Your essential guide to the apéro hour
To some, it’s the most important hour of the day. How survive the apéro hour without causing an international incident. Plus a recipe for a cake sale.
For someone who threw away a happy, comfortable life in London to run away to a brand new life and a ludicrously demanding house in south west France, I have a complicated relationship with change. I hate it. I have a deep, abiding love for ritual, for the rhythms of the day, the gentle passing of the seasons. Everything familiar, as it should be.
That’s what I thought, anyway.
I have embraced this new life by creating new rituals: the breakfast grand crème in the café on the corner; flowers from the market in Béziers on Fridays, croissants pur beurre on Saturday mornings, rotisserie chicken and roast potatoes for lunch on market day. These small joys, almost invisible to the naked eye, are my comfort blanket, my new foundation, which make navigating living and working and house-wrangling in a new country less dauting. I’ve always found that if you pile in a little pleasure wherever you can, it makes even tricky days more bearable. Give yourself a treat. More carrot (cake), less stick. More silk pyjamas, less hair shirt.
Top drawer would be a silver bowl of Marcona almonds and a bottle of good champagne enjoyed on very correct, upright chairs (no slummocking) and everyone out of the door by seven.
Of all the new rituals, my favourite is the heure d’apéro, the cocktail hour, sometimes taken before lunch, or more usually – for me at least – before dinner. ‘Come for an apéro,’ even saying it, hearing it, makes my shoulders go down and my breathing soften. It symbolises the winding down of the day, the acknowledgment that nothing more can be achieved but pleasure. And as a new person in a new place, it represents a delightful lack of commitment. As a guest, if it all goes horribly wrong, you’re out of there in an hour. As the host, it’s a relatively safe way to entertain when you haven’t worked out who hates each other yet.
In my experience, the smarter the people, the more spare the offering. Top drawer would be a silver bowl of Marcona almonds and a bottle of good champagne enjoyed on very correct, upright chairs (no slummocking) and everyone out of the door by seven. More usually – and more cheerfully – the offerings are more generous. White wine or rosé, a kir, a Ricard, glasses of beer and surprisingly often, whisky are usual, but here in our village, very often there’ll be Noilly Prat in some form or other. It’s made here, just across the square from our house. More than 80,000 people visit the chais every year, to hear about the twenty-or-so ingredients in the secret blend of aromatics, how its aged for a year in oak barrels in the yard, in the sunshine and salty air from the Étang de Thau, about its association with James Bond.
My new favourite cocktail is a Marseillanais, a mixture of two parts dry vermouth, one part sweet red vermouth, over ice with a twist of orange. Bitter, sweet, simple, all at the same time, like some of my favourite people. It feels quite sophisticated. It is the work of seconds, no faffing on with muddling and shaking and straining, which is a relief because by l’heure apéro, I’m often strained enough. Do try it. Santé and all that.
Along with the drinks might go some hard little slices of salami, olives, crisps – if you’re lucky, the posh ones in olive oil from the butchers’ - some peanuts, perhaps some cherry tomatoes for health which, in an act of vegetable nominative determinism, are called tomates cocktail.
A more exuberant affair, and one likely to go on into the night, is an apéro dînatoire, which feels like what would happen if the cocktail hour and a dinner party had a baby. It’s low pressure, informal, you might even be asked to bring a dish, which is rare here. Along with all of the small, salty things that often accompany a simple apéro hour, presented for your delight and entertainment at an apéro dînatoire might be whole, baked cheeses with small potatoes to dip in them and cornichons as a salute to the bravery of your liver, little quiches, savoury cakes flecked with olives and ham, radishes with anchovy butter, crudités, pâté, toasts with tapenade…no one is going home hungry or, in fact, soon. The most important thing is that none of it looks like you tried too hard, whether you made it all yourself from scratch or bought it from the canapé section at Picard.
One of the most exuberant apéros I’ve been to was one of the first after we arrived. My husband got talking to a very cheerful Brit in a bar (he does this a lot, he can’t help himself) and suddenly they were saying goodbye with, ‘Yes, lovely, see you on Wednesday at six’. Wednesday at six, up the stairs we climbed to the roof terrace of a pretty apartment.
Shamefully, I can’t even remember if we took wine.
It was pure rugby club tea, and generous enough to feed a whole tournament. There was a messy, red-faced, gin-fuelled cheerfulness to it.
The local estate agent brought a beautiful plate of charcuterie and cheese, fresh from the Corsican delicatessen and no doubt purchased with the proceeds from house sales to this same crowd. The prize property offerings here are either fisherman’s cottages in the heart of the village (miniscule, with handkerchief-sized terraces carved out of loft spaces, and perilous staircases which would have terrified Sir Edmund Hillary and which force you to choose between clinging to your Marseillanais or certain death after the first rung), or vigneronnes, the large wine-makers houses which line the wider boulevards, invariably with some ‘travaux à prévoir’. The works can be anything from stripping floral 70s wallpaper from the walls and sometimes the ceiling or - as was the case with one of our friends - opening the front door to discover the entire back of the house was missing. Either way, they pave the way to some very fine salami.
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