Imagine sitting in any of thousands of Provence’s outdoor cafes in southern France. The sun is shining, and you are tired. What to order? Most North Americans think of cold beer, make that an ice-cold beer, a Provencale will order pastis – that unmistakable of all alcoholic beverages of the Mediterranean.
Although Provencale prefer pastis over any other aperitif and between meal drinks; many different versions exists throughout the Mediterranean basin in Greece, Turkey, Lebanon and Syria. In Greece it is called ouzo, In Turkey raki, in Lebanon and Syria arrak. While recipes vary slightly from country to country the basics never do.
Pastis consists of alcohol, star anise, black and white peppercorns, cardamom, sage, nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, licorice and a little sugar.
Each distillery has its own secret recipe and variation. When you order pastis the waiter (always a waiter in Provence) will, pending on his mood, will serve you a generous portion (at least two ounces generally more) along with a beaded carafe of water.
Pastis becomes milky white and cloudy as you mix it with water (1:5 ratio). There is a sharp, sweet smell of aniseed and it is called, rightly I think, the milk of Provence, that felicitous corner of France where vegetables taste great, herbs are potent, garlic abundant, and olive oil indispensable in cooking.
Pastis must never be enjoyed in a hurry. It demands the correct ambience.
There is a distinct difference between anis and pastis – the latter resembles the former but happens to be less distinct in anis and more potent (by law pastis may be distilled out up to 45 per cent ABV). Both happen to have an unmistakable resemblance to absinthe that has been banned in France, and many other European countries, but not in Spain or the Czech Republic or England. Absinthe contains wormwood, a hallucinogenic that is said to have driven many to insanity. For beginners, absinthe contained 68 ABV and tujone, the hallucinogen said to have driven van Gogh to insanity and caused Verlaine to shoot Rimbaud. It gave its name to a particular disease – absinthisme- of which the victim dies.
In France absinthe was declared illegal in 1915.
One man who would not have been pleased to see it go was Jules Pernod who had an absinthe distillery in Monfavet, near Avignon, where pastis allegedly originated. Mr. Pernod being an astute businessman changed the recipe to legally authorized anis. It took off and became a commercial success.
Paul Ricard’s father was a wine merchant in Marseille and took his young son to many a bistro where pastis was essentially “brewed” in the back of the shop. Paul decided to distil his own and sell it to bistro owners. His pastis was like many others but he added an ingredient others lacked – promotion and clever marketing. He called his pastis “Le vrai pastis de Marseille”, and soon it became the best-known, best selling pastis in the city. When he was ready to expand his operation, he made another important marketing decision to promote it outside Marseille, logically thinking that consumers would be more interested in trying a new drink from “exotic” Marseille.
Pernod and Ricard joined their operations in 1975 to market more aggressively. Today Pernod-Ricard is a world- wide distiller and distributor of a range of distillates and wines. Pastis is still one of their mainstay, but mostly in France.
A curious and experiment-happy monk in a monastery kitchen, concocting recipes to find the “elixir of life”, a Marseillais will tell you, invented pastis. Somehow monks seem to have an affinity to alcoholic inventions, from Dom Perignon to Benedictine and Carthusian monks. The Benedictine monks invented the eponymous liqueur and Carthusians Chartreuse yellow and green. Benedictine, and both Chartreuse are still produced by monks using their secret recipes. Only a few privileged monks know the full recipe.
Scholars specializing in researching the origins of alcoholic beverages attribute the invention of pastis to a hermit who lived in a hut in the forest on the slopes of Luberon in southern Cotes du Rhone. He collected herbs, which he stewed in a giant pot. The juices left in the cauldron after boiling had remarkable properties, including quenching his thirst, and protecting him from an outbreak of plague that was threatening to decimate the population of Luberon. Since he was a generous philanthropist, he shared his mixture with sufferers, who immediately recovered. He then, in a quick decision to reverse his seclusion, moved to Marseille and opened a bar. This is the most unlikely story but also the most popular as such stories go!
The less picturesque but more plausible reason for Provence being the home of pastis is that ingredients grew wild around the villages and were easy to obtain. Most farmers made their own wine and distilled their own potent liqueurs. Until recently the right of distillation was a family asset that could be passed down from father to son. There are still families that distil their fabulously strong pastis maison.
Although now Pernod-Ricard is one of the biggest distilling concerns of the world, there are still many small producers with strong followings not only in Provence but also in other regions of France. Berger, Bardouin, Casanis, Janot, and Granier are the most important of the small distilleries.
Pastis is a charming drink – the first glass invites the second and very often the second the third. But be careful, very careful, it is insidious before you know you may need help to walk unless you are a Provencale.
Here is a recipe you may want to try:
1 litre of alcohol at 40 or 45 per cent ABV
10 grams of sweet fennel
10 grams of star anis
20 grams of fennel of small absinthe (legal)
20 grams of liquorice powder
20 grams of mugwort
macerate the whole thing for one week
2 grams of dried dill
20 grams of sugar