It seems that I am a little late to the table regarding my newest French food obsession: café gourmand. When I first noticed it offered on menus in France, I thought it was the Gallic take on fancy coffees like Irish coffee with Baileys or something highly sweet or flavored. I was not interested in such a thing, so ignored café gourmand. Quel dommage!
When dining with French friends last spring, they encouraged me to try a café gourmand. When they described it to me, I wanted to smack my forehead in regret. Quite simply, café gourmand is an after dinner coffee, accompanied by a few mini desserts. This was just too good to be true. Indeed, my tiny coffee cup was surrounded by five tiny pastries, each one a delightful bite. It was heavenly and satisfied my permanent sweet tooth without the commitment of an entire mousse au chocolat, which I could have happily devoured and regretted later.
Our family lived outside of Paris for three years at the turn of the last century. It was 1998 to 2001 but sounds so much more dramatic this way, n’est pas? Among the many, many cultural things we learned as Americans in a foreign country for the first time is that unlike home, the after-meal coffee could never, never accompany dessert. We received such looks of horror, disbelief, and disgust when we tried to order the two at once, that we got the message pretty quickly.
In the ensuing years, we return to France frequently and are comforted by the things that endear us to this beautiful country including, random railroad strikes, a mystifying inability to understand our accented attempt at their language, the perfect bread that exists only here, excellent wines that are affordable, and the most sublime roasted chicken on the planet. I have noticed recently, that portion sizes at restaurants have grown, though no one can really tell me why. This is not a good thing as before, we could enjoy a four course meal without groaning in regret. In the early days of our Francophile training, the starter might be one small piece of pate seated on a tiny bed of greens, followed by a few slices of perfectly cooked duck breast next to a bouquet of 10 green beans tied with a cord of celery and a golf ball of creamy potatoes. After that came the seemingly unnecessary, but highly anticipated plate of cheese, usually three small slices of whatever looked good to the chef at the market that day. All of this would be followed by a larger crème brulee (after all, what is really the best part of the day?) then a small coffee of several sips. We would enjoy a glass of wine or two with this meal and left the restaurant feeling satisfied but not overburdened.
Today, as the portions have become much more generous, I often skip the starter and dessert, or simply take a starter and salad or cheese. Dessert is rarely something I order as I simply cannot enjoy it after so much wonderful food. The glorious answer to the gaping lack in my restaurant experiences these days is the café gourmand. As the Spanish have their tapas, perhaps the French might consider a wine gourmand offering? It could feature a generous glass of wine along with some cheese and mini-meal elements, much like we have in the states when we say “heavy hors d’oeurves.” This would be followed by its sweet cousin, café gourmand and we would end up with an extremely abbreviated version of where I started almost 20 years ago. I must admit that I prefer the classic meal formula. It forces one to relax a bit and savor the food. Unfortunately, the French are increasingly becoming American as they alter their eating habits to keep up with family and work commitments. Quel dommage, indeed.