18 March 2009

Coffee, part deux

So far, a drinkable shot of espresso in Paris has escaped my grasp (but stay tuned-- hope springs eternal). We will probably not be here long enough to warrant buying a real espresso machine, but Madame C had offered us the use of her Nespresso machine in Feb when we signed the lease, and sure enough, it was in the apartment when we arrived. 

It's not as shiny or heavy as Alex, but hey, beggars can't be choosers. Never having tried the stuff, I figured it was worth a shot (sorry, couldn't help myself).

For those not familiar, Nespresso is pod coffee, little plastic containers filled with coffee and covered with a foil cap that gets pierced when loaded into the appropriate machine. It's a lot like the pod coffee machines at your work or the car dealer, etc, but espresso style, instead of drip-style. 

According to the marketing hype (and there's plenty), you get all of the advantages of fresh-sealed, high-quality coffee, and you get the face of George Clooney, too, in very large and very stylish black-and-white photos promoting the product.  The technology and George get you a perfect cup of espresso, the website tells you, as evidenced by the fact that sugar poured onto the top of it takes some number of seconds to dissolve. That's kind of like saying you can tell the quality of a painting by how quickly water seeps through it if poured on the surface, but whatever-- everybody needs a yardstick.

Anyway, one can buy these magic pods online relatively cheaply, about $0.40 per pod. But since we live in Paris, there are several dedicated Nespresso stores in town, and I decided to visit the one nearest us. At $0.40 a pod, it'd be self-service, pretty easy and quick to negotiate.

The locations of the stores should have been a tip-off. Two are within walking distance of the Arc de Triomphe, and another in the ritzy 7th. 

The fact that the stores are in fact called boutiques, and there's a Nespresso magazine, should have been another tip-off. But I didn't get it. Until I went.

I went to the store, er, boutique on av Victor Hugo, which is a pleasant walk from our apartment. The shop next door is a boutique of Patrick Roger, a high priest of chocolates in a city renowned for its outstanding confectures and particularly well known for his whimsical store windows, full of chocolate sculpture.

Not to be outdone, the Nespresso boutique window has its own (pretentious?) window vibe going, and it carries inside, which is huge and full of chocolate, make that espresso, browns and very sleek styling. It's kind of hard to notice that right away, though, because the moment you step through the glass doors, two attractive young blond women attack dogs in blue suits demand whether you want capsules (and spoken in French, capsules sounds so much more boutiquey than pods ever could). Yes, please, and one of them touches a sleek free-standing plasma screen that prints out a number. On one of the interior dividing walls, there's another screen that shows which numbers are being cared for by which facilitators. Very very luxurious, the whole thing. I guess you've got to give Nespresso credit-- they figured out that people elbowing each other in the ribs to move forward in line, however Parisian even in the swank neighborhoods, would not mesh with their carefully forged image.

The wait for my facilitator, another attractive young blond woman without much warmth, was about 20 minutes. No telling what the people ahead of me were purchasing that it took so long. Nobody had to stand in line, though; there was a coffee bar in the rear of the space and lots of very fancy luxurious displays to admire while waiting. I'd done my research online, so I didn't need much facilitating. I figured that trying just 1 coffee wouldn't tell me enough to let me know whether, if it weren't magnificent, I should bother waiting another 20 minutes to try another type, so I bought 1 sleeve of 10 pods for each of 3 espressos: the ristretto, their strongest, the Roma, their 3rd strongest, and their decaf. All told, less than 10 euros. The 3 small sleeves went into a very nice shopping bag (which I promptly stuffed into my messenger bag, since I was out walking the rest of the day-- maybe that's why my facilitator wasn't showing any love). To support posh boutiques like that all over Paris, they must either have another source of income or be putting less than a percent that cost into the product itself.

The whole surreally luxurious buying experience, so out of keeping with coffee in a small plastic bucket, must really appeal to people here, because the shops are always busy, which must in turn mean that people are drinking the coffee. Having tasted all three of mine the first day, I can't honestly understand why. It tastes maybe marginally better than the coffee served by the professionals here, but it's still not really coffee. Perhaps I'd be more impressed if I'd timed some sugar dissolving.

Clearly, the coffee conundrum isn't solved. I still have one more option, but it's proving logistically challenging.

Coffee pods in my bag, I went out to get our daily bread, this time to a shop just off Place des Ternes, one of the many outposts of star boulanger Eric Kayser. I've tried several of his breads, and so far they're all good. Crispy crusts, moist, chewy, webby interiors with full flavor developed during long fermentation. This one is the baguette rustique.

The shop on av Ternes is right across from rue Poncelet, a market street where one of our candidate apartments was located. There are lots of great shops, and there are a few places one can buy grilled or boiled sausages like this one, and put it in the great bread you just bought for a quick and tasty lunch on the run.

It's best while getting your food frenzy groove on to keep your wits about you, though, because that sausage could very well come from here:

I'm not one to judge where the arbitrary line of OK and not-OK eating is (horse fat is rumored to make exquisite frites, BTW). Come to think of it, horse is probably pretty far down the list of potentially objectionable things you're likely to find in just about any sausage, including the hot dogs at your nearest ball park.

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