Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Missing Cafe au Lait

Back on April 16, 2011, when I was still very new at this blogging business, I did a post called "These Are a Few of My Favorite Things." One of the items in the picture I posted that day was a beautiful china cup and saucer, part of a set passed down to me from my mother-in-law...and the cup was filled with that nectar of the gods, the most essential beverage ever invented, my life's blood (practically): COFFEE.

Yes, coffee never has to worry about being bumped off my list of favorites. Its spot is secure.

After my alarm went off a little while ago, I went downstairs and began the day the way I always do: I brewed a six-cup pot of coffee, and then, trusty mug in hand, I came down here to my basement office and sat at my computer to blog (and decided that today I would blather on and on about coffee--a subject about which I have an overabundance of enthusiasm). I love the coffee I make at home, because it's a mild-tasting brew. I use Maxwell House Lite, which is actually 50% decaffeinated. (That means I can drink six cups of it every morning--but when I'm grilled at my yearly physical about my daily caffeine intake, I can say I only drink three cups!) Sometimes, I splurge and buy a can of Folger's Breakfast Blend and a can of Folger's Decaf and mix them up to create a homemade blend of lite coffee. But my old stand-by Maxwell House is always a good option. It's nice and mild and it is good to the last drop. The important thing is that my coffee isn't too strong; if I'm out and about and stop to get a road coffee, I'll always choose smooth and mild Dunkin' Donuts over strong and bitter Starbucks.

Having such a picky palate when it comes to my coffee, I found myself worrying about where I would get my daily fix when I accompanied my pilot husband on a four-day trip to Nice in early December. I've never been one to order a European-style coffee like a latte or an espresso, and I knew that my idea of coffee with cream and sugar was probably not the same as the French version called cafe au lait. So like a truly ugly American, the first opportunity I had to order coffee in Nice--at an outdoor Christmas market in the middle of the city--I choked at the last minute and ordered a "cafe Americain." What a mistake! That stuff was even worse than my attempts at a French accent--stronger and way nastier-tasting than any Starbucks coffee I'd ever had. I decided that the next time I ordered a coffee, I would order the French version. You know, when in Rome and all that.

The next morning after Mass, I decided I'd get a real cafe au lait, but I must admit that I got it at the MacDonald's not far from our hotel (I was still taking baby steps). I ordered a large, which in our country can sometimes mean vat-sized, but the to-go cup that was handed to me over the counter was about the size of a small one at Dunkin' Donuts. "Yikes," I thought, "I am not going to survive my stay in France." But as I walked along sipping that cafe au lait, I really began to enjoy the distinctly different flavor of it. I was drinking a cup of French coffee (albeit one purchased from an American fast food joint) and feeling like a true native. It was stronger than I was used to, but remarkably, I found myself really liking it. Suddenly, instead of wondering how I was going to survive those days in France without my usual coffee, I began to wonder how I was going to survive life back in the states without cafe au lait!

My husband and I took a train trip to Monaco later that same day, and when we stopped at a swanky cafe called the Cafe de Paris, which is right near the Monte Carlo Casino and across from the Hotel de Paris, I ordered cafe au lait without hesitation--no cafe Americain for me this time! That's it, my lovely--and very expensive!--cup of cafe au lait from the Cafe de Paris, in the picture above. Isn't that the most beautiful sight your eyes have ever seen? It was an absolutely delightful cup of sweet, frothy, creamy coffee, strong but delicious, with a little jug of hot milk on the side to add as needed. Perfection! (And worth almost every euro it cost.)

By the last morning of our stay in Nice, I was even drinking the espresso my husband made me from the machine in our hotel room. I'd made a 180-degree turn from the woman who thought she was going to have to go through caffeine withdrawal on that trip because she wasn't going to be able to consume her daily pot of Maxwell House Lite.

I sometimes find myself thinking back on that divine cup of cafe au lait from the Cafe de Paris with nostalgia. I even ordered a latte recently at Starbucks to see if it had a similar taste. It just wasn't the same. I guess I'll have to go back to France someday, if only for the cafe au lait.

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