The art of dining can be about so much more than just food. Many people consider wine an integral part of a dining experience, however there are plenty of options as far as beverages go which can play a part in enhancing a great meal besides the traditional food and wine pairings. An apéritif is one such example.
Apéritifs are drinks had before the meal meant to stimulate the appetite and wake up the palate. Considering they usually contain alcohol, they generally serve a secondary purpose of stimulating conversation as well. Though they are not necessarily paired with any specific foods, apéritifs are sometimes served with dishes such as olives, cheeses, or paté which are also meant to wake up the palate. Here at Provence we serve a dish of traditional olive tapenade with crostini during dinner service for the very same reason.
A traditional apéritif served in France is pastis. Pastis is a liqueur flavoured with anise, which has a distinct liquorice flavour. Though there are a few popular brands of pastis, it seems to me that the one most popular in the south of France, especially Provence, is Ricard. The traditional way to serve Ricard is in a glass with ice and a carafe of water on the side to dilute to your personal taste. Though I will admit that I am not the biggest fan of liquorice flavours (I always skip the black jellybeans) I can say that Ricard is a great counterpoint to the bold flavours of olive tapenade.
One of the more interesting characteristics of pastis is that when it is diluted (either with ice or water) it changes from its clear amber color to a cloudy whitish hue. There is a bit of interesting science behind this curious reaction. The anise seed which is used to flavour pastis contains oils called terpenes. Like most oils, terpenes don’t mix with water; however they are soluble in alcoholic solutions over 30% alcohol by volume. When the pastis is diluted the terpenes are no longer soluble which creates a cloudy appearance.
Martinis and champagne are more familiar examples of apéritifs. While wines, apart from sparkling wines, are not often thought of as apéritifs there are certainly some wines that are perfect to sip before a meal. A wine that is very aromatic, not too high in alcohol and possibly even a touch sweet is great as an apéritif. Grapes like riesling and gewürztraminer lend themselves very easily to this style. One we have been enjoying recently is the 2010 Muscat from Joiefarm. This wine has vibrant aromas of rosewater, orange flower, peaches and black tea. The palate is also very expressive with similar floral notes along with grapefruit, quince and fresh juicy acidity leading to a fruity yet dry finish. It’s the kind of wine that is amazing for the first glass or two, but can become a little too intense and somewhat cloying after too many glasses.
So, the next time you’re out for a lovely dinner, take a little extra time to smell the roses (in your muscat) and have an apéritif while you peruse the menu.