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14 August 2010

Pastis. Oh, pastis. I had never, ever heard of it before I got to France last year. But I found out that it is to Provence what the mint julep is to the Southern United States–if Southerners uniformly drank (at least) one every afternoon.

Pastis is the result of the outlawing of absinthe, the famous green drink that led to insanity and death–notably that of Oscar Wilde. The offending herb, the psychoactive wormwood, was removed and anise (licorice) was substituted. Voilà, pastis.

There are numerous different brands of pastis, but the two giants are Ricard and Pastis 51 (cinquante-et-un). Ricard is to pastis what Coca-Cola is to sodas in the South; a Provençal will ask for a Ricard, meaning a pastis. And it is Ricard that I prefer. Some people in America are probably familiar with Pernod, which is not exactly pastis, but close–and produced by Pernod-Ricard, a joining of the two ventures.

Pastis is usually 45% alcohol and is served 5 parts water to 1 part pastis. Pure pastis is usually rather amber-colored, but becomes yellow-ish after water is added in a process called the “ouzo effect”. Sometimes it’s mixed with grenadine (une tomate, “tomato”), orgeat (une mauresque, “moorish”), or mint syrup (une perroquet, “parrot”).

For a beautiful description, I turn to Peter Mayle and his book Toujours Provence:

Tin tables and scuffed wicker chairs are set out under the shade of massive plane trees. It is close to noon, and the motes of dust kicked up by an old man’s canvas boots as he shuffles across the square hang for a long moment in the air, sharply defined in the glare of the sun. The café waiter looks up from his copy of L’Équipe and saunters out to take your order.

He comes back with a small glass, maybe a quarter full if he’s been generous, and a beaded carafe of water. The glass turns cloudy as you fill it up, a color somewhere between yellow and misty grey, and there is the sharp, sweet smell of aniseed.

Santé. You are drinking pastis, the milk of Provence.

For me, the most powerful ingredient in pastis is not aniseed or alcohol but ambiance, and that dictates how and where it should be drunk. I cannot imagine drinking it in a hurry. I cannot imagine drinking it in a pub in Fulham, a bar in New York, or anywhere that requires its customers to wear socks. It wouldn’t taste the same. There has to be heat and sunlight and the illusion that the clock has stopped. I have to be in Provence.

My bottle that I brought back from France is about half-full at this point. But, being as hot as it’s been this week, I’ve made a bit of dent in it. It just seems like the right thing to do.

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