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Pastis or Kir?

Maussanne CafeThe French café is not just a place, it's a way of life. Eat, drink, converse, read, watch the world go by... whatever your pleasure. Except you can't smoke there anymore, of course. Gauloises and Marlboros are today as outlawed as absinthe was for most of the twentieth century. While it's farfetched to think cigarettes will make a comeback in French public spaces, the anise-flavored, herbal liquor also known as the "green fairy" or "devil in a bottle" is back in vogue in Europe. You can even buy it over the internet in the United States.

I've never tried the stuff (too many gothic tales of insanity and hallucinations), and though it's tempting to put drinking true absinthe in a real French café on my "must do" list, I have found a worthy substitute with none of the baggage and nearly as much of the mystique: pastis.

Also a liquor tasting of licorice and herbs but without the once-toxic wormwood, pastis is practically synonymous with Provence. It's a classic apéritif in the region and is often called the "national drink of Provence." Transplanted Brit Peter Mayle, Mr. Provence himself, even wrote a novel entitled Hotel Pastis. To be sure, the intense libation is not limited to southern France. In the rest of the country, however, you're more likely to hear it by the brand names of Ricard or Pernod.

Now I wouldn't put the taste of licorice on my top ten list... ever...but there is something about sitting at a café in the shady square of a Provençal village* on a really hot day with a shot of pastis in the bottom of a tall glass, a carafe of water and a couple of ice cubes. Here's how it works: You pour as much or as little water as you wish into the glass of pastis, watch as the clear golden liquid turns milky  white, and add the ice cubes. Voilà, you have a drink so thirst-quenching and perfect for the setting that it almost makes me forget my other favorite southern France apéritif, the kir.

Originally from Burgundy, a classic kir is a cocktail of inexpensive dry white wine and crème de cassis (blackcurrant liqueur). Another variation is to substitute red wine for the white to make a cardinal, so named for its very red color. One can take the regular kir up a notch by adding Champagne instead of white wine for a kir royal. I have tried this more aristocratic version with other liqueurs such as crème de pêches (peach), de fraises (strawberry), or de mûres (blackberry). My favorite is a liqueur I buy in Paris at a charming wine shop* specializing in Armagnac, an earthy cousin of Cognac. Their crème de mûres à l'Armagnac (blackberry liqueur with Armagnac) is heavenly when paired with Champagne and je suis au ciel (I am in heaven) when I can bring a delectable part of France back with me to the U.S.

I haven't yet had pastis at home au Texas but I did manage to pick up a bottle of artisanal (handcrafted) pastis recently at an 18th century olive oil mill in La Fare-les Oliviers near Salon-de-Provence.* It's sealed with chocolate brown wax and the amber liquid is accented by bits of aniseed, licorice and other herbs. There are even a few coffee beans floating in the bottom. The mill's boutique owner pointed out that each handcrafted version of the liquor has a slightly different combination of herbs and flavors--even coffee!--according to the whim of the maker.

It's not quite hot enough yet to pull out the pastis chez moi but as soon as those 90 and 100 degree days hit, believe me, I'll give it a try. And daydream of cafés in Provence.

* Charming Provençal villages that come to mind are St. Rémy and Maussane near the Alpilles mountains, and Lourmarin and Gordes in the Luberon.
* The wine shop in Paris is Ryst-Dupeyron, located at 79, rue du Bac in the 7th arrondissement.
* The boutique in the restored olive oil mill is located in La Fare-les Oliviers at 14, avenue du Pavillon.

April 30, 2008

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