The French approach mealtimes with what can only be described as a joie de vivre; a joyful enjoyment of leisurely dining that is the rule rather than the exception. As the world moves faster and faster, the French have stayed steadfast in their insistence on dining slowly, and there is no better expression of this attitude than the aperitif.
The aperitif is a light alcoholic beverage meant to stimulate or open the appetite. A decidedly un-American concept, the one (or two or three) glasses served before a meal set the pace for diners and announce that this will be a long, lingering occasion.
On a cool September afternoon in Paris, I joined a group of friends at Fontaine de Mars, a French bistro near the Eiffel Tower with cinematically traditional décor serving French classics like coq au vin, escargot and duck confit. Prior to ordering my customary bottle of red wine, the waiter took me off guard and asked, “Bonjour Madame, may I offer you an aperitif?” He gestured to an area of the menu I have always ignored, it was filled with names I did not recognize, but my curiosity was piqued.
I asked his suggestion, explaining that I was unfamiliar with aperitifs, and glasses began to arrive. I tried Salers Gentiane first, which was neon yellow with a medicinal, bitter flavor. The second vibrantly-colored liquid was even more bitter than the first. Then the waiter presented Lillet Blanc. Sniffing the glass and bracing myself for the same aroma of the others, I was pleasantly surprised. The bouquet was similar to that of wine but with a hint of sweetness I couldn’t quite put my finger on, and it tasted exactly like it smelled: crisp, fresh and sweet. Now this I could get on board with.
Kina Lillet (now simply Lillet) is part of a once wildly popular genre of beverages, quinine wine. Quinine has medicinal properties and surged with popularity in the 19th century. However, the bitter flavor was so unpleasant that it was most often consumed mixed with wine. The Lillet brothers, Raymond and Paul, introduced Kina Lillet in 1887, using white Bordeaux grapes, a rarity at the time when other tonic aperitifs were made with red wine. They further set it apart by integrating 10 fruit liquors, making their product far sweeter and more pleasant than its competitors.
It is the fruit liquors that are the mystery of it all. Sweet orange, bitter orange and quinine liquors are used, but the rest of the recipe is a closely guarded secret. In fact, a mere handful of people know it in its completion, among them 97-year-old Pierre Lillet, the last living grandchild of the Lillet brothers and master distiller John Bernard Blancheton who oversees the Lillet distillery in the tiny town of Podensac. Although this seems improbable, it is the nature of the company, which has never employed more than six people at any given time, even after it left family control in 1980.
The morning after my introduction to Lillet, we departed Paris for Archanon, a seaside town 30 miles southwest of cosmopolitan Bordeaux to take advantage of the final vestiges of summer. We piled into a local style of wooden boat called a pinasse and took off past town after charming town where the last few locals were still lingering in their summer homes. Our captain interrupted us basking in the sun with bottles in hand, “Lillet?”
This time there were three varieties of the liquor: Blanc, Rouge and Rose. Blanc is the original formulation while Rouge was a response to American tastes, and became increasingly important to Lillet after demand spiked following World War II. Rouge launched in 1964 and the trendy Rose was introduced in 2011.
Appetite officially opened, we stopped in Le Cap Ferrat and loaded the boat with charcuterie, cheese and heaping mounds of fresh seafood, such as oysters that we could see being farmed in every direction. Unsure if I was breaking some sort of aperitif-related rule, we sipped Lillet, swam and sunned until the sun sank low into the sky and a chill arrived that reminded us that autumn was imminent.
Arriving back in Bordeaux, I nearly collapsed into my bed at Hôtel de Sèze, where a dramatic renovation has yielded 55 rooms inspired by the 18th century, yet modern with cheery colors and boldly patterned wallpaper. But the city of Bordeaux was waiting to be explored. Expecting a poor man’s Paris, I was delighted to discover that Bordeaux has all the charm of France’s capital (yes, on a smaller scale), but polished to a shine thanks to a huge push over the last decade to remove soot from the city’s stunning façades.
We settled into one of the city’s myriad restaurants with tables crowding the sidewalk, then continued into the city’s open plazas. Re-invigorated, we set out into Bordeaux looking for a good time. We found it in the form of Café Bellini, a restaurant that transitions into a lounge once the dinner crowd has moved on. The atmosphere is hipster-French with a DJ and beautiful French 20-somethings sipping cocktails.
Skimming the cocktail list I was taken aback, Lillet yet again? Although it is used as an aperitif, it was proving itself to be appropriate any time of day and, in cocktail form worked quite nicely for drinking all night long. It actually holds an iconic place in cocktail culture as an ingredient in James Bond’s Vesper Martini. It is a cultural byproduct of the British’s love of using it to add a touch of French elegance to cocktails circa 1953 when Ian Fleming published Casino Royale.
Now the mere mention of Lillet sets off a flood of memories: lazing in a Parisian café, nibbling on oysters while boating down the French coastline and dancing the night away in Bordeaux. It may be more than an aperitif but, for me, it will always be joie de vivre in a bottle.