Pastis is certainly the image of a French drink "par excellence" with over 140 million litres of pastis drunk each year in France. But if you think these vast quantities are drunk in Provence, it's actually in the north where consumption is the highest !
Two of the best known brands, Pernod-Ricard and Pastis 51, hold the market share though there are several other brands such as Casanis, Henri Bardouin, Duval, Janot, Berger, Lapouge, “La Bleue” of Lemercier and Pastis des Homs. All are liquorice flavoured spirits made with star anise, anethod, various Provençal herbs and spices, alcohol (45% proof) and water.
The most popular pastis is Pernod. It is a strongly-flavoured drink that you either love or hate. On a hot summer’s day it’s a wonderful refreshing drink to indulge in although I prefer to cook with it instead, adding a dash of straight pastis to a creamy sauce to accompany a tender, juicy steak.
France owes the creation of pastis through the introduction of absinthe following its invasion of Algeria in 1830. As French soldiers sought deliverance from tummy upsets they found the practice of drinking bitter alcohols immensely beneficial (anise and fennel were known since antiquity and throughout the Mediterranean for their medicinal properties).
Nicknamed La Fée Verte (The Green Fairy) due to its emerald green colour, absinthe was quickly adopted and rose to popularity in the mid 19th century only after the decades-long phylloxera blight of the vineyards caused the price of wine to soar and its availability to plummet.
By the late 1800s, La Fée Verte was being consumed with such fervour by the Parisian artistic and literary set (and nearly everyone else) that the cocktail hour was renamed L’Heure Verte (The Green Hour). Among its devotees were Oscar Wilde, Toulouse-Lautrec, Ernest Dowson, Pablo Picasso, Artur Rimbaud, Paul Verlaine, Alistair Crowley, and Charles Baudelaire.
In 1805 Henri-Louis Pernod, a Francophone of Swiss origin living in Pontarlier in the Doubs (Eastern France), launched an industrial production of absinthe.
However, with an alcohol content of 72% and the added chemical compound of Thujone, found in wormwood and one of its main ingredients, the medical establishment believed absinthe to be a slow acting poison that was not just addictive but a psychoactive drug causing convulsions, trembling hands, arms and legs, intense thirst, and illusions of sight and hearing.
Under pressure to ban this substance and cognisant of its possible dangers, the French government continued dragging their heels over banning it for several years as this precious liquid brought in no less than 35 million gold francs into the State’s coffers.
Finally, on 16th March 1915, the French Parliament banned the production and consumption of absinthe; in truth this law actually banned any drink made with anise, triggering, as one can imagine, clandestine productions of the stuff in various parts of France. A change in the law in 1922 permitted manufacturers to use anise but only in so far that the alcohol content was limited to 45%.
But one man was going to prove revolutionary. Born in 1909, Paul Ricard was the son of a Marseille wine merchant. Wishing to set up his own business he decided to enter the pastis world, long reigned over by Pernod. (Pernod and Ricard finally set aside their long-standing rivalry in 1975 when they merged their two companies.) His idea was to popularise the “real pastis of Marseilles” or “sunshine in a bottle” as he called it.
The word pastis comes from the Provençal, meaning “mixed” or confused. By 1932 Paul Ricard had developed his formula enough to launch his product; further promoted in Marcel Pagnol’s film “Marius”.
In eight months, due to clever marketing, Ricard had sold over 250,000 bottles which, contrary to other pastis, was yellow in colour and not white. Prior to the outbreak of the Second World War Ricard was selling 3,640,000 bottles annually.
On the 7th April 1938 the French State authorised the selling of aniseed aperitifs with a 45% alcohol content. With the advent of World War II sales dropped dramatically and plummeted further when Vichy France banned the sale of any alcoholic drink with more than 16% alcohol content in August 1940. They became legal again in 1944 at the end of this regime.
Ricard sustained himself and his employees during the war by introducing rice culture to France. He drained 2,100 acres of the Camargue, pumped in fresh water and raised crops that led to an industry that has made France self-sufficient in rice. At war’s end Ricard returned to pastis-making. With rising orders from the whole of France Ricard’s production went from 3,800,000 bottles in 1949 to 16 million in 1959.
The making of Pastis
The recipe for Pastis is a well-guarded secret with each producer using their own special blend of ingredients. While star anise and fennel are common to all, others use a blend of Provençal herbs and spices such as liquorice, thyme, rosemary, sage, savory, centaury, cardamon, verbena, clove, gentian, nutmeg, artemisia and black and white pepper to cite just a few. For example, Henri Bardouin uses around 50 plants and imported spices, while Jean Boyer uses 72 plants and 6 spices.
Each plant is individually steeped in alcohol (between 30% and 96%) for a minimum period of at least 15 days, sometimes for several months to extract their aromas and flavour gradually. The second stage is the blend and resting which takes another month. The spirit is then diluted with the help of anethol, essence of anis, and pure water and made ready for bottling at an alcohol content of 45%.
How to drink Pastis
With friends of course and, if possible, in an olive grove, but failing that under the shade of an old Plane tree is just as good. While most people tend to serve pastis in their glass first, followed by water, “purists” believe that cold water should be first and then pastis. Ice cubes are forbidden. Whichever method is preferred, once the two mixtures combine the liquid turns cloudy; this effect is termed the “louche”. Most French people drink pastis “au naturelle” but a number of cocktails have been created such as “Tomate” (the addition of grenadine syrup), “Perroquet” (made with green crème de menthe) and “Mauresque” with the addition of orgeat syrup. Finally “mazout” (oil) is pastis with Coca-Cola . . .
Traditional method of drinking absinthe
The traditional method of ‘présentation’ (drinking) involves filling a perforated ‘absinthe spoon’ with a sugar cube and placing it over an ‘absinthe glass’ which greatly resembles a modern parfait ice cream glass. The glass has a line around it demarking the proper amount of absinthe it should contain so that when full, the glass will hold the proper 5 parts of water to 1 part absinthe. The water is trickled from a carafe or ‘absinthe fountain’ over the sugar cube which slowly dissolves. As the sugary water dilutes the alcohol, the herbal oils in the high proof alcohol solution come out of solution, being almost insoluble in water. This liberates the hugely floral bouquet and produces a milky off-white drink similar to Greek ouzo or Mid-Eastern arak or European anisette — all anise based drinks like absinthe.
Note from the Editor: To the delight of many and after an 85-year absence from Britian, absinthe is available again. A few British companies have secured contracts with tiny Spanish and Czech absinthe producers after discovering that the drink was never formally prohibited in the United Kingdom . . .