My wife and I recently returned from a short break to Nice on the Cote D'azur (you have to love those cheap Ryanair flights) and I thought I should mention the copious amounts of coffee, drank on the trip. European, primarily Italian coffee holds a fabled place in the hearts of coffee aficionados, with good reason, with Italy being seen as the birthplace of the espresso and so on. Cafe culture in the south of France has a very similar feel to that of north Italy (random tour bus fact, Nice was the birthplace of the Italian unifier Garibaldi and almost became part of Italy). Walk into any cafe, restaurant, patisserie (of which there were many) and you will find a well used, sometimes quite rustic, espresso machine taking a pride of place on the counter. Asking for a coffee, in most of France or Italy, will get you a single shot espresso as standard (un café sil'vous plait,) which can be quite humorous when you see the looks on the faces of ignorant tourists who are expecting a full mug of filter. In a tourist hotspot like Nice this has the affect of the Barista second guessing your order, if they detect you are from out of town, pale skin and a bad accent being dead giveaways.
The espresso itself changes in taste and quality from shop to shop, as it does in the rest of the world, but overall was surprising good. As I mentioned above, shots are almost always singles, a rarity to find in the UK where most espresso is pulled as a double. Single shots can be tricky and are generally less forgiving than double or even triples and as such are shied away from. A single shot in a milk drink will also be very weak unless in a small (5-6 fl oz) cup, which are also rare to find in UK coffee, mostly because the public feel that a small size is because the shop owner is being tight instead of authentic. Because of the single shots I had expected to get some terrible coffee but it was obvious from the word go that the baristas here knew about coffee, knew how to make it and although relaxed in their nature, cared about what they were making, much as making a good pot of tea is part of a way of life for older generation in Britain.
I've read online, (if you know where please let me know) possibly at coffee geek, that European machines generally run at a different temperature and pressure than our machines, resulting in a difference in the shot. I'd be interested to hear any theories on european coffee and why we don't run our machines this way, as it seems to give a much more pleasant cup.
PS. I've made quite a generalisation above and omitted any details on beans and/or roast profiles, quite frankly because I don't have any. All I can say is that beans weren't as dark or as oily as I would have expected.