Text and photography by Elodie Bellegarde
L’apéritif. The sound of glasses clinking against each other, the cheerful noise of chatty drinkers munching on olives and peanuts, the warm sun slowly making its descent on the horizon. Ah, l’apéritif ! If I could sing of its virtues, I would start the first verse by singing about how in love I am with it. If you happen to have experienced it, please join in.
Originally introduced in France in 1846 by the French chemist Joseph Dubonnet, l’apéritif has its roots in Ancient Greece, where it was first practised around 400 A.D. Although the concept has somewhat evolved over the years, it initially referred to a bitter drink, quite medicinal in taste, mostly made from quinine. The addition of spices and herbs turned the concoction into a more palatable drink that was soon consumed for more than its medicinal properties.
The aperitif, l’apéritif or l’apéro, as the French say it, is a custom taking place around 6pm, and involves a drink and a small snack. Happening in the late afternoon just before dinner, after a day at work or a busy weekend, l’apéro is a bridge between the afternoon and the evening. Similar to playing pétanque on a hot summer’s day while enjoying a glass of Pastis, l’apéritif is engraved in the French lifestyle. It’s the perfect moment to unwind, gossip and put the world to rights. It is a casual way to invite new acquaintances around, without the formalities of a dinner party. It’s also a brilliant excuse to have a drink or two paired with a salted snack while preparing the evening meal or waiting for it to simmer on the stove. L’apéritif, if you ask me, is simply one of France’s best customs.
If you feel like giving it a go, here is a guide on how to appreciate l’apéro, French style.
First, reach for a drink. Ideally, nothing too strong or too sweet or too large. You want to strike the right balance here since l’apéritif takes place in the early evening. It shouldn’t make you feel tipsy after the first sip, nor too full before the meal. Instead, it should give you an appetite for what’s to come. An apéro should make you feel relaxed, chatty, happy but still able to hold a conversation. If you are in the mood for an apéro-solo, by all means do!
Again, nothing too filling unless your desire is to turn this moment into an apéritif dinatoire. It shouldn’t be anything too sweet either; a small salty snack is preferred. It should be satisfying enough to last you an hour or so, or until dinner is served. The snack should pair itself well enough with the drinks without being too overbearing, unless you are celebrating something special. On special evenings, go bold, adventurous and over the top.
A rather recent take on the more traditional concept, apéritif dinatoire is the French way of saying, “Come over for a drink or two, but bear in mind that we might keep you longer. There will be enough food for you to snack on, but don’t expect a proper sit down meal.” The apéritif dinatoire is an informal invitation for a light dinner, where guests and hosts gather around for a long apéritif fuelled with more substantial snacks. I like them most when they take place during long summer days in the back garden. It is equally enjoyable during the festive season in the days leading up to Christmas or New Year’s Eve. Whilst a few consecutive dinner parties can feel like a lot to some, gathering around an apéritif dinatoire breaks the formalities and adds to the cheerful mood without being too imposing on the stomach.
Read more in The U Press N˚15 (Singapore edition).