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Apéro: All you need to know about the French evening ritual

The official aperitif or apéro is a much-loved pillar of French culture. Here's what you need to know about it.

Apéro: All you need to know about the French evening ritual
(Photo: dubomatlk/Flickr)

How important is the apéro really?

One word you’ll hear all the time when around French locals is apéro. It’s short for aperitif and according to one survey on the custom, as many as nine out of 10 French people engage in these pre-dinner drinks.

As French author Paul Morand famously put it “L’apéritif, c’est la prière du soir des Français” – The aperitif is the evening prayer of the French”. 

And obviously being in France, the pre-food tradition involves food.

“The apéro is a just another opportunity to enjoy the French way of life” says Youtuber and French lifestyle expert Geraldine Lepere, who runs the site Comme une Francaise.

“The apéro is one of the many French traditions around food. And as a true francophile, you understand that food is sacred to French people,” she says.

Where does the tradition come from?

According to some online dictionary definitions the word apéritif literally means “a laxative liqueur” (but maybe that just depends on how much you drink.)

The word originates from the Latin term “aperire”, meaning, “to open”.

(Photo: savelodiereceptions0/Pixabay)

An Anthropology thesis on the social history of the apéro from a student at Aix-en-Provence University explains the meaning of this. In the Middle-Ages, plant-based drinks were used to stimulate the appetite before the evening meal, so creating the aperitif.

Isn’t it just a more sophisticated way of saying “anyone fancy a drink?”

The traditional apéro distinguishes itself from a casual drink by its timing (pre-meal) and presence of fairly posh nibbles, but yes, you’ll often hear the term used and abused in any situation involving evening drinks.

In cities especially, plenty of people also refer to a ‘happy hour’ (pronounced in French style as ‘appy houeer’) which is a period (usually longer than an hour) when certain drinks are discounted. This is usually also an early-evening, post-work, pre-dinner thing similar to an apéro

So what exactly do you drink?

Depending on taste, traditions and where you live in France you could drink anything from the famous anise flavoured liqueur called Pastis to a traditional “Kir” – “a popular French cocktail made with a measure of crème de cassis topped up with white wine”.

But you could also drink tipples like Campari, Aperol, Lillet or Vermouths.

(Photo: alexdelor/Pixabay)

Wine is on the increase as an aperitif, as some apéro purists argue that strong spirits numb the palate. For this reason, sweet wines like Muscat and champagne. Nowadays, you wouldn’t be sneered at for bringing speciality beer or even good quality juices. 

And don’t be surprised if you’re offered a good single malt Scotch whisky, which the French drink as an aperitif or a digestif.

What do you eat?

The nibbles are almost as important as the drinks: delicate finger food, salmon blinis, olives, breads and pâtés, slices of cheese, saucisson. 

Taramasalata or just tarama in France is a pillar of the apéro as is houmous, tapenade and bowls of cherry tomatoes. Foie gras might even be served up for the posher aperitifs.

(Photo: Stu Spivack/Flickr)

In some cases, particularly good crisps will be accepted (that means no Pringles or barbecue Lays).

“If you’re invited to someone’s place for an apéro, it’s always a good idea to bring something. And bring something sophisticated. Not cheap beer and crisps,” says French culture expert Lepere.

If the nibbles are aplenty and of a decent standard, the affair may even be billed as a full “apéro dînatoire” which is a meal made entirely of apéro-style snacks. 

What do you do at an apéro?

First and foremost, you chat and mingle.

Unlike some other drinking cultures we could name, French drinking traditionally centres around sociability, conversation and relaxation over partying. Whereas Anglophone cultures often eat before drinking to “line the stomach”, the apero is more of a moment to enjoy the drink in itself, in the knowledge that the coming meal will undo many of the effects of the alcohol.

(Photo: ADT 04/Flickr)
What do you talk about at an apero?
According to an Ifop survey, 90 percent of French people believe that the conversation is the most important part of a successful apéro, so you need to have your best anecdotes ready. The most popular topic of conversation is general news, followed by how your family is getting on. Talking too much politics or gossiping about people who aren’t there might be considered a social faux pas, as these topics were ranked the lowest among French people.

(Photo: Pierre Guinoiseau/ Flickr)

So when’s apéro time?

Official evening apéro time is a source of great debate in France.

Times range between 6pm and 9pm depending when you’re planning to eat.

And while most apéros do have a fixed time it’s not that unusual, especially among young people, for a post-work apéro gathering to turn into more of a no-dinner drinking session. If that happens and you’re in a bar, the best thing to do is order a planche – a platter of cheese, charcuterie or both with bread to soak up the booze. 

by Rose Trigg

Member comments

  1. The last apero that I went to, one couple brought their dog. Most of the conversation seemed to be centered around their dog and, also, dogs and cats. The attendees are all very interesting people with interesting comments and discussions, usually. A weird evening(indoors).

  2. Last week my French friends Christian and Monique came for an apero;they brought a magnificent clafoutis…
    We drank a fine Alsace pinot gris, with rillettes d’oi, charcuterie, some fine cheeses and of course the cherry clafoutiis…..and nobody objected to the Haagen Daaz vanilla pecan to accompany it…..Apart from discussing the food, and where it came from, the wine, which I had brought from the producer in Wettelosheim last week, and who is the best traiteur in Chatellerault, Christian poked fun at me knowing how I despairing I would be at the buffoon Johnson becoming British Prime minister… vie Française….Vive La France !!!

  3. Here in department 16 – Pineau des Charente is more than likely the Apero of choice
    In the summer for a longer drink Cognac Schweppes is quite common (the schweppes being Agrum)

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For members


Regional cuisine: What to eat and drink in central France

When travelling through France ordering local dishes and drinks is always a good bet, so we're taking a virtual roadtrip through France, highlighting some of the must-try regional specialities.

Regional cuisine: What to eat and drink in central France

This section of our roadtrip takes in the central part of France, from the tourist hotspots of the Alps and west coast seaside resorts through the less well know (but wonderful) central regions. 

The following is just our personal recommendation for some of the areas we’re passing through – please leave your suggestions and foodie tips in the comments box below.

Savoie/Haut-Savoie – Extremely popular for winter sports, the French Alps are stunning all year round and a summer trip for hiking, cycling or water sports is also highly recommended. The long, cold winters and the popularity of sporty holidays means that many Savoie specialities tend towards the hearty, filling, cheese-based and calorific – fondue, raclette and tartiflette.

What to order: It has to be fondue – but this is really a winter dish. Although some tourist spots sell it in summer it’s best enjoyed after a hard day hiking or skiing while watching the snow swirl around outside your window. The basics of a fondue are always the same – a big pot of melted cheese and some bread to dip in – but there are many varieties based on cheese type. We prefer a mixed-cheese option to get the full flavour spectrum, in the spirit of going local let’s order the Fondue Savoyard.

To drink: Wine! Old Swiss and French grannies will tell you that drinking water with fondue can be fatal, as it causes the cheese to solidify and stick in your stomach. As far as we know this has never been proven with science, but it’s definitely true that a crisp white wine is perfect to cut through the rich, fatty cheese.

Opt for a local vin jaune for the perfect partner.  

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Lyon – you might think that the whole of France is a foodie destination, but to French people Lyon is the ‘foodie capital’, and for that reason it’s a highly popular staycation destination with the French. Definitely check out the ‘bouchon’ restaurants which specialise in the best in local cuisine. 

What to order: Brioche de pralines rosé. There are so many delicious Lyon savoury specialities that it’s hard to pick one so we’ve gone for a sweet treat here. Pink pralines (nuts in a sugar coating) are the city’s signature sweet and while they’re great on their own, for an extra indulgent treat you can get brioche (sweet bread) studded with pink pralines. A slice (or two) with a pot of coffee is quite possibly the world’s best breakfast.

And to drink:  Beaujolais. Stick with us here, there’s more to beaujolais than the much-derided beaujolais nouveau (although that is getting better these days). The wine appellation extends almost to Lyon and is home to hundreds of small vineyards all making beautiful wines, many of whom are taking up production of vins bio (organic) or vins naturel.  

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READ ALSO: Bio, natural or biodynamic: 5 things to know about French organic wines

Auvergne – central France tends to get missed by many tourists, which is a real shame because much of it is stunning, as well as being quieter and cheaper than the coastal areas. The area is dotted with mountains and (extinct) volcanoes which give it a really dramatic character.

What to order: Auvergnat cuisine is quite meat-based, although the region is also known for good cheeses. To combine the two into one meal, we highly recommend aligot – a type of silky, creamy mashed potato with lots of stringy cheese stirred in – topped with a sausage. Have this at a restaurant with a glass or good wine or buy it from a street stall and go watch the town’s famous rugby team. Either way, the experience will be sublime.

And to drink: Volvic. Those volcanoes that we mentioned earlier give the name to one of France’s most famous mineral waters – Volvic. The water is apparently filtered through six layers of rock for five years, so give your liver a rest and sample some.

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Corrèze – moving west takes us into Corrèze, one of France’s most sparsely populated départements and one that even some French people would struggle to point to on a map. Transport is not all that easy unless you have a car but if it’s well worth the effort to visit this hidden but lovely corner of France.

What to order: Savoury dishes often feature mushrooms (especially ceps) and chestnuts and freshwater fish such as perch are also popular but we’re going to pick a dessert – clafoutis. The baked fruit flan is hugely popular across France but is traditional in Corrèze – in the classic form it’s made with cherries, but lots of different fruit options are available.

And to drink: They grow a lot of nuts in Corrèze and as well as eating them, they’re often made into digéstifs as well. If by this stage of the roadtrip you are feeling a little heavy, try an after-dinner liqueur to help you digest (although, despite the name scientists claim that a digéstif doesn’t actually help digestion).

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Île d’Oléron – We’ve now reached the west coast, and just off the shore of the Vendée are two beautiful islands. Île de Ré is known as the ‘French Hamptons’ because it’s such a popular holiday destination for rich Parisians, while its smaller brother Île d’Oléron is less high profile but equally lovely.

What to order: This area is the centre of France’s oyster production and if you take a trip around the island (or on the mainland) you will see hundreds of oyster beds. Virtually all local restaurants serve them, but you’ll also see them piled high at markets, where the stallholders will shuck them for you if you’re afraid of losing a finger in the process.

And to drink: The island is known for its white wines which pair perfectly with oysters. Stop off at the market for a quick glass (and an oyster or two) when you’ve finished your shopping or buy a bottle, plus a platter of oysters and have a picnic. 

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Head to our Food & Drink section to find guides to the regional specialities of southern and northern France.