Drinking in the French Style
As you may have noticed from our 2-week gap in posting, we had the enormous privilege and pleasure of spending the first half of July in France. It was our first trip there. We, of course, went into the trip with pretty high hopes. Why plan a trip to France otherwise? We’ve known a lot of people who’ve traveled to France, and not a single one of them has ever said, ‘The place is overrated.’ So, we went into our trip expecting good things. And, what do you know, France didn’t just meet our expectations; it blew them away. The thing that was most impressive to us was the sheer number of different kinds of delights that seemed available around every corner: charming, old streets; fashionable shops; ultra modern cities and very ancient ones; fields of flowers; beautiful pastries; the everyday pleasure of good bread, cheese, and wine.
We’d both previously traveled in Italy, and for some reason we found ourselves keeping a little France v. Italy scorecard. This is, of course, with the understanding that all of these things were completely delightful in both places:
- Mediterranean beaches-tie
- Cured meats-Italy
Clearly, we’ll need to spend more time in both places to reach a final judgment. And maybe you should do the same.
One of the many pleasures of our trip was the opportunity to try out another country’s drinking culture. Don’t get us wrong; we love our American craft cocktails and don’t plan to change. It was fun, though, to play the French drinker for a couple of weeks. Here’s what we learned.
Wine is King
We had some idea that wine was a thing in France, but we were unprepared for just how plentiful, diverse, delicious, and cheap wine was there. We’re not sophisticated wine drinkers (we can only afford the money, time, and mind space to be snobs in one form of alcohol); so it’s quite possible we’re easily impressed. But impressed we were. We were amazed by the hyper-local nature of wine in France. In a typical interaction, we asked once for the house rose, only to be asked which one, the Luberon or the Ventoux, two growing areas each within a few miles of our village. And more than anything, we were amazed by the number of options, the wine knowledge, and, of course, the taste of wines all available at your average cafe for $3.50/glass.
While keeping an eye out for cocktails, we were happy to be primarily wine drinkers for the length of our trip.
Drinking is constant but moderate
The French simultaneously drank more constantly, and with more discretion, than we were used to. It wasn’t by any means rare to see someone having a glass of wine or beer for breakfast. Wine was consumed throughout the day, and was practically compulsory at dinner. Aperitifs and nightcaps were not uncommon. There were absolutely no taboos or prohibitions regarding public drinking; wandering around town with open beers or opening bottles of wine in parks or on beaches was normal. Alcohol was always around.
And yet (with the exception of during the Euro 2016 soccer championships) drinking was never raucous, and almost always involved a form of restraint. Glasses of wine were small. Wine or fortified wine based mixed drinks were preferred over ones with spirits. Beers were light. You might split a bottle of wine with a friend mid-afternoon, but if you did you took your time, sipping slowly over a long time on a cafe patio, leisurely talking and people-watching as you did.
In France, they seem to have learned the trick of drinking just enough to make life a little more pleasant.
Mixing is rare
We mentioned in our brief history of the cocktail that Europeans tend to drink their liquors straight. That’s still the case in France. Obviously, wine dominates. When liqueurs and fortified wines are drunk, it’s straight, in small glasses, as pre-dinner aperitifs. When spirits are consumed, it’s similarly as after-dinner digestifs. We did find some legitimate cocktail lounges in Paris, but these were new places, catering to a young crowd of new cocktail enthusiasts, very much the exception and not the rule.
Mixing is often simple and light
We did find that even the more typical cafes and wine bars did some mixing, but with a wine (or even a beer) base, rather than a spirit, and with simple two or three ingredient constructions. These felt like twists to liven up your wine more than like cocktails. We might call them Spritzers.
They might not have been fully legitimate cocktails, but they were successful mixes that made for a pleasant afternoon patio drink. Brian had a quite refreshing Suze (a popular French liqueur) & Creme de Cassis before lunch one day Chez Ginette et Marcel in Avignon. At the Drinker’s Club in Antibes, he found his beer+cider+creme de cassis concoction surprisingly enjoyable. At that same Drinker’s Club, Steph had the most typical French mixed drink of all, the Aperol Spritz.
Aperol Spritz Cocktail Recipe
- 2 oz sparkling white wine
- .5 oz Aperol (or alternative orange liqueur)
- Combine both ingredients with ice in a wine glass, and enjoy.