Doing it à la française

You’ll see from my bio in the corner that I claim to have learnt to eat in France. I lived there as a student in the late 1980s, away from home for the first time, away from my familiar culture and cuisine. Some things, like eating with a fork and bread (rather than a knife and fork) or following the main course with a salad, were noticeable immediately as different from home. My awareness of aperitif culture was more of a creeping realisation. I remember being surprised that so many customers in my local bar drank pastis in the evening, when they drank more familiar drinks earlier in the day or later at night. I just put it down to French strangeness at first. As I made friends, I was invited out to dinner more often, and it became evident that something very specific was going on. The pastis drinking was part of the preparation for dinner. I began to realise that the dining experience didn’t begin at the first course as at home, but with the introductory drink beforehand, usually something a little stronger than wine and often sweet. I grew to love this little pause before dinner - and the drinks and foods I was introduced to over many such pauses.

Pastis & Kir
Pastis is typically associated with Marseille and the Midi, but was very popular in my little corner of the north too. It’s a strong aniseed spirit, served on ice with a carafe of water to dilute it. Once diluted, it releases its lovely aroma and makes a refreshing drink at the end of a warm day. It may not be to everyone’s taste but is worth trying if you like the taste of anise.

Another regional drink that has spread across France is the Kir, a mix of dry white wine and crème de cassis (blackcurrant liqueur). Alcoholic Ribena - what’s not to love? The Kir has quite a history and is THE thing to drink before dinner in Burgundy, the region of its birth. Traditionally made with local bone-dry Aligoté wine, it can be made with anything dry you have to hand. I’d counsel against making it with a New World sauvignon blanc, though, simply because the combination of blackcurrant flavour and cat’s-piss-and-nettle aroma doesn’t suit me. If you can re-imagine that as juicy fruit and blackcurrant leaves it could really work for you.

I think my favourite French aperitif drink is Pineau des Charentes. You can sometimes find it in a high-end supermarket, and specialist wine shops will certainly be able to get it for you. It is made with unfermented grape juice, to which Cognac has been added. The resulting liquor is then aged at least 18 months, much of which is spent in oak barrels. Pineau is served chilled and in small glasses. It’s stronger than a dinner wine, so you need to be a little careful with it. You can then close your eyes and imagine you’re sitting on a sunlit terrace overlooking a Cognac vineyard.

There exists a group of French aperitifs one might describe as tonic wines – fortified wines flavoured with spices and enhanced with caffeine or quinine. They were originally developed for the imperial army under Napoleon III, to boost flagging bodies and spirits at the end of a heavy day. They are often slightly bitter and can be found in red, white and rosé forms. Among them are Byrrh, Lillet and Dubonnet, drinks whose very names conjure up images of post-war advertising on the walls of street-corner cafés. If you’ve ever been to one of those cafés, you’ll also recognise the name of Suze, another drink that evokes that 1950s chic. It’s bright yellow, sweet and as bitter as all hell! It’s flavoured with gentian root, the same herb that gives Campari its distinctive taste. If, like me, you enjoy bitter drinks, it’s worth seeking out. Drink it neat on ice or with the merest hint of tonic water to lighten it.

Despite their reputation for chauvinism, the French enjoy many imported drinks at aperitif time. Sherry, port, gin and whisky (with water or lemonade) are all popular. They don’t go in much for cocktails, regarding them as too heavy, too alcoholic for civilised drinking, but I suppose they can’t be right about everything.

Looking back now to that time I spent in the Pas de Calais, I can see something more subtle going on. Early evening in France is the time friends gather in bars, before heading home for dinner or drifting off in smaller groups to this restaurant or that. It’s the time families drop in on each other unannounced, and there’s always a small glass or two and something to nibble on over the conversation. Linguistically, it’s the time bonjour gives way to bonsoir. I can see now that the aperitif isn’t just a preparation for dinner, it’s a ritual that marks the end of the day’s labour and the transition to evening recreation. Drinks are poured, snacks are served, conversation is shared. We relax. I have known the aperitif hour to last two or three! I suppose that’s why those nibbles are important – to stave off the pangs of hunger without ruining the appetite. Often, nibbles are just a bowl of peanuts or crisps (chips), but there could be sliced saucisson, cubes of cheese, mini gougères or some simple canapés.

Drinking Pineau en famille

The English-speaking world seems determined to rush from one activity to another, racing from work to dinner to the cinema and never quite settling anywhere. When we travel, we’re offered the chance to try out a different culture to our own and adopt those elements that enhance life. The aperitif hour offers a moment of stillness, time to catch your breath. For the sake of our mental health and digestion, let’s give it a try.

Next time: aperitif parties


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