It’s is an essential part of culinary culture in Southern Europe. But how does the enjoyment of coffee differ in Italy, France and Spain?
Coffee is a fundamental ingredient in the lifestyle of Southern Europeans. More than just a liquid pick-me-up to be consumed on the run, drinking coffee is for many residents of France, Italy or Spain a ritual that gives structure to their day. It provides an opportunity to meet with friends and workmates, catch up on the latest news, spend hours philosophising or just sit watching the world pass by.
Although there are many similarities in the traditions and customs surrounding the brew, there are some important differences. Here are a few distinguishing features of coffee culture in Southern European countries.
Italy, birthplace of the espresso
Italy can take credit for an innovation that revolutionised coffee drinking – the espresso machine, patented by Angelo Moriondo in 1884. As the name suggests, the apparatus enabled a great-tasting brew to be prepared quickly. Almost all varieties of coffee in Italy have an espresso as their base – order a caffè, and that’s what you’ll be served.
Most mornings, Italians tend to stop in at their local café or bar, where standing at the counter is a great way to mix with locals. You’ll also usually pay less than if you sit at a table. Watch out for one piece of etiquette when ordering coffee in Italy – most people only drink coffee with milk in the morning. So if you feel like a coffee after lunch or dinner, opt for an espresso rather than a milky cappuccino.
France: coffee and pastries
The day begins for many French with a café au lait, drip coffee served with lots of milk in a large bowl-like mug, accompanied by a slice of jam-topped baguette or a croissant (sometimes dunked in the coffee before biting). Like the Italians, the French also tend to enjoy their coffee without milk after midday.
Whenever and wherever you need a caffeine fix, you’ll seldom have to go far: there’s a café, a brasserie or a tabac (the most low-key option) on almost every corner. Standing at the bar sipping un café (an espresso) or a café crème (similar to a cappuccino) is usually cheaper, but there’s no better way to soak up the vibrance of a French city than watching the passing parade over coffee (and perhaps a sweet macaron or a decadent éclair) from a pavement café terrace.
Spain: it's never too late for coffee
Most Spaniards also start their day with a milky café con leche. And for many, that’s the only sustenance before they pop into their neighbourhood café or bakery mid-morning for a pastry or a bocadillo sandwich with ham and cheese – naturally accompanied by another coffee.
Befitting a country where the evening meal is famously enjoyed late, the afternoon snack, or merienda, is an important ritual, and a coffee is an ideal accompaniment to a delicious magdalena muffin or chocolate-filled Napolitana pastry. And no matter the hour, it’s never too late for coffee in Spain. It’s nearly midnight and you’ve just finished a lavish meal? No one will bat an eyelid if you order one last café solo espresso.
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