France vs Melbourne

Having returned from my recent jaunt to France, I’ve realised that there are some things that the French do very well…and some things that the French could learn from us. I’m quietly confident that they’re not listening to me, but here is my list anyway.

Things the French do better than us.


Now admittedly as you approach, drive through, or leave a town you will be met with a bewildering number of speed limit changes (they even put 30km/h signs in front of speed humps), but once you are out on the highway it’s 130km/h (or 110km/h if it’s raining). 130km/h! That really makes a difference on long journeys. Plus they don’t sit in the fast lane and hold other people up…no, they just sit in the lane that they’re comfortable with, and if they have to pass someone, they do and then move back into their lane.
Plus they pretty much all drive manual transmission, which means they actually have to pay attention when they’re driving. Chapeau France!


I had always thought of myself as relatively knowledgeable about cheese. I wasn’t scared of blue cheese, I’d cooked with Taleggio, I’d tried Rocquefort. But arriving in France made me realise just how much I didn’t know. Over here, Chevre is pretty much a one trick-pony (or goat as the case may be), but over there, there are dozens of types of Chevre. Not to mention sheep’s milk cheeses, local specialities like Neufchatel and a dazzling abundance of all of the cheeses you already knew. Best of all, everything I tried was delicious.

Cheese peddlers
Cheese peddlers

Drivers vs Cyclists

The French appear to have taken an unusual approach whereby the cyclists aren’t jerks, and the drivers aren’t arseholes…and in a complete surprise, the ‘Drivers vs cyclists’ problem is non-existent. The two groups just co-exist. All it really takes is people being willing to forego 10% of what they want in order to accommodate someone else…but unfortunately with our new found national sense of entitlement, any time we don’t get 100% of what we want is seen as a calamitous loss. So I can’t see this happening here any time soon.

Freewheeling through a town in the Alps
Freewheeling through a town in the Alps

Mountains and chateaus

One of the downsides to having a nomadic population up until about 1788, is that we didn’t have thousands of years of people constructing buildings to basically say to anyone who was looking ‘You want to know how I rich I am? I’m this rich…and I’m so French that I built this one for my mistress!’

Chateau Chenonceau

Also, as a photographer, you’re always struggling to frame a nice shot that has a good material in the foreground and background. But in France, if you’re in the Alps, then you only have to worry about getting the foreground right…as having those mountains in the background makes every shot a winner!

Just place flowers in the foreground...and voila!
Just place flowers in the foreground…and voila!

Things we do better in Melbourne


On our last day in France, as Katie and I sat drinking a cup of black, plunger coffee I said ‘You know, this really isn’t that bad’. But I now see that it was that bad…it’s just that over the course of two weeks my standards had fallen so substantially, that what previously would have been considered a ‘coffee flavoured hot beverage’ at best, was somehow being passed off as coffee.
Now I know that you seem to put 98% of your milk into cheese and butter, and so need subsist on long life milk…but come on France, even your espresso was crap! Stop using crappy little machines and get something that can actually extract a decent shot. Don’t leave the group head in the machine after you’ve made a coffee until the next customer arrives, and get the grind right so that it doesn’t just look like a cup of warm coke.
With that said La Pommetier and Le Petite Atelier, you will always have a warm place in my heart for the coffees you provided.

Coffee shot
Nectar of the Gods…not shot in France


Ok, so I am already on record in this blog as saying that I love your range of cheese. But cheese should be enjoyed in refined moderation. It should be like that person at a dinner party who knows how to drink just enough so that they’re interesting and entertaining…but not so much that they become a bore. France, you are currently like someone at a 21st birthday party, drinking wine from a funnel! For the love of God, show some restraint!
Every time I didn’t know what a menu item was, it was invariably cheese. I had a pizza that looked like it had been on fire and so someone had tried to put it out by smothering it in cheese. Another time, my entree turned out to be a pot full of cheese, with occasional bits of ham and some bread to dip in there. If you’re going to serve fondu, at least have the decency to admit that it’s fondu!


For the first week of my stay in France I was riding at least 80kms per day, up some of the steepest hills I’ve ever seen, and in 40+ degree temperatures. The breakfasts provided were, a selection of pastries (3 days) and a croissant, tub of yoghurt & container of stewed apple (4 days). Now this is OK as a breakfast, provided it is either Mother’s Day in 1994 or you’re a 3 month old. But not if you’re an adult who is hoping to get something done that day.

Delicious...but not a breakfast.
Delicious…but not a breakfast.


So there you have it. France has more things to recommend it…but Melbourne has better coffee. So let’s call it a draw.


There are some addictions that I won’t admit to publicly, and there are some that I won’t even admit to myself…but I wear my coffee addiction like a badge of honour. I love it. I make myself a coffee everyday before I ride to work, and yet every time I pass someone drinking a coffee on the way to work, I think ‘Man, a coffee would be so good right now!’, despite having had one no more than 10 minutes ago.
What’s more, I have added insult to injury by becoming a ‘coffee snob’. I’ve walked out of cafes when I saw they way they were making other people’s coffees…I’ve walked right past cafe’s because a cursory glance at the coffees being drunk by people at the tables outside didn’t look like they would make the grade…I have even asked the person making my coffee in small town in the Mallee if they would mind if I came behind the counter and made the coffee myself!
This is not socially acceptable behaviour! I would never walk into a Thai restaurant, order my Pad Thai and then stroll into the kitchen telling the chef “I’d use a bit more fish sauce. Actually, step back from the wok…I’ll take it from here.” But such is the power of coffee that I will transgress social norms just to ensure that I get a good coffee.

Now the purpose of this blog is not to tell you what makes a perfect coffee, or where to go for the best coffee (although I will be dropping some pretty blatant hints about both of these) because, like many of the finer things in life, a ‘good coffee’ is a very subjective thing. Some people like it weak, some people like it strong, some people like it scalding hot and some people like soy milk. So instead of telling you the coffee you should like, I’m going to tell you some of the things I’ve learned over my 20 year coffee drinking career.

How to find a good coffee
OK, look around. Are you in Melbourne? If ‘yes’, then you should be fine. Just walk into any non-franchise coffee emporium and order your coffee with confidence. If ‘no’, then I’m afraid you have your work cut out for you, but here are some key pointers:
– If they are offering ‘Mugachinos’, run
– If they start heating the milk, and then walk away to serve another customer, you are doomed
– Don’t get too picky with your order. Yes you may like a 3/4 latte with 1/2 a sugar, but order that and at best you are going to get some horrific fraction based version of a coffee (I’m talking to you Geelong!)…or at worst you are going to get a withering sigh from an elderly woman who really doesn’t have time for this crap (hello Numurkah), or the distinct impression everyone else in the shop now wants to kill you (hello Rainbow/Orbost/Waragul).

All you need is love
A passionate barista who doesn’t have the best materials, but is determined to make you a great coffee, is going to do a hell of a lot better job than someone with the best equipment who just doesn’t give a damn.
Fortunately, there are plenty of places with great coffee, great people and great equipment. If you are ever in Melbourne, then you need to go to:
65 Degrees
The League of Honest Coffee
Manchester Press
Because these people love their coffee, and the lines of people waiting to order show that people love their coffee too!

Get a coffee machine
Some people frivolously wasted their baby bonus on plasma TV’s, and those people are clearly not fit to be parents. We on the other hand purchased a coffee machine and grinder. Now before those of you without young children get all angry and say that we were being selfish, think about this- by purchasing the machine and therefore having our coffees at home, we were no longer cluttering up your local cafe with prams and screaming children, leaving you to read the newspaper/pretentiously work on your laptop/nurse a hangover in peace…so we were basically providing a community service!
We got a Rancilio Silvia machine and a Rocky Grinder for about $1,100. For over four years they have made at least two coffees everyday and have not missed a beat.
Also, the cred attached to saying ‘No I don’t need the beans ground…I have my own grinder at home’, is pretty much the same as introducing yourself as a Formula 1 driver.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times
I have had some truly memorable coffees; a coffee with lots of cardamon in Sharjah, my first ever espresso coffee at a little cafe in Kew that was the only place that would let my friends smoke in there before school, and any coffee that provided respite during a freezing cold bike ride. But if I know my audience, you don’t want to hear about the good times…you want to hear about those moments that make you glad that you are you…and I am me.
So let us cast our minds back 4 years to our family holiday to WA. We had a toddler and a baby in the car and we were driving from Margaret River to Pemberton (about 4 hour drive). We had decided not to get a coffee in Margaret River, and instead find somewhere along the way so we could break up the trip. In Victoria, as you travel through the countryside you can usually find somewhere that offers a serviceable coffee, but after 2 hours of driving (and the dull thud of caffeine withdrawal starting to emminate from the back of my skull) we finally made the executive decision to go to a McCafe. The logic was that it wouldn’t be a 10/10 coffee…but it would be a dependable 7/10 and that was all we needed. So I parked the car and went in and ordered two lattes. The girl behind the counter went to grab the percolated coffee. I said ‘No, no…I’d like them from the machine’. After a lot of huffing, the girl went over and put the steam wand into the milk to warm it up…then went of to serve someone else. By the time she returned the jug was glowing red hot…and I think I was weeping a little. She then made the espresso and walked away again (clearly the burnt milk would balance out the lukewarm espresso). She then came back and filled the cups to the absolute brim with scalding hot coffee, and I walked back to the car doing that thing where the cup is so hot that you have to rotate which fingers are doing most of the holding for fear of burning them. When I got back to the car I discovered that our baby needed a nappy change and was screaming about the fact that this was happening…at the same time our toddler was trying to drown out the cries of our baby by screaming louder…causing the baby to cry even louder. In a state of zen like calm that can only be achieved by a true addict, I was in the process of removing the lids from the coffees and adding the sugar. The first coffee was fine and I had put it in the cup holder for my wife, and having added the sugar to my coffee I was replacing the lid when I somehow pushed down to hard and tipped the contents of the cup all over my lap.
I’m not 100% sure what happened next, but I do remember both children suddenly going quiet…and my wife hurriedly saying ‘You can have my one!’
Within about 30 seconds the coffee in my lap had gone from scalding hot to tepid and clammy…and thus began one of the least comfortable drives of my life.

But for all that I still come back to coffee as the perfect start to my day, the best way to reward myself and my happiest vice. But anything that gives so much and takes so little must have some sort of horrible secret, and when in 20 years time people look back at the way we drank coffee with much the same horror as we look at the smoking in Mad Men and say ‘But didn’t they realise how much damage they were doing to themselves?!’ I’ll just smile and say ‘It was worth it!’