Article submitted by Donald Blum
Come to New Orleans and youíll almost certainly find yourself in the Vieux Carre (French Quarter) visiting the cityís most famous coffee stand, the Café du Monde next to the historic French Market. The French Market has been a farmerís market on the banks of the Mississippi River since the 1700s. Since 1862, locals and visitors alike have stopped in for café au lait at this traditional coffee stand opened 24 hours a day, 364 days a year (they close on Christmas Day).
At that time, New Orleans was the largest city in the South because of its prime location along the river and the necessity to use it before railroads became the standard instrument of commerce. Farmers and consumers would buy fresh produce at the farmerís market and stop in for a strong cup of French roast coffee and chicory. Chicory is a locally grown root that is powdered and mixed into the coffee. It was used at the time less as a flavorizer than a cost-cutting measure to stretch the more expensive coffee beans.
Then, as today, coffee was an important part of a New Orleanianís day. Still the largest importer of green coffee beans into the United States today, New Orleans sees about a quarter of a million tons of coffee beans come into its port each year.
Chicory doesnít just add a new flavor to coffee. It also somehow intensifies it. In fact, it so intensifies it that New Orleanians who make coffee and chicory today know to use half or just a little more than half of the amount they would use for making a regular pot of pure coffee. But Café du Monde makes their café au lait as though it were regular coffee so the result is stronger than any non-espresso drink Iíve ever had. Because no one can drink it black (really, you canít), they cut it by pouring in an equal amount of whole milk heated to 170 degrees.
Café du Monde also uses the best coffee mugs Iíve ever seen. These so-called ďnavyĒ ceramic mugs are 3/8 inch thick, hold 10-ounces, and weigh well over a pound each. I canít imagine anything holding in heat better than these babies. One can order these and many other mugs and merchandise from their website at http://shop.cafedumonde.com/ .
| The defacto serving at Cafe du Monde: Beignets and a big mug of coffee. |
The café has an inside area that is climate controlled, and, during a cold spell, the outside is as well by draping down green plastic around the area and turning on heaters. When the weather is hot, the café is open-air with fans adding a much-needed breeze outside. But you can easily let your imagine wander sitting in the open air part of this old café in the French Quarter of New Orleans along the banks of the Mississippi River next to a 300-year old farmerís market listening to a traditional jazz trio (did I mention the musicians who often hang around?) having a hot café au lait and an order of beignets, three small, puffy powdered doughnuts. Locals know this is simply known as a coffee and an order. Everything costs $1.25 except for some new-fangled drinks like iced or frozen café au lait they recently added. New Orleanians see this addition to their menu as evidence of a declining civilization.
Take away the newer cars on Decatur Street and itís probably a lot like the New Orleans Louis Armstrong must have lived in around 1920. Take away the jazz music and one can imagine the farmers and coffee importers right next to it bringing in their wares to the old south and a still new nation on a lazy Saturday morning about 50 years earlier.
Donald Blum is a 41-year old native New Orleanian who just graduated from Loyola University New Orleans law school in December 2001. His wife, Grace, let him pick out his graduation present - a Rancilio Sylvia and a Solis Maestro grinder, and they are happily enjoying their first venture into real espresso. Other coffee equipment they use include a Fresh Roast + roaster, a Yama vac pot, a Bodum presspot, and a crappy whirlyblade grinder they still use for non-espresso.