One of the first rites of passage you will undergo sojourning in France is the apéritif, a pre-dinner preamble that can easily last an hour. The word derives from the Latin verb aperire – ‘to open’ – the idea being to open up the appetite before a large meal. A wide array of drinks can serve this purpose, including champagne, but by far the most common way to whet your appetite in France is to imbibe a glass or three of pastis.
Oddly enough, the drink’s origins lie in that most infamous of drinks, the “Green Fairy” or absinthe
. This noxious liqueur quickly garnered notoriety for inducing the kind of hallucinatory intoxication that some believe led Van Gogh to cut off his ear. The root cause was the use of the woody shrub, wormwood. The drink was banned in France in 1915, forcing producers Pernod to come up with a wormwood-free anise-flavored alternative. The resulting tipple was pastis.
At 40-45% alcohol by volume, it’s potent stuff. The liqueur is typically served over ice in a small Collins glass alongside a small jug of still mineral water, allowing you to dilute to taste.
Purists, especially those to be found propping up bars in the French countryside, wouldn’t dream of watering it down. Those foreigners and city dwellers who need to remain clear-headed enough to function, and typically dilute it to a ratio of one part pastis to five parts water.
For many people, one of the delights of the drink is watching the amber liquid turn into a milky lemon color upon being mixed. Connoisseurs might like to try getting hold of a bottle of Henri Bardouin
pastis, with its subtle notes, including tobacco from the Tonka bean, cardamon, cloves and other spices.
Of course, in gastronomy, no drink stays solely in its own glass or off the plate for long. And so a bevy on new creations in the form of cocktails and recipes have sprung up, in which pastis takes on the form of a delicate ingredient.
Mixologists have come up with some interesting takes, such as le perroquet
(the parakeet), so-called for its striking green color. It couldn’t be simpler to concoct: 1 ounce of pastis, a tablespoon of crème de menthe, and four parts cold mineral water are all that are required to make this refreshing thirst-quencher. Ice is optional.
As for cooking, Rick Stein, a British chef who specializes in seafood, makes use of pastis in a glorious roast sea bass and fennel
So, on a sultry summer’s day, why not open a bottle of pastis and provide the perfect opening salvo for your appetite.
Photo courtesy of AlMare