The apéro, this meal is a convivial moment that is usually shared with friends and family. We often hear about the word “Apéro” in French slang. Although it is a very popular term, some non-French might have trouble understanding its true meaning. Discover the origin and the modalities of this French moment through the following lines.
The Origins of Apéro
The aperitif is a pretty old tradition in human history. It started in ancient Egypt followed by the Greeks and the Romans. The word aperitif comes from the Latin word “apertivus” which means “to open” or “to begin”. The aperitif was in the first place a medicine (as Coca-Cola for example). During the Middle Ages, alcoholic beverages were reserved for people of high rank and for the development of human medicine. Indeed, the first alcoholic beverages were used to disinfect wounds and to clean medical equipment such as scalpels, thermometers, and others. Because of this, the working population was taking a drink made of wine and aromatic plants before the meal.
In France, after many years of evolution, the consumption of aperitifs was popularized in 1846. This was aided by the prowess of Joseph Dubonnet (a French chemist) and his wine with the use of quinine products. Although the drink played an important role in the fight against malaria, its bitter taste did not suit the health of some patients. To compensate for this, Joseph Dubonnet added a decoction made from herbs and spices with exquisite flavors. To innovate his presentation, the chemist’s wife served the decoction to her guests.. Pleasantly surprised, the existing mixture with its subtle and unique taste quickly became known. Moreover, towards the beginning of the 19th century, countries like Italy commonly drank a mixture of alcohol and herb in modern cafés and restaurants. A few years later, this lifestyle spread throughout Europe.
The aperitif really became popular in France after the Second World War II and it was not seen anymore as a medical treatment. Some brands managed to enter the mind of the French people and are now assimilated to the French apéro. The first brand that comes to mind is the alcoholic beverage, the pastis with the French brand Ricard. Actually, you can learn more about it in one of my previous blog posts: Pastis: A Popular Drink of Southern France.
What is the French Apéro?
Apéro is a common diminutive of the word “aperitif” which designates a moment of the day when a group of people begins to eat some food or drink together. It is also a classic activity when receiving guests of honor such as new employees, new classmates, or simply old friends. Here, all reasons can be valid: promotion, getting a job, passing an exam, birthdays, and celebrations (bachelorette party, engagement announcement, becoming a parent, and others).
There are some popular interrogations that you might hear in France:
On prend l’apéro? (= We take the apéro?)
On se dit quelle heure pour l’apéro? (= What time do we meet for the apéro?)
Do not make the mistake to think that the French apéro is a brunch, lunch, dinner, barbecue, or even an entrée. For the youngsters, it could be associated with what is called in English “pre-drink” where they will gather with some beers, strong alcohol to drink some cocktails with some chips. It is above all a social and convivial moment where you get to know your friends, family better. It is a call for good and interesting discussions around good drinks and good appetizers. The French apéro is pretty versatile and you can adapt it to your needs in terms of food and drink.
When does an apéro take place?
An apéro will be more likely to be organized during the weekend or at the end of the day during weekdays between 5 pm to 10 pm. Basically when people are free for social moments. It is well known that 80 percent of the apéro occurred during summer (I made up this stat) but I wanted to say that apéro takes place during the whole year. People will be more likely to have an apéro during summer, enjoying the hot weather wearing shorts and t-shirts.
Where does an apéro take place?
There is not a specific place for organizing an apéro. Most of the time the event will be thrown at a person’s place, in the living room or the garden. The apéro can be organized in a bar but it will be pricier to afford it than buying your own food and drink in a supermarket.
The French apéro can be thrown in a public place on a square or public garden. One of the positive points about France is the relationship between the local authority and public gatherings that might involve alcohol consumption. The police will never bother you in a public place if you are consuming alcohol, the only reason could be if the group of people start to misbehave by talking way too loud, and throwing trash on the floor.
What do French people eat during a typical French apéro?
The appetizers are named in the French slang as “amuse-gueule” or “amuse bouche”, it is pretty hard to translate into English but I would say “entertainment for the mouth”, funny right? The organizer of the event is not necessarily the one buying and preparing everything. Most of the time, all the participants will bring something small to the apéro.
During the aperitif, the consumption of a large choice of products is offered to the French. Moreover, it is thanks to the chosen accompaniments that we can distinguish two types of aperitifs.
• L’apéro (The simple aperitif): this refers to alcoholic or non-alcoholic drinks accompanied by classic appetizers such as peanuts, olives, nuts, chips, and grapes. You can add more expensive food such as French cheese or some French deli meats such as saucisson(=French sausage). This is easy to prepare, you just need most of the time just a knife to cut the saucisson or bread. A simple one that I like is some beers plus French pickles (the little ones) plus saucisson and olives, yummy!
• L’apéro dînatoire (aperitif buffets): the goal is to replace the dinner with a large quantity of small elaborate appetizers. You might find some toast with some cream, little quiches, and even mini pizzas. Those kinds of apéro are popular amongst mid-age and senior French people probably because it takes more cooking skills and money.
The most popular side dishes during the aperitif
The type of food varies according to the taste of the individual. However, the food should stimulate the thirst and appetite of the guests. Here is a list of examples of food that a French could serve you for a French apéro.
• Cheeses: Gruyère, Camembert, Brie, Goat cheese, Comté or Beaufort ou Fourme de Montbrison (and not from Ambert, go team Fourme de Montbrison).
• Deli meats: ham, sausages (saucisson), rillons (another denomination: grattons), ventrèches (a specialty of the South-West), and others.
• Toast: this includes salmon, foie gras, tapenade, pâté, hummus, and anchovies.
• Seafood: oyster, squid, and others (these are pretty rare ingredients).
• Vegetables: these are eaten raw: cherry tomatoes, carrots, cauliflower, radishes, cucumbers, and others or fried (chips and homemade fries).
What French people drink during a French apéro?
There is no obligation to drink alcoholic beverages. Actually, you can drink still or mineral waters or some sodas. Regarding alcoholic beverages, there are different teams. There is a team more casual where people would drink some beers or some pastis. There is a middle-range team where people would consume some wine or cocktails with some chartreuse for example. Finally, there is a classy team, where people would drink some champagne (I invented the concept of teams in that case to create a controversial blog post). Personally, I like to drink either white wine from Alsace or some Clairette de Die (close to champagne but way cheaper).
The French apéro is something that’s rooted in French culture. If you are planning to study, work or retire in France you will hopefully experiment with an apéro with some French around a table during summer playing pétanque (let’s embrace the clichés). Actually, you can read my blog post about the pétanque: A Guide to Pétanque: A Typical French Lawn Game. To conclude, the French apéro is part of those simple things that make you appreciate life.