time you find
yourself in France,
have a fling
FORGET FOR ONE MOMENT that 'English
people don't like aniseed-based
drinks' and you could be
in for a very tasty surprise.
Because this myth is cultivated by canny Frenchmen intent on keeping us from
discovering the pleasures of their aniseed-based aperitifs or Pastis, which
for most of us means nothing more adventurous than Pernod and lemonade.
Having aniseed-based drinks as an aperitif is something of an institution in
France although Absynthe does have a chequered history. Around the turn of the
century it was the most popular aniseed drink in France. Oscar Wilde lauded
it, claiming a glass of absinthe to be "as poetical as anything in the
world", and van Gogh hacked off his ear after drinking some. When scientific
tests confirmed it attacked the brain cells, causing insanity, Absynthe became
the BSE/CJD scare of
its time and was banned.
Today's aniseed-based drinks, however, are perfectly safe and the French consume
a vast quantity of them. There are a number of different types available throughout
France, with many regional favourites.
Before dinner in Marseilles, for example, I was offered the crisp, clean-flavoured
Pastis 51, accompanied by locally-grown olives and pickled vegetables. It was
served in the traditional way: four parts cold water to one part Pastis but,
I was told, never with ice.
In Nice the preferred drink is Cristal a much lighter and less over-powering
variety. Imported from Spain but adopted with fervour by the French, it has
a sweeter, more distinct, thirst-quenching flavour and
a lingeringly-pleasant aftertaste. Not surprisingly this is the one most popular
with the ladies.
Other well-known brands in France include Marie-Brizard, Berger Oxygeneé (a
drier variety), and Berger blanc, and all are similar to Cristal. But the drink
that is endemic to France is Ricard, a yellow pastis with a refreshingly crisp
taste, traditionally taken with water.
Around the Loire Valley in central France it is drunk as a perroquet:
one fifth Ricard to four fifths water and a dash of crème de menthe. Its
a quite a
startling combination, becoming bright green in colour, with the mint and aniseed
reacting sharply in your mouth. I would avoid drinking it before food as its
persistent yet interesting flavour will completely overwhelm your taste buds.
One I avoid altogether is Ricard Tomate, which is far too sickly for me although
I was assured it is favoured in Eastern France but then I never take
my vodka with tomato juice.
Several years ago two new drinks came onto the French market, both of which
I would recommend for a first foray into aniseed drinks. Pernod Light, a pretty
yellow colour, was created in response to critics who deemed Pernod to be too
rich and thick; and Pacific, which came out as a direct result of the tightening-up
of French drink-drive laws. Reminiscent of Ricard, it is totally alcohol free.
My last lunch prior to my drive back to Calais for the ferry was, naturally,
preceded by a glass of alcohol-free Pacific. After downing
my drink there was only one thing to do: turning to my host I told
him I would "remets ca" have another!
its great for cooking, too...
root fennel in a little Pernod, spring water, white wine, a
little chopped lemon grass, basil or oregano, and a knob of butter
with plenty of freshly-ground black pepper.
Serve with another knob of butter and freshly-ground
to accompany rich chicken dishes, boar, or lamb. Delicious!