Living abroad

Santé! The beloved French ‘apéro’

The ‘apéro’ (short for aperitif) is a sacred French tradition, and you won’t feel truly French until you’ve experienced at least one. An inherently social concept, it involves a gathering in which drinks and nibbles are shared in an informal, relaxed setting. If you are floundering and unsure about aperitif etiquette, read on to avoid any bêtises!

My first invitation to an ‘apéro’ was sweet music to my ears. As we departed class from the Sorbonne, weary after learning about Otto von Bismarck’s ‘Blood and Iron’ speech and Prussia’s glorious conquests of the 19th century, we were all hoping for some respite. Which we got, when someone chimed up ‘alors, on se fait un apéro chez moi?’ I nearly toppled over in delight. ‘I’m in’ I thought to myself. ‘I’ve finally made it – I can add this to my list of achievements, along with being selected for my regional spelling bee and coming 3rd in my primary school egg-and-spoon race’. In other words, it was kind of a big deal.

Now I know what you’re thinking. ‘What a load of drivel – I could just go home right now and polish off a packet of crackers and call that an ‘apéro’ – yes, you could, but then I would lose all respect for you and probably never talk to you again. For it is a momentous occasion in which one doesn’t merely take part – you become at one with the ‘apéro’.

What can I expect?

Hang on, hang on. Firstly, make sure the hosts know you are coming. Don’t leave them hanging – after all, they’ve got stuff like seating arrangements and quantities of olives to think of. So make it explicit that you shall be attending – and please try and be on time. Actually, 15 minutes late might even be ideal – if you arrive smack-bang on time, the hosts may still be putting the finishing touches to their cheese platter.

Greeting – come on, do I really have to talk you through this? How long have you been in this country now? Anyway, the usual applies – firm handshakes for the chaps (or a couple of kisses, depending on your familiarity – but err on the side of caution, don’t make a leap in the dark with pursed lips) and la bise for the females. A compliment about their respective appearance or home won’t be treated with disdain, either. But don’t over-do it. No one likes a sycophant.

Food quantities - You would be right to assume that you won’t be getting a full meal (unless it’s an 'apéro dinatoire', that is). That said, some of the offerings I had were substantial and their total parts would have made for an enormous meal. But it’s OK, you can tell yourself that if everything is bite size, then eating 27 spring rolls is perfectly acceptable, as it’s only bite-size, right? So, like, 1/10th calories, right? Anyway. This really depends on the occasion. But generally, you’ll be sated enough by the end of the event so as not to have to do an emergency McDo’ run on the way home.

Apéros tend to be sophisticated and refined affairs

What shall I lug along?

A packet of Wotsits and a bottle of Lucozade won’t suffice here. You aren’t going round your mate Dave’s to watch the footy (and even then, bring some Walkers Sensations, you philistine). No, ‘apéros’ tend to be sophisticated and refined affairs, and you should thus prepare accordingly. The following ideas went down a storm for me.

Crab crostinis – possibly the most flavour humanly possible to achieve in one mouthful. Sweet, succulent crab meat, with the zing of lime zest, heat from the chilli, punch from fresh coriander and the crunch of a fresh baked baguette thinly sliced. Make these, and you’ll be the star of the show. Your status may rise to that of a God. And France is a pretty secular country.

Tasty crab crostinis

Make these and be revered as a demi-God for all of eternity

Quiches – Quiches, in my humble opinion, are vastly underrated. How many times have you heard someone answer the question ‘what is your favourite food’ with the word ‘quiche’? Never? I thought so. There’s more to the Quiche world than meets the eye. You can let your creative streak out here (but never at the expense of a soggy bottom. Good lord, no). Chuck on whatever topping you like - I really like salmon and asparagus, but that’s just because I’m a man with a sophisticated palate. You can craft one large one or smaller bite-size quiches, depending on how much time you are willing to invest in quiches (always a pleasure, never a chore).

Something spreadable with an accompanying fresh baguette – Of course, your hosts will have already been on their twice-a-day bread run, so you might be thinking ‘really, more bread? But that’ll create a bread surplus. Not a bread surplus!’ Please, compose yourself. No my friend, the bread here merely plays second fiddle to the main event, namely the spreadable delights which you will proffer with even trying to contain your self-anointed glee. I myself favour rillette over paté, but you could even go sweet and get a really nice jam or marmalade variant. Crucial thing is to bring the two together. After all, it would be heinous to bring them separately, and if you were to, the minimum I would expect would be a hefty fine and stern talking to by the ‘apéro’ police.

food at a French party Some of what might be on offer at your typical apéro

Beverages – a bottle of decent vino will never go amiss. But if the mere thought of choosing a quality wine gets you trembling at the knees, and heaven forbid going to an actual wine speciality store and speaking to someone for advice, then you can play it safe. A few good ‘guaranteed not to get you glared at’ options are craft beers, fresh fruit juices (ideally from a local market and the hosts know the farmer’s son who picked the fruit) or something that is native to you. Fortunately, as an English person, this means one thing (weather permitting) which instantly makes you win the aperitif (it’s not a contest, but hey, winning is winning) – Pimm’s. Thank God for Pimm’s, eh?

Now of course, this is far from being exhaustive. ‘Apéros’ come in all shapes and forms and I would hate to reduce such a glorious thing down to a label or category. They are flexible, and so should you be. But you’d be wise to follow some of the advice here in order not to make any faux-pas (I wonder what the French is for that…). 

About the author

Will

Will is a British intern at bab.la, hailing from the exotic south-eastern county of Essex, England. Having already lived in Biarritz, Paris, Berlin and now Hamburg during his studies, he hopes to be able to continue this trend and sample the finest delicacies from across the rest of Europe (and the world) before he runs out of money and stamina. He is obsessed with football and cooking, and enjoys the Great British Bake Off a little too much.

Impress your hosts with these apéro phrases

We could sit on the patio
On pourra s’installer sur la terrasse
I brought a quiche Lorraine, I hope you all like it
What you’ve made is so nice, thank you for inviting us!
C’est super bon ce que vous avez fait, merci de nous avoir invités !
Do you fancy going for a drink after the aperitif?
I recommend trying the sausage

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