L’apéro: it’s not a happy hour, not a dinner, not a barbecue. But what is it?
Short for l’apéritif, l’apéro is a quintessentially French activity that is difficult to define because there is no American equivalent.
L’apéro is the part of the day when the French stop doing what they’re doing and convene for a drink over small plates. It’s around the time of day when shadows get longer and the sun starts to set. It’s after work, before dinner, before a party, even before a dinner party — sometimes it is the dinner party and becomes un apéro dînatoire. It’s always with company; no one is alone at a bar nursing a Pilsner for l’apéro. Company is what makes it a familial ritual: the day winds down and there’s nothing left to do but have good food and drinks with friends.
Here’s how to have your own French apéro. You can modify these guidelines to be as minimalist or formal as you want. Apéros are just as much fun with a best friend or two at your kitchen table as they are with group of friends in your backyard with beautiful spreads of food and ample libations.
Unlike in France where you can take your wine, cheese, and friends to a parc or quai for a drink, you will be fined or arrested for that in the US (except for in the very progressive New Orleans). To avoid arrest, use a backyard, a rooftop, a room with lots of windows and natural light, or even a fire escape (if it’s just an apéro for two).
No need for streamers, candles, placemats. Apéros are casual affairs. Just make sure you have enough glasses, napkins, toothpicks, boards or large plates for serving, small plates for eating off of, and comfortable seating.
If you really feel the urge to dress up your home, get a bouquet of fresh flowers and split it up into several smaller vases so as not to block any one person’s view of the food.
Every good apéro has something alcoholic to drink. Wine is always recommended, and beer is good too. A pastis is an essential. The most popular brands for this anise-flavoured drink is Ricard. Lemonade and a pitcher of water are good to have as well.
Although drinks are essential to any apéro, elaborate cocktails are not necessary. This integral part of the day is meant to cultivate a relaxing ambiance, so no one needs to be stuck in the kitchen or behind the bar!
Wine: Dry, light white wine like a Chablis, Graves, or Touraine. (A sweeter white like a Muscat might be served early to “wake up the taste buds.”) If you really want a red, get a light one like a Bourgogne. Rosé is nice too, especially in summer. Make sure your white and rosé are served cold (as they should be).
Beer: Something French or Belgian
None of your food should need cooking or additional attention. You’re buying components to be mixed and matched. If you want to make something in advance like mini quiches that’s fine, but, again, no one should be stuck cooking in the kitchen. (Remember there’s still dinner to be made!)
Cheese: Tomme de Savoie, Beaufort, Comté, chèvre, mozzarella, Fourme d’Ambert, Camembert (just pick a soft, semi-soft, medium-hard, and hard cheese, from a sheep, cow, and goat)
Charcuterie: saucisson sec, jambon sec, prosciutto
Spreads/dips: tapenade, rillettes, terrine, fig jam, tomato pesto (or regular), tzatziki, hummus
Fruits/veggies: cherry tomatoes, carrot sticks, radishes, cucumber, melon, grapes, cornichons
Salty bites: nuts, olives
Vehicles: baguette, pain de campagne (sliced), pain aux olives, bruschetta, pita chips
As for plating, some of the food should be put on platters, some can go in bowls, some in baskets, and others should be assembled. Take a piece of baguette and spread some tomato pesto and black olives on it. Top a slice of pain de campagne with Fourme d’Ambert and radishes. Put chèvre and diced tomatoes on bruschetta. Don’t stress about making a lot, it’s not a tea party with all sandwiches and toasts preassembled. You’re making a few to inspire, not to spoon feed your guests. (For the simplest apéro, serve wine, cheese, and bread).
American happy hour usually happens sometime between 4pm and 7pm. French apéro, on the other hand, often happens between 6pm and 9pm. When you host an apéro, be prepared for the conversation, food, and drink to last anywhere between an hour to three hours; there are no time constraints. If your apéro lasts a bit longer, it may spontaneously turn into the previously mentioned apéro dînatoire. But don’t worry, the casual precedent remains, so you can just pop something store-bought into the oven and continue your apéro. (Or, if you’ve been expecting everyone to hang, a simple roast chicken and some salade will do the trick!)
Invite your faves
One friend, five friends, fifteen friends. Invite as many people as you want as long as the space is large enough for people to move freely, socialize, and grab a seat if they want it; it should still feel intimate (an apéro is not a house party). No formal invitation is necessary, a Facebook message or a group text will do.
If you are the one invited to an apéro, it is always good to bring something. If the host says to bring food, put your Costco card away, you’re not going to be bringing a pallet of food. Shop local at a boulangerie, boucherie, or épicerie.
When guests arrive show them where the food and drinks are, then enjoy. The only things you’ll need to do are open the door for guests, direct them to the food and drink, make sure you don’t run out of glasses, and enjoy your French apéro. Santé!