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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
Cocktail drinks in a bar in Paris. (Photo by Kenzo TRIBOUILLARD / AFP)

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”.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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Asterix: Five things to know about France’s favourite character

Asterix is hitting the box offices again, so to celebrate here's a look at France's most treasured hero.

Asterix: Five things to know about France's favourite character

If you have walked past a bus stop anywhere in France in recent weeks, then you have likely run into film posters advertising Asterix and Obelix: The Middle Kingdom.

Starring high-profile French actors Marion Cotillard and Vincent Cassel, France’s film industry is hoping that this film, capitalising on France’s nostalgic relationship with the comic series “Asterix” will bring box office success.

The Asterix comic book series was first published in 1959, and tells the story of a small Gallic village on the coast of France that is attempting to defend itself from invaders, namely the Romans. Asterix, the hero of the series, manages to always save the day, helping his fellow Gauls keep the conquerors at bay.

As the beloved Gaulish hero makes his way back onto the big screen, here are five things you should know about France’s cherished series:

Asterix is seen as the ‘every day’ Frenchman

“Asterix brings together all of the identity-based clichés that form the basis of French culture”, Nicolas Rouvière, researcher at the University of Grenoble-Alps and expert in French comics, told AFP in an interview in 2015.

READ MORE: Bande dessinée: Why do the French love comic books so much?

The expert wrote in his 2014 book “Obelix Complex” that “the French like to look at themselves in this mirror [of the Asterix series], which reflects their qualities and shortcomings in a caricatured and complacent way”.

Oftentimes, the French will invoke Asterix – the man who protected France from the Roman invaders – when expressing their resistance toward something, whether that is imported, American fast food or an unpopular government reform.

The front page of French leftwing newspaper Libération shows President Emmanuel Macron as a Roman while Asterix and his team are the French people protesting against pension reform.

The figure of ‘a Gaul’ is a popular mascot for French sports teams, and you’ll even see people dressed up as Asterix on demos. 

A man dressed as Asterix the Gaul with a placard reading “Gaul, Borne breaks our balls” during a protest over the government’s proposed pension reform, in Paris on January 31, 2023. (Photo by JULIEN DE ROSA / AFP)

Asterix is the second best-selling comic series

The series has had great success in France since it was first launched in 1959, originally as Astérix le Gaulois. It has also been popular across much of Europe, as the series often traffics in tongue-in-cheek stereotypes of other European nations – for example, caricaturing the English as fans of lukewarm beer and tasteless foods.

Over the years, Asterix has been translated into more than 100 languages, with at least 375 million copies sold worldwide.

It remains the second best-selling comic series in the world, after the popular manga “One Piece”.

There is an Asterix theme park 

The French love Asterix so much that they created a theme park, located just 22 miles north of Paris, in the comic series’ honour in 1989.

The park receives up to two million visitors a year, making it the second most visited theme park in France, after Disneyland Paris. With over 40 attractions and six themed sections, inspired by the comic books, the park brings both young and old visitors each year. 

READ MORE: Six French ‘bandes dessinées’ to start with

The first French satellite was named after Asterix

As Asterix comes from the Greek word for ‘little star’, the French though it would be apt to name their first satellite, launched in 1965 after the Gaulish warrior.

As of 2023, the satellite was still orbiting the earth and will likely continue to do so for centuries to come.

Asterix’ co-authors were from immigrant backgrounds

Here’s become the ‘ultimate Frenchman’, but both creators of the Asterix series were second-generation French nationals, born in France in the 1920s to immigrant parents.

René Goscinny created the Asterix comic series alongside illustrator Albert Uderzo. Goscinny’s parents were Jewish immigrants from Poland. Born in Paris, René’s family moved to Argentina when he was young and he was raised there for the majority of his childhood. As for Albert Uderzo, his parents were Italian immigrants who settled in the Paris region.

Goscinny unexpectedly died at the age of 51, while writing Asterix in Belgium. From then on, Uderzo took over both writing and illustrating the series on his own, marking Goscinny’s death in the comic by illustrating dark skies for the remainder of the book.

In 1985, Uderzo received one of the highest distinctions in France – the Legion of Honour. Uderzo retired in 2011, but briefly came out of retirement in 2015 to commemorate the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists who were murdered in a terror attack by drawing two Asterix pictures honouring their memories.