In the second of our posts making up the French Waterways essential guide to French liqueurs, we take a look at anise flavoured tipples. These are perhaps the most characteristic of all French liqueurs. Certainly an aperitif in France wouldn’t be the same without a glass of pastis.
The Green Goddess of French liqueurs
Absinthe rates probably as the most famous anise-based liqueur. It’s also one of the most controversial and has a rich history of notoriety and prohibition. As a cure for indigestion, absinthe goes back centuries but it wasn’t until the late 18th century that it began to be produced commercially as a French liqueur.
Established at Pontarlier in eastern France by Henri-Louis Pernod, the first distillery produced Pernod Absinthe, a liqueur made from anise, fennel, mint and wormwood. The drink quickly caught on in Paris and became a favourite among artists and painters.
Known as the ‘Green Goddess’ or ‘la fé verte’ (green fairy) because of the green ‘smoke’ that rises from it when mixed with sugar and water, absinthe is also synonymous with the world of the arts. Degas’ ‘The Drinker’ is one of the artist’s iconic works and Van Gogh reputedly painted many of his pictures under the effects of absinthe.
The ‘demon drink’ appears in works by French poets Baudelaire and Verlaine. And Oscar Wilde’s quote about absinthe is infamous: “After the first glass you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see things as they aren’t. Finally you see things as they really are and that is the most horrible thing in the world.”
The high alcohol content of absinthe (around 70 per cent) and its reputed hallucinatory effects gained it a notorious reputation. As a result, the authorities banned it in France in 1915 and didn’t legalise it again until 2007, when Pernod Absinthe returned to bars.
How to drink absinthe
If you’re going traditional you need an absinthe fountain – look for vintage designs in antique shops in France – or you use a jug. Fill your glass with one part absinthe, place a slotted spoon with a sugar cube over the glass and slowly drip chilled water into the glass (about four times as much water to absinthe). Watch the green ‘smoke’ rise from the glass as the water mixes with the liqueur.
Pernod and Pastis
The prohibition of absinthe meant that liqueur producers had to look for an alternative way of making anise-based liqueurs without wormwood. Pernod produced its first version in 1928 while four years later, Ricard Pastis appeared for the first time in Marseille. Named after the southern French term for lazy, the drink became hugely popular in its home city as the locals’ favourite long drink.
Nowadays, anise-flavoured liqueurs are the classic French summer drink, particularly in the south of the country where a lunch wouldn’t be the same without a glass of pastis or Pernod beforehand. Cocktails using the two are also popular – the pink La Tomate combines grenadine with the anise liqueur and water, and Le Perroquet goes parrot-green with its combination of anise liqueur, crème de menthe and water.
How to drink Pastis and Pernod
Pop a few ice cubes into a glass and add one part of the liqueur. Pour in water to taste, but at least four parts. As you pour, watch the liqueur turn from transparent to its characteristic cloudiness.
Anise-based French liqueurs in cooking
Pernod and pastis pair particularly nicely with fish and seafood dishes. Add a dash of the liqueur to white fish such as sea bass or halibut for a tasty liquorice-fragranced kick. Or pour in a splash to accompany langoustines and prawns.
One of the best vegetables to go with anise-based liqueurs is fennel whose intense flavour brings out the fennel in the liqueur itself. And if you want a classic French recipe for your pastis, make the Marseille signature dish – bouillabaisse, one of whose vital ingredients is a generous glug of anise-based liqueur.
Enjoy a quintessentially French summer for yourself: take a hotel barge trip on Napoleon through Provence and take in the stunning landscapes that inspired Van Gogh as you sip a glass (or two) of pastis on the sundeck or in the stately lounge.