Pastis or Kir?
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,
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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