L’apéro

One of my favourite French abbreviations is also a backbone of life in France: l’apéro. In its longer form, ‘apéritif’ sounds stiff and formal. Shortened to apéro (pronounce: a-pay-ROH) it becomes something easy and friendly. One that goes down as lightly as a quaff of champagne on a summer’s evening.

I was reminded of this when we visited old friends and neighbours in Lyon last weekend. It was nothing fancy. We were in the area and wondered if anyone would be around if we stopped by? This is when the true stuff of French friends comes out. From a quick visit it became an evening event that our former neighbours organized on the fly during an otherwise busy weekend. A family reunion in the afternoon, a job that requires being on-call all weekend. Peu importe. We came for drinks and stayed till midnight. The apéro was ‘dinatoire’, meaning it took on the proportions of a meal, with plates of simple nibbles being passed around the big table. We’re talking pâté en croûte, squares of quiche, various dips and breads, chunks of melon, cherries and an apricot clafoutis.

I’ve been to fancier events that have been designed to literally mimic a 5-course dinner: starting with nuts and ‘verrines’ (small glasses) of chilled soup or layered salad; followed by canapés of smoked fish and meat, mini-quiches, etc.; then a platter of various cheeses with bread and finally, fruit pieces and small cakes. At such parties, even the wines follow the usual order: champagne, white or rose, red with cheese and more bubbles with dessert.

Interestingly, the French have a few habits that tend to stick regardless of how fancy the fête: generally, everyone arrives before you serve the first drink. In Canada, we have the habit of getting the guest a drink in his or her hand the instant they walk in the door. In France, we wait until most everyone is assembled, then serve a drink and have a toast, clinking glasses before anyone imbibes a drop. Needless to say, it is best to have friends who arrive on time!

The other thing is the French don’t like to remain standing or even sit in individual conversation groups, as is my preference. Even if it’s only an apéro, everyone will be seated around a common table and a general conversation begun. Once the ice is broken, and especially after a second or third top-up of drinks, the conversation will break into smaller groups. I dislike sitting in the same place for long and so usually find an excuse to get up and move about (and optimally adjust the position of my good ear to be able to hear what is being said.)

We don’t host many parties these days, but we did our share when we lived in the old neighbourhood. It made me smile when one of our friends noted on Saturday that all we were missing was ‘la sauce de Mel’. For the French, everything is a sauce. Salad dressing, dip, you name it. Yet I had no idea that my dip (borrowed from the Best of Bridge) had become a local favourite that bears my name. It’s basically a sun-dried tomato and cream cheese dip with garlic and basil. Very easy and fresh and extremely popular with the French! Recipe here if you’re interested.

Apéro hour is approaching so I’ll wrap this up with a ‘bonne santé’ and ask the essential question: what are you drinking?

Le bon timing

Train times Gare du NordTiming, as they say, is everything.

It is ironic that here in the land of complicated schedules and a season for everything, we must borrow from English to express the notion of timing.

You will find the word ‘timing’ in Larousse and other French dictionaries, translated as ‘minutage’. It seems to particularly focus on an action plan or steps needed to complete a task. The expression ‘le bon timing’ is often associated with business and politics, where timing dictates a strategy of attack. By extension, it is useful to remember as a motto for life in France.

I learned the importance of timing shortly after moving to France. We were invited for drinks with friends and arrived, as is our wont, right on time. Me because being prompt is ingrained along with saying ‘sorry’ and husband because, well, he is always thirsty. To my dismay I discovered that we were the first of the convives, and to add injury to insult, were then made to wait until everyone had arrived before being offered a drink.

“On va attendre les autres?” asked our hosts, glancing pointedly at the array of bottles enticingly standing by. As they clearly assumed we should wait for the others to arrive, we nodded in dumb agreement then proceeded to make polite but dull conversation for the next hour.

After that I became rather laissez-faire about showing up to social events on time. And sometimes had a drink first.

This strategy backfired on occasions when, it turned out, the French are almost obsessively prompt. When it comes to public meetings and events, or closing times, for example, which can be absurdly early. If you don’t get there on time, it will be over before you even get started.

It is traditional in France for le maire to host a new year’s reception for the town’s citizens. We showed up only a little late and missed both the mayor’s speech and our complementary glass of champagne.

There are so many other ways that timing matters in France:

  • There is little point in arriving at a restaurant hoping for a meal before or after the designated serving times at lunch and dinner (generally just before 12:00 until 1:30 or so at lunchtime and not before 7:30 p.m. in the evening). You may not be served and if you are, will certainly not be welcome.
  • Don’t bother trying to join a group or take up an organized activity other than at the beginning of the season in September or possibly at the start of a new year.
  • Do not expect to find strawberries or melon on the menu in the winter or fondue in summer. Seasonal appropriateness must be respected. Don’t look for summer gear in the shops before May or after July. Back-to-school items will be on display everywhere from early August until September. After that, you will have to be content with a few dusty leftovers.
  • As for holidays, you will want to plan your destination well in advance, book early and get a head start on traffic. Don’t forget the school calendar and the various zones (A, B and C) depending on the region.

Alternatively you can always just forget about le timing altogether, sit back and let it ride. Have another glass of wine. Who’s to say? That train may never even show up.

What’s your approach? Do you worry about being on time or always arrive fashionably late?

L’apéro: Favorite summer sips

Pastis on the deckL’apéro, short for apéritif, is not a drink, it’s a happening. In fact, it’s something of a sport in France: around here they call it ‘apérobic’. It can be performed at least daily, anywhere and at any time, individually, in small or large groups.

I’m not much of a one for cocktails or fancy mixed drinks. Mostly I eschew the sweet in favor of the dry, the bitter and the acidic. Thankfully there are always several of those options at hand in France. And summer is the perfect time to enjoy a nice cool one by the beach, at the bar or here on my own deck.

Pastis – de Marseille, bien sûr – is not for everyone. But it is the summer drink par excellence of the south of France. If you’re up for its liquorish flavor, here’s how to enjoy it:

Pour a small amount (according to your taste – I like the equivalent of a couple of shots) over lots of ice. Watch it turn from clear yellow to milky white. Sweat a moment or two along with the glass. Then add water, very cold, to make a refreshing long drink. Enjoy with salted nuts of your choice. Santé!

I enjoy the one but cannot drink two. It’s just too rich. And the aniseed flavor is a novelty that (for me) wears thin all too quickly. Oddly enough, pastis has the reputation in France of being the hard-core drinker’s drink. The one that the men guzzle in all those hole-in-the-wall bars that we women hardly dare to enter.

Citron pressé
Citron pressé

If I should occasionally feel the need to whet my whistle while resting my liver, I might order a citron pressé. This is, quite literally, a fresh squeezed lemon juice (not to be confused with ‘limonade’, a soft drink). It will be served in a tall glass with lots of ice, several packets of sugar on the side and a long spoon for stirring. I don’t mind it straight but a bit of sugar helps the citrusy medicine go down even better.

I remember when I first discovered rosé wine in France. It was a revelation: a wine between red and white that offered a little of each. Then I went back to Canada and tried to find it there. Those were the days when Mateus was the only rosé anybody had ever heard of – sweet, sickly lighter fluid. People believed that rosé was blended from white and red (which does sometimes happen but is not allowed in France).

Rosé-Cotes_de_Provence_
Rosé, Côtes de Provence

Now, of course, all that has changed. Rosé has become the summer wine of choice and is available just about everywhere. There are hundreds of choices and this recent article gives a good overview. The latest trend is palest-of-pale rosé, a grey-orange-pink in color. Personally I still prefer the fuller bodied rosés, the Tavels and the Costières de Nîmes.

The French drink rosé all year long but especially in the summer, when it goes so well with just about everything enjoyed outdoors.

Let’s not forget my favorite summer brew. La bière. I would not be a Canadian if I didn’t enjoy beer in the summer. Also in the spring, fall and winter. French beers may not be the world’s best but most bars have them on tap.

Bière, of Corse!
Bière, of Corse!

To order a draft beer or ‘une pression’ in France, you ask for ‘un demi’ (half a pint). Draft beer on a summer day. Does it get any better than this?

How about you? What’s your favorite summer drink?