strong shot of coffee.

Here are a few other classic Italian coffees: A macchiato is an espresso with a dash of steamed milk. An americano is an espresso with added hot water. A cappuccino is an espresso topped with warm, frothy milk. The Italians only enjoy milk in their coffee in the morning — not in the afternoon and never after a meal. Which means, nothing screams “I’m a tourist” like a cappuccino after 11 AM.

One very important rule to ordering your first Italian coffee is to never ask for a large, double-shot skinny vanilla latte with whipped cream. The Italians shudder at the idea of sullying their precious coffee with flavoured syrups and other additives.

Tip: Ask for a ‘latte’ and you will receive a glass of milk, which is exactly what you ordered! The word latte actually means milk in Italian. A caffè latte, on the other hand, is espresso with hot milk and usually served in a glass, no foam.

the outdoor seating of a cafe in Italy
Drinking coffee in France is a whole experience. It’s never just about the coffee, but where and how you enjoy it. Photo from Bram Naus

In most parts of the world, early risers sport takeaway cups of hot lattes or flat white as they go about their morning commute. But, the French don’t quite do coffee that way.

It’s not just the coffee that has earned France the credit for its café noir, it’s the French coffee culture. Drinking coffee in France is not just about the quality of the coffee beans or the taste of your espresso, but also about how you’re experiencing your morning caffeine as you read a newspaper, catch up with a friend, or simply watch the day go by.

In French, coffee is café. Un café is a shot of espresso. A café allongé is an espresso diluted with hot water, much like an americano. A noisette is a shot of espresso with a dash of hot milk. A café crème is espresso topped off with foamed milk, similar to a cappuccino. A café au lait is filtered coffee with milk, almost exclusively served at a French home with the classic French breakfast; tartine with jam or butter.

The Coffee Culture in Italy and France

a landscape view of a cafe
The notion of “takeaway” is noticeably absent from the Italian coffee culture. Photo from Igor Starkov

Takeaway coffee is popular throughout Europe, but not in Italy. The Italians don’t take their coffee to go. They would much rather stay put and enjoy their coffee right then and there at the counter. Coffee in Italy is served at the right temperature for immediate drinking. After all, espresso tastes the best right after it’s pulled from the espresso machine.

Need a reusable cup to retain the heat of your coffee? Here are some things to consider before buying one.

When in Italy, drink as the Italians do: stop by the local coffee shop first thing in the morning. You order at the counter, down it, and be on your way. The Italians don’t lounge around in coffee shops as they sip their espresso. They perch at the marble-topped counters of the local bar and typically finish their espresso while standing.

In Italy, a coffee break is known as “una pausa” which loosely translates to a pause. It’s literally what it is — taking a pause from the daily rush to enjoy your caffeine. A coffee break in Italy is taking a few bites of local pastries together with your shot of espresso before heading off to your next destination.

A classic Italian coffee shop will typically have counters, but very limited seats because the Italians are not accustomed to hanging around in cafés for hours.

a cafe with high-ceiling
It’s not uncommon for the French to while away a whole afternoon at cafés, as they leisurely enjoy their coffee. Photo from Quang Nguyen Vinh

In stark contrast, the French may while away a whole afternoon in cafés. The French do not power-walk as they chug their to-go coffee cups. They do not down their coffees and be on their way. Instead, they sit, sip, and enjoy the coffee. In French, people-watching is a national sport (or so people say).

The French cafés are built for the comfort of their customers. Order your coffee from a bar and chat away while watching passers-by (which is why terrasse chairs are facing out, especially for cafe-sipping loiterers). Or, choose to get seated at a table and sit for a couple of hours as the day goes by.

Note: If it seems that the waiters have not delivered your bill after 15 minutes, it’s not that they’ve forgotten about you. They’re just letting you relax.

What’s important to the French, more than the coffee they drink, is the pâtisserie that goes with it. The French coffee culture is all about the experience — the pleasure of taking a moment out of your busy day, with a cup of coffee and delicious French pastry in hand.

There’s nothing better than being treated like royalty at these exquisite high teas across the world.

French Roast versus Italian Roast

coffee beans being roasted in a coffee roasting machine
French and Italian roasts are some of the darkest roasts on the market. Photo from Juan Pablo Serrano Arenas

If you like your coffee rich with a full-bodied flavour, French and Italian roasts will sound familiar to you. Contrary to popular belief, French and Italian roasts do not originate from France and Italy. Rather, the roasts refer to the style of coffee bean roasting.

Read more about the types of coffee bean roasting here.

Both French and Italian roasts take the coffee beans to the edge of charring. They are among some of the darkest roasts commonly available on the coffee market.

In French roast, the coffee beans are roasted at high temperatures until the second crack. The coffee beans have turned dark brown, and the oils in the coffee are visible on the surface of the beans. While French roast goes beyond the traditional dark coffee, it is not the darkest. French roast yields a cup of coffee that is not too bitter and does not taste overdone.

Italian roast, on the other hand, undergoes a longer roasting duration than French roast, which brings out a more bitter and burnt flavour. Italian roast is characterised by their smoky char, deep robust flavour, and lighter caffeine content. Fun fact: Incidentally, Italian roast is often preferred by the Italians.

What is the difference between French and Italian roast? The answer is simple — very little difference, if any, at all.

A infographic comparing the differences between French and Italian Roasts.
A comparison between French and Italian Roasts.

Now that you’re familiar with the coffee from these two countries, how about we take you to other parts of the world? Check out these coffee beans from Colombia, Kilimanjaro, Ethiopia, and more.