The apéro (or apéritif as its mum calls it) is a tradition as thoroughly ingrained in French culture as strikes and adultery. Put simply, it’s pre-lunch/dinner boozing with nibbles. Put even more simply + = . But, as this is France, there are certain rules that govern l’apéro.
1. The apéro is like snack Christmas for the French.
The French really don’t snack between meals the way we do in the Anglo world. They just don’t. Three (or four) meals a day with no eating in between is the norm. L’apéro is the time when French people get to gorge on all the savoury snacks Brits and Americans take for granted with our constant grazing. Their relative rarity makes crisps and nuts seem even more of a treat and is surely the reason why the apéro is so beloved in France. Merry Crispmas, mes amis!
2. Food preparation is easy (provided you know how to open a packets of crisps).
Crisps (or ‘chips’, if you are of that persuasion), nuts and little cheesy crackers are the Holy Trinity of apéro snack foods. If it’s you and a bunch of friends, buy a few bags of your favourites, stick them in bowls, and – BOOM – you’re done.
Olives, cured meats, crudités and dips are easy additions if you feel the like making slightly more effort. Someone may spoil things by serving dried fruit. Treat them with the contempt they deserve.
3. Of course, you can take it to another level.
Basically, anything you can prong with a toothpick and eat is fair game.
If your hosts genuinely love you, they will also serve heated puff pastry apéritifs. They come in many spleandored forms and I have yet to try one that I didn’t love. Even the cheap frozen ones from Carrefour are yummerama.
4. You may encounter clear plastic cups filled with fancy baby food.
This is France, after all. If it’s possible to make food complicated, they will do it. Which is why you will sometimes see little plastic cups full of creamy stuff, often topped with prawns, and tasting of disappointment. Usually these only make an appearance when your host has employed caterers for the evening and feel they need to get their money’s worth. Should you wish to try a cheat’s version, Picard has a selection, including compote of pineapple and ginger covered in a mousse of foie gras topped with crumbled gingerbread (pictured). Although I don’t know why anyone would put that in their mouth on purpose.
5. L’apéro is the place for the ‘French pork pie’
Also known as pâté en croûte, it comes in a long thin form – like the bastard offspring of a pork pie and a sausage roll – so that it can be easily sliced. No debasing yourself by devouring whole a mini Melton Mowbury here. The pork interior surrounded by jelly and dense pastry will be familiar to pork pie lovers, but it lacks the satisfying crispness of its English rival.
6. Don’t be surprised to be offered hard liquor at midday.
Being offered whisky when we are barely in the PM is surprising. To the English-speaking world, whisky (and its hardcore cousins gin and vodka) is something drunk later on in the evening, after wine and/or beer. Spirits before a meal is not the natural order of things, akin to having a fight outside a pub at six in the evening while sober. Your natural reaction might be: “Steady on, Don Draper” but panic not. This will be one – maximum two – hard drinks before moving on to wine and so much food. You will not end up on the floor in a pile of your own vomit. Why? Because the French know when to stop drinking.
7. L’apéro is the reason why all those weird seventies drinks still exist.
You know that bottle of Martini that your parents still have in their drinks cabinet? The one that was opened once but has remained there, crusty and unloved ever since, apart from that time when you were twelve and you and that girl from across the road drank a bit of it and were like “Urgh!” Have you ever questioned just why it exists? Me neither. Well here’s the answer anyway: French people drink Martini during l’apéro. See also Cinzano/Campari.
8. Wine isn’t drunk for l’apéro.
Relax, you will get wine but it’ll be served when you sit down to eat. If you are a complete wine-fiend, how about trying un kir instead? It’s white wine mixed with crème de cassis (blackcurrant liqueur). British reference: it tastes like the Ribena you would give to an alcoholic toddler. Completely delicious, plus your host may have different flavours to try, like raspberry (framboise), peach (pêche), blackberry (mûre). If you really do only want wine, then fine, but realise that you are that person who goes to a Halloween party without dressing up. It also exists as un Kir Royale, the same thing but with champagne instead of white wine. Which brings us, nicely, too…
9. Expect champagne for celebrations.
Birthday? Christmas? New baby? Time to crack open the champagne, then. This fizzy favourite will be served during l’apéro and quite probably for dessert, too, assuming you haven’t finished off all the bottles already, you bunch of lushes.
10. You can drink beer!
Unlike your dad, the French don’t have a reputation as great beer lovers. But beer does have a place in French life and l’apéro is that place*. It’s a safe choice when confronted with lots of weird alcoholic drinks you didn’t know existed. Your host may, with touching pride, offer you a Belgian beer that he has gone to some effort to find. (Honestly, beer is the one Belgian thing the French people have any respect for.) Accept it gladly and pretend you can taste the difference.
*As well as with light lunches (like burgers), while watching football, in the market in the morning drunk by those craggy-looking guys you do your best to avoid.
11. If you’re in the south, your apéro probably features mad liquorice cow juice, aka pastis.
Winner of the award ‘Drink that’s most like a chemistry experiment’. Receive a glass containing a small amount of a golden liquid, dilute with water; bizarre reaction takes place and your drink now looks like it was produced by a robot cow. And tastes even weirder.
12. It is socially acceptable to invite people for the apéro only.
This is the best thing about the apéro. You are free to throw your guests out onto the street without feeding them anything more than crisps. How great is that? Dinner parties are hard work. So much preparation/anxiety, not to mention that you may not get rid of your last guest until the early hours. It may seem easier not to invite friends round at all. This is where the genius of the ‘apéro and go’ comes in. You get to see your lovely friends (and those ones you don’t like so much), all you need to provide is drinks and salty snacks, and then you get to kick them out, change into your pyjamas, stick something in the microwave and spend the rest of the evening falling asleep in front of Netflicks. It’s particularly useful for parents of young children who want to see their friends but equally desperately need to be in bed at ten o’clock.
Note: The ‘apéro and go’ is probably best kept for people who live nearby; making guests travel for an hour only to be thrown out after an hour is a bit harsh unless they already have alternative dinner plans in your area.