CAMONT, GASCONY, France — The long days of summer stretch across the French countryside. In the late afternoons, kitchen gardens and umbrella-covered markets alike are abandoned for the shade of a terrace or a shutter-darkened kitchen.
Defined by mealtime ritual and social demands, this well-defined hour between work (or serious summer play) and the beginning of another fabulous French meal has begun. It is the aperitif hour.
Twice a day, before lunch and dinner, the aperitif hour precedes the meal. From the chic hotel bars of Nice and Cannes to salty cafes of the port of Marseilles and on across the sun-washed Midi, the whole of southern France stops in its tracks to savor the ideas of eating and sociability in the ritual of aperitifs.
The French do aperitifs as they do all parts of meals, with a pomp and ritual that somehow equalize cha^teau and farmhouse. From the soup course to the after-dessert coffee, every French feast, whether family-style or palatial, begins with an aperitif, literally an "opener," usually alcoholic but, most important, always stimulating to the eye and palate.
Here in Gascony, the very southwest corner of France, aperitifs, as all elements of local gastronomy, are elevated to a near-mythic ritual. In village cafes and Michelin-starred restaurants, the waiter reverently asks the same thing when approaching a table of eager diners, "Voulez-vous desirez un aperitif?"
At Andre Daguin's elegant Hotel de France in Auch, a cocktail maison may be a sparkling d'Artagnan-inspired mousse rapiers (creme d'Armagnac liqueur plus vin sauvage or sparkling wine) served in a champagne flute. At Michel Guerard's new rustic Ferme aux Grives, the house aperitif reflects the farmhouse menu; a delicate, old-fashioned jelly jar is filled with deep ruby creme de mu^re (blackberry liqueur) and cool red wine. In a simple family home in this rich farming area along the Garonne river, it is equally understood that dinner begins with the same invitation to enjoy one of any number of regional drinks that start the juices and conversations flowing.
Although not exclusively alcoholic, most aperitifs are made with a base of wine fortified with eau-de-vie (brandy or fruit brandy). Nonalcoholic varieties do exist, and flavorful fruit syrups are often added to sparkling water or tonic to imitate the popular alcohol-based drinks.
Homemade aperitifs are made from local ingredients. Just now, I have a jar of black and red currants steeping in eau-de-vie on the kitchen shelf. It will become a homemade creme de cassis to make into a Kir cocktail with the newly pressed wine in October. Vin de noix is resting in a crock, the green walnuts turning dark and fragrant, mingling their flavors with clove and cinnamon. Later this month, I will harvest a basket of dandelion flowers to make the lemony pissenlit aperitif that Monsieur Couloume taught me this spring.
Aperitif drinks fall into three categories. The first are the vins cuits, or "cooked" wines such as Rivesaltes, Muscat de Frontignan and Baumes de Venise. These are good examples of the light wines grown near the Mediterranean and fortified or "cooked" by adding brandy to bring the alcohol content from 11% through 13% to 16% through 20%.
The second group consists of fortified wines that, like vermouth, have aromatic plant flavorings and a touch of bitterness, usually from quinine or citrus peel. St. Raphael, Dubonnet, Lillet and Byrrh are popular examples of this group. Though usually sweet, the wines are spiked with herbal and plant concoctions that balance perfectly to whet one's appetite and stimulate the senses.
One well-known exception to the "usually sweet" rule of the vins cuits is Noilly Prat. The "secret" ingredient is the French summer sun. This popular dry vermouth is aged for a year in wooden casks left out in the hot Mediterranean sun. It is literally a sun-cooked wine. We Americans often think of it as a not-quite-necessary addition to a good dry martini, but here in France, it is just called "Dry de France" and served chilled on the rocks.
More pungent than the wine-based aperitifs, and often more regional, are the herb- and spice-based drinks like pastis, a liqueur made in Provence but drunk all over France. It's made of pepper, cloves and other spices mixed with sage, hyssop and wild Provencal herbs, which contribute their aromatic properties to the licorice-flavored pastis. Suze, a regional aperitif from the Alps, is made from gentian root, and its bright yellow color warns of the pungency of this bitter-sweet drink.
Both pastis and Suze are always diluted with chilled water when served. A solitary ice cube floats in the now cloudy liquid, as much to chime festively against the side of the glass as to chill the drink properly to just barely cold.