When you first sit down for a meal in a French restaurant, the server will ask if you’d like to start with an apéritif. This is a refreshing alcoholic drink, other than wine, that stimulates the appetite. Apéritifs were historically composed of a base of certain plants meant to help digestion, like aniseed. A digestif is for the end of the meal and apparently also helps with digestion. These are all possibly excuses to eat more- but I’m not arguing with that!
A French and Italian Tradition
I think it’s a shame not to try some of these when travelling. You’ll get a glimpse into local culture. Up until recently, most farming families had their own homemade concoctions brewing in the barn. I still know a few people that make their own liqueurs. For example, we were at a friend’s house recently when after the meal, the host stepped into the room curiously holding up a large ladle in his hand. With a serious face, he ordered us to follow him. He took us to the garage and in the dim light we lifted up the lids of curious pots where we tasted homemade quince wine and a limoncello, or “orangecello” made with oranges and cloves. I knew then that these were my kind of people.
Many restaurants will propose their own house-made apéritifs, which is a fun way to discover local flavours. To ask: “Aviez-vous des apéritifs maison?”.
Most Common French Apéritifs
If they don’t have house-made apéritifs, servers will offer you the most common such as a Blanc-Cassis (white wine with a few drops of crème de cassis/blackcurrent liqueur), a Kir Royal (champagne with crème de Cassis), muscat (sweet wine), or Martini Blanc or rouge (be aware martini lovers- French style martinis are not what James bond orders. They are a sweet Vermouth that is poured over ice cubes. If you want a Bond-style Martini, ask for a “Martini Sec”. They may not do it in a restaurant as the French don’t really have a cocktail culture, especially in Provence. However, some hotels make excellent house cocktails.
If you want to impress your waiter, ask for a Provençal apéritif. Such as one of the below.
This ties with rosé as the drink of Provence (though I’m certain there are people that would like to argue with me about that). Pastis is the grandchild of absinthe (that wonderful alcohol known as the “green fairy” that Van Gogh so liked). Pastis is made with various types of fennel, wild and sweet, which creates an aniseed flavour. If you’re not a mediterranean this is an acquired taste. However, a delight ordered on a café terrasse in the hot summer sun.
Pastis is usually served in a tall glass with an ice cube and a jug of water. You then water down the Pastis to your liking. If you’re drinking quite a few of them at a dive bar- they’ll come pre-mixed. There are many brands of Pastis and a lot of arguing over the merits of the two most famous producers Pastis 51 and Ricard. The traditional drink of the pétanque game, people take sides about this as much as they do with soccer/football teams in this part of the world.
I suggest, rather than joining the debate of these 2 large brands, try some of the better artisanal Pastis brands. Henri Bardouin made in Forcalquier is an example. You can even find whole stores dedicated to Pastis such as:
Pastis with Syrups
If you’d like to calm that aniseed flavour down a little, Pastis combined with syrups is very popular as well. I would suggest ordering the “Mouresque” Pastis with a bit of Orgeat or almond syrup, named after the Moors. Or, the “Tomate” which is Pastis combined with a dash of Grenadine.
This is an apéritif (a bit of a tongue twister as well) made with white wine from the Luberon, peaches, peach leaves picked in autumnn, cane sugar and alcohol. It’s quite delicious!
Vin de Noix 15°
Walnut wine is made with unripe green walnuts that have been macerated in red wine, sugar and alcohol. Some are made with added spices. The resulting drink is similar to Port. If you’d like to try and make it yourself, see our homemade walnut recipe. If you like Port (like me!) And are contemplating visiting where it’s made, see my articles about Porto.
Rosé Piscine en Provence
This is rosé served in a large glass with added ice cubes. I wouldn’t suggest ordering this in a restaurant or you may get a couple sideways glances. I’ve even seen someone order a champagne-piscine which certainly makes no sense? Either way, this is a fun drink for café terraces where it’s 35°C and you’re people watching.
La Melonade 12° Melonade d’Eyguebelle
This is an apéritif made in the Drôme area. It’s like drinking a bit of melon-flavoured sunshine. It’s made with Cavaillon melons and cane sugar. Pair it with foie gras, a strong blue cheese or a bit of ham. This drink is a little lesser known and just one example of the many types of such products that made with clementines, Bergamot and more that you’ll find often made by small producers on the markets.
Gentiane de Lure 16°
Apéritif made with white wine, alcohol, gentian roots, citrus and quinquina.
Orange Colombo 15°
Apéritif made with rosé with, infused oranges, and Quinquina (Quinine).
Artisanal Gin made in Avignon. Most restaurants won’t have this but look for it in upmarket grocery stores. Makes a unique gift. Visit this distillery to discover their other products such as Lemon Bergamot Liqueur and more. The distillery website: Manguin en Provence.
Visit a Provence Distillery To Taste Multiple!
If you want to try many of these in one place, head to the distilleries Provence in Forcalquier where Vin de Noix, Pastis, Gentiane de Lure, Orange Colombo and Rinquinquin are made.
Our favourites on this list are the Pastis Mouresque, Vin de Noix, Muscat wine and Rinquinquin. Tell us your favourites in the comments below!