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L'apéro

"People who wish to discipline the sexual organs should avoid drinking those artificial concoctions which are called 'aperitifs'"

Diadochos of Photiki (5th century)

How could I have waffled on about that photograph, barely mentioning anything about food, without waffling on about the apéritif - it was sort of the title of the photograph after all? And yes, it's not food, it's a drink but drinks are included in my topics for discussion. So herewith a few words on the apéritif.


The point of the quote at the top of the page, is at least partly to show that the apéritif has been around for a very long time, even though it wasn't really until the 19th century that it became a big thing.


The title of the post is the french colloquial term for an apéritif - very closely related to one of the drinks of the moment - aperol, an Italian bitter apéritif.


The word 'apéritif' comes from the Latin aperire meaning 'to open'. A word with a multitude of meanings, one of which could possibly be sexual I guess. And now that I think of that photograph I am wondering if there is some sly allusion to sex through the title and the man's hand on the girl's shoulder and the jaunty way he wears his hat. Although she doesn't look quite as keen. Probably an over assumption, but nevertheless the word does mean a small thing before the bigger thing that is to come. A precursor to - well - joy.

As in this wonderful moment in Rome. We had just arrived all the way from Australia - our long-time friends Mike and Sue had also just arrived and so we went out into Trastevere, and sat in a cafe on the main square and had an apéritif. Prosecco for Sue and I, red wine for David and a beer for Mike. An apéritif does not have to be a vermouth or some other similar drink designed for such a purpose.

Our apéritif was accompanied by a trio of nibbles - olives and I'm not sure what else, which just came with the drinks. This was Italy. An introduction to the entire glorious holiday, to a wonderful meal in touristy but buzzy Trastevere, and a couple of days in ancient Rome. Not to mention catch ups with friends and family all over Italy and France in the following weeks. A random moment just before dusk, a word or two with the couple on the table in front, who, it turned out came from Melbourne too, watching the people come and go - tourists and residents alike, watching the salesmen with those cheap, and probably tatty, but somewhat magical things that they spun into the air, with the birds twittering overhead. Now why don't we do this more often? And why didn't I buy one of those silly toys for my then young grandchildren?

In France the apéritif is often a drink specifically designed for the purpose - a Dubonnet, a Noilly Prat, Suze, Pernod - there are many more. And here I digress again to another tale of Mike and Sue - well Sue in particular who is a marvellous story teller. We were in one of these cafés I think in the small town of St. Martin d'Ardèche where we stopped for an apéritif. This was France, so Sue ordered a Dubonnet, only to be told they had none. Which caused an amusing diatribe from Sue in her perfect French about how shameful it was that a French café had no Dubonnet. At the end of it all the waiter apologised profusely saying that he was Belgian. A bit feeble I know but it was just one of those little moments that came back to me when I started thinking about the apéritif.


One more and then I will return to some more general comments. Here we are in the foothills of the French Alps, sitting in the garden of the couple centre right, who managed the house we had rented across the valley. With true French hospitality they invited us over for an apéritif before our Sunday dinner, and showed us their beautiful roses and their pet parrots. Such a thoughtful welcome to our week in that beautiful spot. And in spite of all those bottles on the table, I vaguely remember that the recommended drink was Pernod.


"In France, apéro hour is sacred. It’s simply unthinkable to jump from a busy work day straight into dinner without stopping for a little pause—and a little glass of something to awaken your appetite. No matter whether you’re at home or on a café terrasse, whether you’re pouring a glass of wine or a cocktail, it’s a moment to slow down, enjoy conversation, and appreciate good company." Afar


And you know I do vaguely remember my French exchange hosts doing just that. We children did not join in of course. For I was but a child then. It's a civilised custom is it not? And you know, the drink does not have to be alcoholic, so why don't we do it every day too?


It also doesn't have to be a drink specifically made for the purpose, or traditional apéritif type drinks like sherry - remember when we used to have a sherry before dinner at dinner parties? Or a gin and tonic.


"In many ways they were better suited to a more formal style of entertaining, when a pre-dinner drink was accompanied by a few nuts or crisps before you sat down at table.


But now, the before-dinner-drink may turn out to be the all-evening-drink with more substantial nibbles or multiple plates of food, or something to keep you going before the barbecue is ready." Fiona Beckett/The Guardian


It's not just one drink any more. And really it can be anything.


Back to the history a little - all of those specifically designed drinks - the vermouths and the like began to appear in the mid nineteenth century, and were generally bitter, and/or dry. Not sweet. It began in Italy I believe, and spread to France and Spain, then to America where it morphed into the happy hour. Then we were into cocktails which seem to be in a major revival stage, with a return as well to craft gin and beer.


And here is where I started to get sidetracked into the Negroni, because of the quote below by Anthony Bourdain, and a series of gorgeous posters that I found - see below.


“I think the Negroni is the perfect cocktail because it is three liquors that I don’t particularly like. I don’t like Campari, and I don’t like sweet vermouth and I don’t particularly love gin. But you put them together with that little bit of orange rind in a perfect setting… It’s just: It sets you up for dinner, in a way it makes you hungry, sands the edges off the afternoon. In an after dinner, it’s settling. It is both aperitif and digestive. It’s a rare drink that can do that.” Anthony Bourdain

Now if we are thinking on that food as the curriculum thing - we have now touched on art and design. If I were to look into each individual drink - and I will look at some of them sometime - we could probably include a bit of chemistry, economics, engineering, biography, sociology, geography, commerce, history, maybe a bit of psychology too. Religion? Well Diadochos of Photiki was a Christian ascetic, and I'm sure you could learn a lot more about him. And history and sociology pervade the whole topic anyway.


I suspect that an apéritif or something similar is as old as inviting friends around for something to eat. Much, much older than the 19th century. I think that's probably where real commerce came on the scene. And invention.


Initially its only connection to food was that it was a precursor to food, but then the Spanish invented tapas, and before long we were all inventing clever little salty things to serve alongside. Even if it's only a bag of chips. And they are so much more complicated and various than they used to be too. In fact the whole meal becomes a kind of apéritif with side dishes. And therein lies a whole other bunch of stories, memories and learning.


Chin chin.

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