In the early 1950s, before I knew about being “cool,” I thought it was cool while in Paris to buy a copy of the then New York Herald-Tribune, take a seat under a Cinzano umbrella in an outdoor cafe along the Champs-Elysee, and spend an hour or so sipping on a pastis. And I confess to still liking to do that, though I’m more inclined these days to peruse Le Figaro or l’Expresse. Back then I was just learning about l’heure de l’apero, that civilized custom of spending an hour or so with a pleasant drink in a relaxed ambience before dinner. Like “Happy Hour” without the frenzy or the noise.
This aperitif hour is as French as French can be. The word aperitif comes from the Latin aperire — to open and came into use in the late nineteenth century when consumers believed that such drinks really “opened” the appetite. As producers began experimenting with various flavors and seasonings, they also introduced tonics based on quinine to aid in marketing their libations on medicinal claims. So not only did the aperitif induce relaxation, it also was good for you.
Over the years I took time to visit the producers of these aperos — producers with names familiar to all who frequent French cafes: St. Raphael; Dubonnet; Byrrh; Noilly-Prat; and Suze. I can’t say that I ever really developed a craving for these drinks, though I enjoyed their histories. For example, knowing that a pharmacist, Joseph Dubonnet, won a French government competition to make quinine more palatable for French troops in Africa made me somewhat partial to Dubonnet for a while.
I also confess that when I would bring home these interesting bottles, they never quite did for me what they did along the beach or on the boulevards or in a village inn. They almost demand a cafe, a place where there are others around, where there is no sense of compulsion to get on to something else.
Every once in a while, however, I still try to do an apero at home, and I can make it work a bit if I reminisce somewhat. Recently, for example, I poured a small glass of Lillet, a Bordeaux-produced blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, and Muscadelle flavored with sweet and bitter oranges and, of course, quinine. No, I did not recall James Bond ordering a Kina Lillet in his martini. Instead I thought back to a warm afternoon at lunch with Dominique Thienpont in the Hostellerie de Plaisance in St-Emilion. We had been working all morning sampling wines in his family estates in Margaux and Pomerol. It had been an intense morning, and I was eager for lunch. Dominique leaned back in his chair and told the server to bring us Lillet. It took us nearly an hour to consume it, but during that hour we selected our menu, watched the people strolling around the town square, and planned our evening.
It almost worked. The Lillet at home was tasty, but our glass was done in about fifteen minutes. Maybe I should buy a Cinzano umbrella.
And sometime I’ll write some of the jokes the French tell about l’heure de l’apero.