Saturday, November 16, 2013

Phantom of the Apero - Pastis

          My last post dealt with the results of drunkenness, so it seemed appropriate to segue into a good way to get blotto in France. I probably should have done this one a couple of months ago since it's about pastis, a drink traditionally served cold and popular in summer. Come to think of it, though, the first time I ever saw anyone drinking it was in the fall ten years ago when Cynthia and I spent a week near St. Tropez. She had a subscription to a magazine called "Fluent French" and every couple of months she got a CD of conversations with native French speakers along with a booklet with the  translation. Coincidentally, the one she got right before our trip had conversations with some kahuna from Ricard, one of the most well known brands, along with some pastis enthusiasts who provided ringing endorsements. So the whole time she bugged me to try this stuff, which I resisted because I knew there was some kind of process involved and didn't want to look any more like a foreign rube than I already did.  

            It's not like this is some sort of secret ritual but it wasn't until we went back to the Cote d'Azur five years later that I finally ordered one, after carefully watching a couple of locals fix theirs. It's simple, actually, but when your whole life is based on the notion of not appearing to be stupid it sometimes limits your spirit of adventure. Anyway, they bring you a tall glass with a shot of pastis in it and a pitcher of cold water, which you then pour into the glass. Pretty complicated, huh? Like ouzo, the cold water makes it turn milky and it tastes like licorice, one of my favorite childhood treats. Pastis, then, is iced licorice and I liked it so much that we brought some home. Sometime later, we discovered it in a liquor store in St. Pete for about the same price, which I guess is some kind of lesson in exchange rates.

            The story of pastis and how it was invented parallels that of Prohibition in America. Shortly before World War I, the European forces of temperance succeeded in banning absinthe, a high-octane spirit distilled from different herbs including anise, which tastes a lot like licorice. As usual, the charge was led by bible toting killjoys, motivated by the knowledge that absinthe helped bring some joy into the lives of the type of sinner they approved of least, like writers and artists. All in all, most of the continent was affected with the Swiss being particularly pissed off since they were the ones who invented it.
Swiss poster protesting absinthe ban
As in the U.S., enterprising resisters went to work finding a way around the law and pastis was one of the lasting results, in contrast to America's vestige of Prohibition, Organized Crime.
            Here is the story of pastis, as told by "With a passion for chemistry and design, Paul Ricard enrolled in Marseille’s School of Fine Arts at just 17 years old, while still accompanying his wine merchant father on sales visits. As they went from café to café meeting clients, he discovered that each bar owner was making his own illicit version of a very popular spirit, pastis, meaning 'mixture' in Provençal. As a result, the blends’ inconsistent and overly-sweet taste disappointed connoisseurs. Deciding to come up with his own recipe, Paul Ricard remembered Mr. Espinet, an old man from the garrigue who was a great drinker of a delicious anise-based drink, and decided to track him down.
            In his improvised laboratory, the young man began macerating, distilling and filtering fennel, anise and Provençal plants, testing different spices and blends until he perfected the recipe in 1932, declaring: 'It’ll be called Ricard, the real pastis from Marseille!'
            At age 23, Paul Ricard had just invented pastis, Marseille style: one volume of pastis for five of chilled water. In his excitement, the former fine arts student designed his first poster and label. With his father’s help, the young inventor opened his first factory in Sainte-Marthe itself and soon launched his own pastis."   
            So thanks to the disgruntled connoisseurs of homemade rotgut and good old Gaullic ingenuity, France has one of its national drinks. I for one am thankful for M. Ricard's facing the unimaginable dangers of macerating in an improvised laboratory.

            If YouTube had been around ten years ago, I would have been able to find out how to mix pastis and saved myself needless worry. Now, not only can you get instructions from an erudite bartender (who doesn't sound like he's from San Franciso to me), you can watch some local dickhead suck down a whole bottle of this shit. (If you went anywhere in the world and asked someone at random to give you a description of a person they'd imagine making a home video of themselves chugging a bottle of booze, this guy would be close, although the American version might be a bit beefier.)

            You can also find this little pastis inspired ditty, which sounds like something any Pittsburgher could hear on Jack Tady's Polka Place. You don't really need a translation but "bien frais" means cold and, if you know what's good for you, don't ever call a waiter or bartender "garçon." It means "boy".

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