For this month’s drink, I considered writing about several summer classics, and was nearly persuaded that a paean to my proletarian love — cold beer — might suffice in both the “pure sunshine in a glass” sense, and because it’s typically my leading beverage in terms of volume consumed between June and September.
The problem with writing about beer though, is that everybody knows what it is and in order to be at all original you have to search for some obscure brand made in some far-flung part of the world in order to keep the reader interested, and even then, it might be a struggle. So I’m leaving that thorny problem for another month when I’m feeling particularly inspired.
Whereas beer, in all its forms, is a year-round drink that can be enjoyed as readily on a frosty January evening, as well as in the shade of a palm tree, the subject of this month’s DOTM can only really be drunk in the summer. Or at least, it is to me one of the quintessential tastes of the summer. I’m talking about the fantastically unique aperitif that is pastis.
I forget when I had my first pastis, but I very much doubt I was above the legal drinking age. My mother used to order one occasionally when we were on holiday in the south of France, and as a lifelong fan of all things licorice and anise/aniseed flavored I probably found the aroma coming from her glass irresistible, and waiting until my parents were distracted, I suspect I took my first sip.
And ever since, the sight of a glass, perhaps a third-full with yellowish-grey pastis and a solitary cube of ice next to a sweating pitcher of water, never fails to remind me of summer holidays, of warm flagstone terraces under my feet and the hum of cicadas in the bushes.
It’s certainly an evocative memory and it (mostly) prevents me from drinking pastis during weather that necessitates wearing shoes or socks. To me, pastis simply connotes relaxation and warm summer evenings, and it seems I’m not alone. In his second book about his adopted region, Toujours Provence, all-around Francophile author Peter Mayle says that he cannot imagine drinking pastis in a hurry. “There has to be heat and sunlight and the illusion the clock has stopped.” Now, few of us are lucky enough to be able to enjoy our pastis with a view of Mount Ventoux and fragrant fields of lavender swaying into the distance as he describes, but I think the recipe for enjoying pastis is one that can travel given the right weather and the right attitude.
In the US, pastis is fairly easy to find. Almost all decent French bistro(t)s sell it, or at least, have a bottle of it behind the bar, and are most likely to stock one or both the two most popular brands in France: Pernod and Ricard. However, and perhaps owing to the fact that it’s not that popular over here, few places really know how to serve pastis properly. I remember one time not long ago at a restaurant near us in Brooklyn, being given a 12 ounce glass of pastis, being charged $5 for it, and barely managing to make it through the ensuing meal without falling off my chair. Pastis, you see, is 45% alcohol and should always be diluted.
A Little History
And, interestingly, the alcohol content has a lot to do with the rise in the popularity of pastis. At the end of the 19th century, absinthe was very popular, but being distilled from wormwood and wine must to around the 68% mark, it was hallucinogenic, addictive and dangerous – Van Gogh is reputed to have cut off his ear and Verlaine to have shot Rimbaud while under its influence — and so in 1915 it was made illegal.
Owner of an absinthe distillery, Jules Pernod decided to move with the times and adapted his ingredient from wormwood to the widely available and legal anise with immediate success. Paul Ricard, though, was a relative late-comer to the business when he launched his own brand in 1932. However, Ricard had a knack for promotion and subtitled his drink le vrai pastis de Marseille, or the true pastis of Marseille, giving it at once a raffish, slightly exotic, association that has had it flying off the shelves in the northern parts of France and Europe ever since. A Marsellais is known around France to be something of a blageur, an exaggerator, liberal with the truth, and this combined with the city’s salty reputation and soupy patois, lend Ricard a quality that encourages the drinker to adopt the habits of that part of the country, pastis in hand. Indeed, Ricard’s pastis is so synonymous with the city that he has a racing circuit at Castoullet, just outside Marseille, named for him – le Circuit Paul Ricard, though it is highly recommended that those partaking of his beverage do not attempt to reach racing speeds on any kind of machinery…
How to Drink Pastis
Find yourself a warm evening and somewhere to sit outside. Remove shoes and socks and place feet on warm ground. Now, take a high-balls glass and pour in a generous shot of whichever brand of pastis you like. [If you’re visiting France, there are many small local brands to choose from depending on where you are, so why not try one you’ve not seen before?] Then fill the glass up to about ¾ full with cold water and watch the pastis change from thick and yellow (or slightly green in the case of Pernod) to a milky pastel, then add a couple of lumps of ice to fill it up to the top. Then, enjoy.
For many, the taste is too licoricey, but I happen to love licorice and the extra licoricey aroma that the star anise gives it. I also love the change in color and the fact that you can re-dilute your pastis once you’ve drunk it down a ways, to extend it and, perhaps, sober up a bit. I also love the way pastis gives you a roaring appetite. It’s probably the best aperitif for that this side of a dirty vodka martini, and enjoyed with bare feet and the sun sinking into the horizon, it never fails to engender relaxation ahead of a meal eaten outside surrounded by the noises and aromas of summer.
Try it with a bowl of tapenade, good olive oil and some rounds of crusty bread, and you’re set for the beginning of a great meal. Vive l’ete!
Check out these other posts you may enjoy:
- Drink of the Month: SOJU (April, 2008)
- Drink of the Month – May: Vin Santo
- In Defence of Sandwiches (White House Subs, Atlantic City)
- European Roast…? (Why Coffee Taste Better There)
- PROVENCAL RABBIT WITH OLIVES AND CAPERS
- SANDWICH DE MERGUEZ (BAGUETTE FILLED WITH MERGUEZ SAUSAGE, FRENCH FRIES AND FRIED LEEKS)