You are in France. What do you do when a native says the following to you:
– On prend l’apéritif?
or, slightly more familiar:
– Vous venez chez moi ce soir pour l’apéro?
What if you just received an invitation reading:
– Retrouvez-nous mardi soir pour un apéritif dinatoire, 19H00.
Apéritif. Apéro. A time-tested tradition in la Belle France where many indulge in the ritual on a regular basis. If you hear the magic word, it means a French native wants to spend quality time with you, usually at the end of the day, at a café terrace, in their garden, or their living room. There may be other friends. There will be lively conversation. Laughter. Drinks, alcoholic, mostly (even if mineral water and fruit juice will also be available.) There will be some food, but in small quantity; unless we are dealing with apéritif dinatoire. More about that later.
You may be thinking the French are not the only people in the world who enjoy sharing a drink with friends at the end of a busy day. You are correct, but les Français add a twist to the ritual.
L’apéritif refers to an alcoholic drink enjoyed at the beginning of the meal. A French waiter (like an American one,) approaches guests and, before he takes the order, asks: “Désirez-vous un apéritif?,” or: “Pour commencer, un apéritif?” (Would you like a drink? How about a drink to start?) It is entirely up to you to accept, or refuse. In a French home, your host will offer un apéritif before the meal.
Most importantly, L’apéritif, (“l’apéro,”) in France, also refers to a special moment shared among friends. The atmosphere is laid back. It is time to relax, trade jokes, or get to know new acquaintances better. Your host may announce: “A la bonne franquette, hein?” (There will be no fuss. Expect an informal gathering.) Toasts may get exchanged, (“A votre santé !” “A la vôtre !”) Whether l’apéritif is held indoors or outdoors, guests sit down. No standing around the kitchen island! It’s important to be comfortable, even if the chairs are made of plastic.
L’apéritif has been around since the Middle Ages, but at the time, there was more focus on the medicinal properties of the drinks, intended to ease digestion and soothe the stomach. Over time, it became a ritual, shared by many, no matter what their circumstances might be, a chance to enjoy quality time with friends, an excuse to drink, too. A whole industry soon grew around the different drinks offered in France. Suze. Campari. Cinzano. Lillet. Dubonnet. Noilly-Prat. Spirit-based wines, flavored with proprietary blends of herbs, spices, and other botanicals. Iconic brands, representative of French regions, currently enjoying a revival, not just in France, but in other countries as well, where they are used as a base for cocktails. Absinthe, so popular in the 18th century, was a traditional apéritif. Pastis, the cloudy and refreshing aniseed-flavored drink originally launched by Pernod, still rules the apéritif market, and not just in Southern France.
Kir, of course. The popular drink hails from Burgundy, and is made with white wine and potent crème de cassis (currant liqueur.) Kir Royal, its elegant cousin, involves currant or blackberry liqueur, and sparkling Crémant de Bourgogne (or Champagne.)
In my native Southwest, Floc de Gascogne (sweet, strong vin de liqueur fortified with Armagnac, the local brandy,) routinely shows up during l’apéritif.
Wine, red or white; Whisky (introduced by American troops during the Liberation of France,) fruit juice, and bottled mineral water (always!) complete the selection.
When hosting a French-style apéritif, keep in mind food is served in much smaller portions than at parties in the United States, especially if offered before the meal. L’apéritif, after all, is supposed to whet the guests’ appetite, not kill it. Peanuts (or the trendy Spanish Marcona almonds,) cherry tomatoes, slices of saucisson (dry, cured sausage,) chips, olives, are common choices. A la bonne franquette, remember? Easy-Peasy. Other options include carrot or cucumber sticks, and the ever-popular endives. They are cheap in France, and they make the perfect container for eggplant or smoked salmon caviar, tarama (the fish egg-based, pink paste,) or tapenade.
Servings get more generous when the event is referred to as “apéritif dinatoire.” An invitation to share a traditional apéritif does not mean you will be staying at your host’s house all night, but you can expect l’apéritif dinatoire (the dinner version of l’apéritif) to last the whole evening. The setting is still relaxed. Finger foods are de rigueur. A few years ago, les verrines (small portions, sweet or savory, served in a verrine, or small glass,) were all the rage. So were slices of cakes salés, (savory breads.)
Sometimes, things get more elaborate, with an attractive selection of amuse-bouches and petits fours. For years, my Mom served these during our family’s traditional Christmas Eve dinner celebration, as we all sat in the living room, around the coffee table…
I wonder if many people still have a Pain surprise, (party loaf,) prepared by the local boulanger these days… The mini-sandwiches carved out of a loaf of rustic bread are delicious and come in a variety of flavors, pâté, smoked salmon, crudités, etc.
This year, when Thanksgiving comes, why not try serving your guests a French-style apéritif before the meal of all meals? See suggestions below…
1. Find out more about traditional French apéritif drinks and brands listed in the story here.
2. The world is mad for Lillet, the iconic French apéritif drink, and a personal favorite of mine. Find cocktail and other recipes on the company’s website.