The bizarre French habit: drinking coffee in a bowl

If you are looking for cups at the breakfast table in France, you make have to keep looking. French etiquette says that at breakfast, you should be drinking your coffee in a bowl.
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The first time I came across it, I was baffled. And then irritated. We were at a beachside hotel near Saint-Malo and they seemed to be missing a few cups and mugs at morning breakfast.  My husband helpfully pointed me towards the bowls. Apparently, French etiquette dictated that I should drink my coffee in a bowl!

And it was a bowl the size of a cereal bowl. I had many questions. How was this possibly practical? Did the French drink tea out of a bowl as well? All the liquid was going to be sloshing about, and wouldn’t the bowl be too hot to hold without a handle? Plus, it would get colder faster! It was clear that I needed to investigate further.

Morning Ritual

A bit of questioning around me, and I was duly informed it is part of the French morning ritual. Holding the bowl with both hands, being fully in the moment, savoring each sip, it was simply part of the morning ritual. Even young children, once they outgrow their sippy cup, will drink their milk out of a bowl at breakfast, all the better to dip their brioche or croissant in.

Another aspect of the French insisting on living the Art de Vivre, even during breakfast. Le sigh.

☞ READ MORE: French etiquette: Do’s and Don’ts of Dining

Now, I should point out drinking tea or coffee out of a large bowl in France, usually only happens at breakfast.

The French still serve coffee the rest of the time, in espresso-style in a cup the size of a shot glass. French children though will drink their afternoon serving of milk in a bowl.

The Café au Lait bowl

So if you have ever noticed a sign saying café au lait bowl, it is these types of breakfast coffee bowls. Café au lait literally means coffee with milk.

They are usually slightly smaller than cereal bowls, but not always. Just depends on how much coffee you need in the morning. You can buy a set of café au lait bowls here.

The typical French breakfast

So in case you were wondering what typical French person eats for breakfast, I’m sad to inform that it is does not involve croissants. The stereotypical French breakfast is a hot coffee or tea in a bowl, with a piece of bread (baguette) to dip in to, or a tartine.

tea in a bowl in France

Tartine is just a fancy way of saying a piece of bread, slathered with butter and/or jam. Cereal is not that common, and neither are things like French toasts or crêpes.

Savory crêpes with ham, cheese, and mushrooms as an example, are a full meal and are usually served with cider. Not the sort of thing you want at 7am. And sweet crêpes like the crêpe suzette is a dessert.

Savory cakes, on the other hand, are sometimes served in slices for breakfast, assuming someone has baked them the night before.

Adapting to French breakfast rules

Even though I now had an explanation for the bowls, I was not sure I wanted to adopt this habit. French etiquette may have its rules, but give me a giant mug any day. I can hold that with both hands!

If you are living in France though, this too will confound you: finding giant mugs in France is very difficult. It is not the norm since tea is not as common, and coffee is drunk as expresso in a tiny cup. (Well, I suppose even the Queen of England is drinking her tea out of a dainty teacup and not a mug, so I suppose Starbucks-size mugs is a purely North American thing!)

I did find my own solution though: a bowl for breakfast, and a stainless steel thermos for the rest of the day. It keeps the coffee hot and no spills. Win!


If you enjoyed that article, you can read more about ordering coffee in France. (Rhere is a bit of vocabulary to learn if you don’t like espresso!) A bientôt!

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