On their way through the south of France, friends Pete and Cameron stopped in Carcassonne, fresh from the Spanish Basque Country that shares a lot of history and culture with its French counterpart right across the border. One of those traditions that they enjoyed was an afternoon aperitivo that included a glass of vermouth made in a town not far from where they were staying. Knowing how much we like taking a picnic on the train, they created a takeout version of the aperitif to share with us and in the photo to the left you can see the result. The gift bag included a bottle of Ugabe vermouth from Artea, an orange to slice for the glass, green olives, and potato chips just as it had been served at a Spanish café. That prompted me to read up on this “before dinner” pause that we knew as an apéro.
When the ancient Romans lived throughout much of France 2000 years ago, they often started their meals with a sweet wine that was said to “open the appetite”. That continued, even into the Middle Ages, although by then the recommendation was to add something bitter like anise, sage, or wormwood—used in making vermouth—to aid in digestion. Secret family recipes developed over the centuries and it’s said that the oldest pastis brand in France, Pernod, came from one of those formulas.
The folks on our street like to entertain and we’ve been fortunate to have been invited for a number of apéros, all of which were very similar despite being at different homes with families originating in different parts of France. Drinks offered might be white or rosé wine, beer, whiskey, port, or pastis. Champagne is always available if we’re with our 103-year-old friend since it’s her favorite drink while it’s cider with our buddies from Brittany. Potato or corn chips, peanuts or mixed nuts, and green olives show up on everyone’s table. If it progresses into an apéro dînatoire (featured photo across the top, thank you Sarah) then we’ll probably see mini-pizzas or quiche, plus plates of charcuterie, cheese, and slices of savory cakes added to the mix. We’re also likely to see midnight since the hosts never seem in a hurry to end the evening.
The timing for these events can be tricky when you’re mixing Americans and French. One neighbor was astonished that we would have a glass of wine at 5 PM calculating the quantity of blanc, rosé, et rouge that we must go through before her typical 8 PM dinner time. We assured her that we could make that glass stretch and that we eat much earlier in the evening unless we’re with French friends. The compromise invitation start time we’ve established between our two houses is 6:30 PM.
Mainland France is divided into 13 administrative regions, each with its own specialites be they food, drink, customs, accents, or even a local language. The apéro is something that is shared everywhere and remained a regular part of life even during the Covid lockdowns when online versions became popular. Our street is narrow enough that we could stand on our doorstep and safely toast to the health of our friends at their doors and windows. Gratefully, we can now raise a glass in-person and say, “Santé”!