From Julia Child on TV to “Ratatouille” at the movie theater, if there is one culinary tradition that looms large in the American psyche it is French. Yet, between the many recipe books featuring everything from boeuf bourguignon to quiche Lorraine, precious little ink has been dedicated to France’s love of the pre-dinner apéritif, or apéro as its often called. It’s a glaring omission given that the sandwich has largely usurped the traditional long lunch in the French workaday routine, leaving the apéro as a feature of the French day where French culinary différence does live on.
As food writer Rebekah Peppler argues, l’apéritif is no Gallic translation of the Anglo Saxon happy hour, but instead a unique reflection of France’s entire outlook on food, complete with its own array of low alcohol (ABV) drinks and deliciously simple eats. Speaking from her Paris home, the bona fide apéritif HQ from which she wrote her recent book “Apéritif: Cocktail Hour the French Way,” Peppler shares her tips and tricks for creating the perfect pre-dinner aperitif.
In French, there are three things that aperitif can be: the bottle, the drink and finally the time of day, the actual ritual. It’s woven into the fabric of everyday life, something that celebrates the beginning of the evening rather than the end of the day. It’s a positive thing, not how we often think of happy hour…as two-for-ones and drinking to recover from the work day. It’s something special that you can do any day of the week. In America, there’s a taboo surrounding drinking every day, but when you’re doing it in a true French way, you’re not drinking to get drunk you’re doing it to open your palette.
When I came to Paris I didn’t know a soul, I was trying to make friends, learn the culture and I kept getting asked out to get an aperitif drink, just like I would for coffee in New York. That’s when I keyed into the parallels and the distinct differences between in the way I drank and we drink in America versus how I drink and we drink here in France.
I really dug into the research and was interested in talking to the people that make these bottles, how they drink them at the source and also how they’re drunk at bars and in homes. The whole culture of aperitif is wonderful because it brings a relaxed almost vacation vibe to wherever you are. It’s a pause, or deep breath and a wonderful social, communal experience that connects you with something deeper.
I was told red wine shouldn’t be an aperitif and for dinner only. Although rules are meant to be broken. Having a snack is also an unspoken rule. And for the most part, even though France is now getting on the hard alcohol cocktail bandwagon, most people start with a low alcohol aperitif drink like a vermouth. Cheese is a rule too, as most people still respect the boundary that cheese is only eaten with a meal. Aperitif cheeseboards are really a foreign influence. But, if you’re doing apéro dinatoire (when aperitif turns into dinner), then those rules fall off. The true mark of a good aperitif is when you want it to keep going, rather than move on.
I time it for around an hour before the sun sets, but if you want to give it a standard time, it does mimic happy hour, so the 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. or 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. timeline.
I host pretty much every weekend, but when I stopped making the caramelized onion dip from my book I got serious complaints from friends… The great thing about France is that puff pastry is just so easily bought so you can make olive tapenade pastry batons with ridiculous ease. I make them in advance and bake them up when people arrive, it makes everyone happy and smells great. For drinks, right now I love vermouths and I’m drinking a special blood orange vermouth a friend gave me from California. I usually just go for a Lillet on the rocks with a twist because it’s like having a glass of wine but the viscosity is different, like having a cocktail.
Go for something dippy and something crunchy, so vegetables or chips or both, then add a baguette. If you’re a meat eater, a little charcuterie. Then pick something to cut through that, so cornichons or something with a salty fresh bite. Then, if you’re going to break the rules, get a little cheese. If you’re not, maybe you can fake it and get some great butter. Then make a cocktail or pour a Lillet over ice.
Ice is difficult to get here, but not impossible. There’s a store called Picard, go in and ask for it and they will sell you a bag of ice. Some Franprix stores have ice, but it’s more hidden.
I love Canal Saint-Martin, I like the spot where the canal starts curve… where you can see the colorful buildings. Otherwise, Parc des Buttes-Chaumont by the lake is so pretty… and by the Seine, really you can just find a bench and sit on it. Or, in summertime even sitting on the steps going up the hill to Sacré-Coeur.
It’s cliché, but I love Bastille market, it’s the best one. Plus there’s a crêpe guy that’s really good. Marché Popincourt has my favorite produce vendor in the summer, I tend to go there when I want melons or cherries. When you ask for melon they don’t just ask you when you’re going to eat it but what time… It just takes all the guess work out. Anytime I go to a market, that’s where I get the most inspiration, just getting to wander through. — Marché Bastille (Thursdays 7 am – 2:30 pm and Sundays 7 am – 3 pm) Bastille at Boulevard Richard Lenoir, 75011; Marché Popincourt (Tuesdays and Fridays 7 am – 2:30 pm) 111 Boulevard Richard Lenoir, 75011
Ten Belles is doing some of the best bread in the city right now. Then there’s Pain Pain, they’re open on Sundays and they have the best croissants. — Ten Belles Bread, 17-19 Rue Breguet, 75011; Pain Pain, 88 Rue des Martyrs, 75009
For cheese, Fromagerie Beillevaire make my favorite butter in Paris. If I’m making a cheese board, I’m putting butter on it! Otherwise, I love Comté…the older the better. There’s also a small round called Picodon which is so delicious. And whenever Burrata is in season I’ll get that…it’s basically encased cream you put oil and salt on! — Fromagerie Beillevaire, 48 Rue des Martyrs, 75009; and others
The best grocery store I’ve found is the Monoprix off of République, they have a really good aperitif section in their liquor department. Their freshly baked baguettes really aren’t bad if you can’t get to a bakery. I get my olives at the market, but I do have a brand of cornichons that I’m loyal to, it’s Maison Marc and they make an Aigre-Doux cornichon. They’re extra delicious and worth seeking out. Then any Franprix for chips, their aisle is a magical wonderland…they have kettle-cooked potato chips that look like they’re from a gourmet store, they’re in a clear bag and so good.