Café au lait

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I’m not really wanting to give a recipe for café au lait. I just feel a great urge to talk about it. Yesterday while I was heating up milk to make yogurt, I noticed that that skin was developing on the top of the hot milk. I skim it off so the texture of the yogurt stays smooth. As I skim, I hear a voice saying “J’aime la peau”. This happens every time. And no, I’m not hearing voices. It’s a memory. The first time I went to France, I was 18, and had just graduated from high school. I stayed with a family in the suburbs of Lyon. When I say suburbs, I mean really old suburbs, like hundreds of years old. Hard, working class suburbs. The girl that was closest to my age was 16, and her name was Cathy (pronounced Kah-tee), short for Catherine.

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Me on the left, Cathy on the right, and one very cool car, in the courtyard.

I fell in love with France, and with that family. I was enchanted with every detail. One thing I found funny (at the time), was how they drank coffee. This is not news to most of you, but I’m going to talk about it anyway. After dinner, they would serve very very strong coffee (not espresso, just strong coffee made in a drip coffee maker) in teeny tiny cups, with sugar cubes. The kids liked to dunk the sugar cubes into the coffee and eat them like candy. I still remember exactly what it tasted like. Bitter, strong, and sweet.

In the morning, the coffee pot still had leftover cold coffee in it from the night before. This is the part that surprised me most. They didn’t make fresh coffee in the morning. That first morning, Cathy got out a pot and poured some milk into it. She heated it up to almost a boil. While the milk was heating up, she got out some bowls, and poured what was left in the coffee pot into the bottom of the bowls. Maybe about a quarter cup or so. All I could think was, “I want a LOT more coffee than that!”. She then got out a strainer thingie… looked like this one:

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For straining the milk. But I don’t strain it.

She asked me, “T’aimes la peau?” In English, do you like the skin? Meaning the skin that develops when you heat up milk. She was offering to strain the milk for me. And then she said, “Moi, j’aime la peau”. Me, I like the skin. I guess a lot of people don’t like the skin to go into their coffee. As you pour the milk, suddenly a big chunk of skin will plop down into it. It has texture to it. Kind of creamy and filmy, kind of chewy. Barely chewy. And the flavor, extra sweet. I had to try it. When you are drinking your coffee, the skin will surprise you. You won’t know when you’re going to get it. It’s unpredictable. (If this sounds yucky, keep in mind that I am a texture girl. I love oysters, mussels, eggplant…. all that gooey stuff. )

I loved that they served their café au lait in bowls. They would take the leftover baguette from the day before (there was always leftover baguette), cut it in half lengthwise, slather unsalted butter and jam on it, and dunk it in their coffee before eating. Nothing was wasted. And everything was delicious.

And for the record, J’aime la peau.

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3 Responses to Café au lait

  1. jurassicjane says:

    What a wonderful memoir, sister mine! Heartfelt with a perfect tinge of melancholy. “Bitter, strong, and sweet”. Love that. Love the photo of you, Cathy and the getaway car!
    I still drink my weekday morning coffee, before work, in a bowl 🙂 It’s a real comfort thing! xxx

    • angelamara says:

      Thanks Jane :). I didn’t know you drank your coffee out of a bowl! And yes, drinking coffee out of a bowl is somehow so comforting! Makes me think of “Heidi” drinking warm goat milk out of a bowl with her grandfather in the mountains. That image made a huge impression on me! And the good cheese and bread that all put the color back into her cheeks! Oh, and do you like my bowl? It’s my new favorite. I’m obsessed with it. Made in Stoke-on-Trent. Thought you might like that detail….

  2. jurassicjane says:

    Yes, I do like that detail 🙂 Love your English Coffee Bowl from The Potteries!

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