French Bars: à Boire or to Drink?
I have just finished an intense bar tasting binge all over Paris. I was asked by Cider House Publishing to write a book on Paris Cocktails, which necessitated visiting 55 French bars in just 8 weeks. Quickly I created a safety mechanism. Fix the appointment ahead of time with the head bartender or owner. Sample three of their most inventive and popular drinks. Take two sips of each, take photos, interview bartender and take notes. Do not under any circumstances drink more.
That program was quickly adopted after I made the mistake at my first appointment of feeling obliged and actually drinking all the cocktails they gave me. A quick recipe for liver failure. With my method, I was able to end the night even when I went to three bars having had only 1.5 cocktails max.
But what did I find out? To get the best bars in Paris list and the over 100 recipes I’m sorry to say you’ll have to buy the book Paris Cocktails which will be released on September 8th, 2015.
What I found my research which I can share, which to me was fascinating was the vast difference between the concept of alcohol and relationship to it between an American, a Brit and a Frenchman. At first I thought that it was us Americans who invented cocktails and that we had a more “pure” relationship to this art form than others. How utterly wrong I was.
The Brits clearly have an age-old relationship to liquor and that began at the pub. As a Brit the pub is your neighborhood community center. If your family goes to O’Reilly’s, you’d never step foot in O’Flanahan’s next door. Never. You can cash a check at O’Reilly’s because they know you. You’ve celebrated your engagement there, your first born and you went there after a funeral. My local is a phrase a lot of the rest of world doesn’t understand. While beer is their mainstay, Londoners and others from the UK delight in a well-made cocktail, strong or subtle, many a important cocktail was invented over the years at London bars dating back to the 18th century.
In the US we aim to have a local pub, but we might not be proud of it. Yes we’d like to have a place where everybody knows our name, but certainly as ladies we wouldn’t admit that to everyone. We love to go cocktail-ing with our girlfriends and order any variety of fun and fancy drink, and we love anything served cold in a martini glass. The men in America wouldn’t be caught dead drinking something flaming or pink or with little umbrellas unless they are at the beach in the Caribbean. Yet I’ve seen heterosexual men ordering these kind of drinks all over Paris so why the difference?
The French have a very long historical relationship to alcohol. They’ve been drinking wine and beer for more than 2500 years. The other age old alcohols were thought of as elixirs. Take for example Chartreuse, which has been made by Monks since the 1700’s. Chartreuse Vert (green) was considered an elixir, which had beneficial properties that promoted a long life. It was taken for health reasons.
Something strong like cognac or brandy was taken after dinner as a digestive (dijestif in French) to aid in digestion. And no, this wasn’t an excuse to drink, they were serious about it. Conversely an aperitif was taken, such as Lillet to encourage your appetite.
So one can say that the French understand alcohol as one of three things; to promote or aid in digestion, as an elixir for health benefits or something balanced and easy to drink that pairs well with a specific food. In France, drink was not created to get drunk and someone who consumes too much is frowned upon.
Contrast that to an American mentality, where we learn about alcohol primarily from our parents and at University. Alcohol is used to relax, to make one more comfortable in social situations, to celebrate with and to pair with food. The food pairing, except in gourmet circles, is an afterthought. It induces a state of mind rather than being seen as an accompaniment to a meal. And none of us Americans see it as beneficial to our health, certainly not hard alcohol.
This is why I found that nearly all French people that I spoke to abhorred a really strong drink, like my favorite which is a Martini. They conceptualize something strong as medicinal. Also they rarely drink without food, which is why I found that even in the most hipster of craft bars, there would almost always be food on offer.
Of course there are exceptions to these rules, but this was something that I discovered which was enhanced by my conversation with Stephen Martin, the head bartender and co-owner at À la Française a bar that carries only 100% French products. He showed me a cocktail book in French dating back to the early 1800’s, which floored me. Here I’d been going under the assumption as many do that somehow the Americans and Brits brought cocktails to France. How wrong we were!
So to boire or to drink is different depending on what your roots are. But there is no doubt that the current craft cocktail scene has hit Paris hard since its inception in 2007 when the Experimental Cocktail Club opened. There are a multitude of cocktail bars opening each year and I was able to find 75 to include in the book where you can not only get a great cocktail but you’ll probably be able to enjoy something truly inventive, interesting, out of the box and likely full of French ingredients. The under 40’s are taking to the idea of cocktail-ing French-style with a we-need-to-catch-up kind of vengeance. But, while cocktails may have fallen out of style in the earlier part of this century, they’ve been known in France for hundreds of years. So much of what we think is new, is the past revisited and renewed. Now is the new golden age of cocktails in Paris, New York, London and beyond.