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Cafe Au Lait's connection to Napoleon?

February 17, 2022 3 min read

napoleon cafe au lait

Cafe Au Lait's Connection to Napeleon?

By Charles Nick

I love cafes with their unique woodwork, lighting, and sounds of steam wands creating their delicious coffee drinks. It is always a great experience and why I always go back. One drink, in particular, I like to get is the Cafe Au Lait, but what is a Cafe Au Lait anyways? It’s a lovely drink that contains equal parts coffee and steamed (or heated) milk and is typically 8 ounces.

The term, "Cafe Au Lait", is a French term for ‘coffee with milk.’ In the United States, we call it the Cafe Au Lait, but what would you call this drink in another country, like Germany? Do they even have a Cafe Au Lait there? Yes, it is called the ‘Milchkaffee'. Italy calls their version a ‘Caffe Latte’ and Spain calls it a 'Cafe Con Leche.’ Then there is the ‘Tejeskave’ in Hungary, the ‘Kawa Biala’ in Poland, which means white coffee. Even the ’Coffee Verkeerd’ in the Netherlands meaning ‘incorrect coffee.’ Score one for the Netherlands’ humor.

Wherever you are in the world, we all love our coffee and our milk. And when we put them together, they combine to make a Cafe Au Lait. But, there’s a special version of this drink available in the unique city of New Orleans, Louisiana, and its origin is a bit surprising.

During the American civil war in the 1860s, the people in New Orleans faced a dilemma. Their coffee supply was running low because the Union Navy cut off the Port of New Orleans. This forced the people in the city to discover a method to help their coffee supplies last longer. Where did their creativity take them? It led them to a strange root called chicory. Chicory was added to the coffee grinds diluting and supplementing the coffee flavor to help their coffee last as long as possible. I’m with them. I would definitely be worried about necessities like running out of coffee.

The idea to add chicory to coffee didn’t originate in New Orleans, though, but from the French during one of their civil wars about 45 years prior. In 1808 Napoleon initiated the Continental Blockade causing a similar issue; their coffee supply was running low! So one civil war blockade brainstorming session seemed to have helped another one many years later. So in wartime make sure to ration munitions, food, and coffee, of course.

So what is the connection to the people in New Orleans figuring out this strange concoction? You guessed it, the people in New Orleans had a significant French population. It is said, that the Acadians migrated there through Nova Scotia, Canada, and were the ones who brought this knowledge with them. Could some of the same people have been present in both civil wars? It is less likely, but a fascinating thought as the world was changing so much back then.

Chicory has another surprise for some of us, though. It can cause pain, swelling, or tingling of the mouth if you are allergic to ragweed, birch pollen, or chicory, of course. And even though it doesn’t contain caffeine, you should probably avoid it if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding as well.

So enjoy your Cafe au Lait however you call it, but if you want a unique variant created from civil wars, make sure to try the New Orleans version and see if you like theirs.


Classic Cafe au Lait recipe:
  • Brew your favorite medium to dark roast coffee.
  • Steam some milk until scalding hot.
  • Add equal parts coffee and milk to your favorite mug.
New Orleans Cafe au Lait recipe (during civil war):
  • Grind your favorite coffee beans.
  • Grind chicory to a similar grind size as your coffee.
  • Use 3/4 coffee grounds and 1/4 chicory grounds and brew as usual.
New Orleans Cafe au Lait recipe (today’s recipe):
  • Grind your favorite coffee beans.
  • Grind chicory to a similar grind size as your coffee.
  • Use 3/4 coffee grounds and 1/4 chicory grounds and brew as usual.
  • Add 1 tsp. of sugar to the bottom of a mug (optional).
  • Steam some milk until scalding hot.
  • Add equal parts coffee/chicory mixture and milk to your favorite mug.

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