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Comment From The Continent: Santé! Early evening drinks à la française

Illustration by Sabrina Fernandez

C’est l’heure de l’apéro…

As the late-afternoon sky tails off into a sunset-gold hue, the invitation to an evening spent around a French dinner table rekindles the buzz of warmer weather and summers past. A celebration, then: not necessarily of one particular event (although why not?), but rather of life itself. 

Eating well, drinking well, and conversing about next to any topic imaginable. From the moment the cork pops off the first bottle, the spell has been cast and the rules of time no longer apply. Now, the pace of the conversation alone measures the stream of passing seconds.

When it comes to that savoured first glass, however, personal experience has told me that our continental neighbours’ taste buds are picky. Like the accompanying finger food entrées, any wine has to earn its place on the dining room table. Because if the haphazard assortment of different nibbles and drinks that constitutes a French apéro suggests otherwise, this ceremony is nothing short of a carefully-orchestrated affair in which practice makes perfect.

Those readers counting on having French guests over at some point in the near future can breathe a sigh of relief. After months of studious observation, this article presents the essentials for mastering early evening drinks as they do them on the Continent.

Let’s get straight to the beating heart of any apéro: the cheeseboard. Upon this wooden alter to dairy’s noblest form can sit a whole host of different offerings, however for a party of four on a student budget, the French appear to stick to the following rule:As an absolute minimum, aim to bring out three different varieties: one soft, one hard, and one blue cheese. 

Whilst I must concede that choice is less abundant in the cosy aisles of OX1’s Tesco Metro, the holy trinity of Brie, Comté, and Roquefort poised next to a handful of ripe cherry tomatoes will nonetheless set you in good stead. Just be sure to plate each with its own knife and sufficient distance from neighbouring slices, thus guaranteeing that cross-contamination does not occur between incompatible flavour palates. The mere thought is enough to send shivers down the spine.

But with what to serve these pungent products when back home, boulangeries are mercilessly few and far between? 

Of course, nothing on our side of the Channel will be a direct substitute to a proper, crusty tradition fresh out of the oven. That said, I can divulge that a French friend proud to consider herself a bit of a foodie gave only a half-dismissive shrug to this Sainsbury’s stonebaked baguette whilst on a recent visit to the UK. Tolérable, then – if not exactly stand-out.

Similar conclusions can be drawn of the second integral part that is the meat platter. Do not even try matching our neighbours one for one here: the eye-wateringly expensive M&S charcuterie saucisson still falls some way short. You would be better off bagging a few slices of Italian prosciutto and some Spanish chorizo. Served alongside the obligatory pack of garlic olives (and perhaps a pickle or two if that’s your thing), the smokiness and light spice of these options will complement any of the cheeses nicely without denting your student loan. One important caveat: be certain that you have bought the pre-cooked kind to avoid potentially unpleasant surprises later on.

Meat, cheese, olives, and bread: bar a tapenade and some other dips, that all but covers the edible elements. Now to wash it all down with the perfect drink.

Rather surprisingly for one of Europe’s great wine-producing (and wine-consuming) nations, I have remarked that France’s international viticultural range is underwhelming at best. It is no exaggeration to say that a typical off-licence will stock more Spanish, Italian, and New World vintages than some big French supermarkets do.

If you are after the satisfaction that comes with eliciting a surprised Gallic expression at the dinner table, this means you have an ace up your sleeve. Select a bottle of chilled, dry white from north-western Spain or a New-World Sauvignon Blanc and the chances are your continental dinner guest won’t have sampled either. The feat may even earn you a rare compliment.

But for the apéro purists, it can only be French. In this case, the Vin de Savoie Apremont I reviewed a year ago for The Weekend Wine List will please with its delicate minerality, whereas this Muscadet is a more imposing classic at a decent price.

And with that, the evening is set. Soak up the atmosphere and unwind over the meandering course of the conversation. When you do clink glasses with the customary ‘santé’, be sure to meet your dinner guest’s gaze for that final touch of quintessential Frenchness.

To T.F., the Occitan King of l’apéro