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FOOD & DRINK

French absinthe is given geographical protection by the EU

French absinthe - the drink so notorious that it was banned for 80 years - has been given an EU protected status.

French absinthe is given geographical protection by the EU
The notorious drink is now legal and even protected by the EU. Photo: AFP

The highly potent green drink – widely associated with Belle Epoque artistic figures such as Toulouse-Lautrec and Van Gogh – was banned in France in 1915 because it reputedly sent people mad.

It was allowed back on sale in 2000 after manufacturers agreed to reduce the quantity of certain ingredients, but this week has taken another step towards respectability after the EU awarded a Protected Geographical Status label to Absinthe de Pontarlier.

READ ALSO From Calvados to Chartreuse: The ultimate booze map of France


The Absinthe drinker by Pablo Picasso – the drink's reputation made it the subject of many works of art. Photo: AFP

That means that anything branded Absinthe de Pontarlier must now have been made according to the traditional methods in the commune of Pontarlier – part of the Bourgogne-Franche-Comté region that nestles on the border with Switzerland.

Philippe Chapon, vice president of the Route de l'absinthe group, said: “This label is a guarantee that says: in Pontarlier and its surroundings, we distill real absinthe that has been grown here, in the Arlier plain, and that is made according to such quality principles.

“That's a hell of a step forward!”

The aniseed flavoured green spirit is made from a mixture of herbs including green anise and fennel, but to be true absinthe it must contained wormwood.
 
It is the active ingredient in wormwood – thujone – that was reputed to be the ingredient that caused people to hallucinate and display strange behaviour, although the extremely high alcohol content of absinthe (up to 74 percent proof) was probably also a factor.
 
The levels of thujone have now been reduced, although the wormwood is still used to give the drink its distinctive taste. Scientific tests in the 1970s determined that there are no hullucinogens in absinthe. 
 
Absinthe producer Francçois Guy told French newspaper Le Parisien: “Its quantity has been reduced to become harmless, but it remains essential for taste.
 
“It was mainly the alcohol content and the huge quantities of absinthe consumed during the Belle Époque that caused serious damage.”
 
Traditional absinthe producer François Guy. Photo: AFP
 
Absinthe has been made in France since at least the 1700s but grew in popularity from the 1840s, when it was given to French troops as a malaria preventative.
 
Although it is often associated with the artistic set of Belle Epoque Paris, the drink was highly popular right across France – by 1910 the French were drinking 36 million litres a year of it.
 
Mass production made it cheap and it was a regular sight on bar and café terraces. Advertising campaigns by prominent artists of the day helped raise its profile and it also acquired a nickname – la fée verte (the green fairy).
 
However the party came to an abrupt end in 1915 when the French government banned it over due to health concerns, following in the footsteps of many other European countries which had already forbidden the drink.
 
After the ban pastis – which also has an aniseed flavour – grew in popularity.
 
After several decades of campaigning from traditional absinthe makers the ban was finally lifted in 2000, after they had agreed to lower the alcohol content and the amount of wormwood.
 
The standard size of a serving also decreased and today absinthe is usually drunk with water, and sometimes a sugar cube. There are also several absinthe cocktails available such as the absinthe frappé.
 

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FRANCE EXPLAINED

Apéro to digestif: What to expect from every step of a French dinner

Whether it's Christmas dinner with your French in-laws or a meal with some new friends or neighbours, after you have been in France for some time you will probably be invited for dinner in a French home - so what should you expect and what manners do you need to know about? 

Apéro to digestif: What to expect from every step of a French dinner

In France, like every other country, manners and formalities vary – where you are in France, the age of the people you are socialising with and the social setting will all have an impact – some families are very formal and traditional while others are more casual.

Naturally the occasion matters too – a formal state dinner is very different to being invited round for a family meal with some parents from your kids’ school.

But here is a guide to some of the things you can expect, the first thing being that – in general – French dinners last longer than in the anglophone world and have several different courses, with short pauses in between that are intended to help facilitate socialising.

When you walk into your French friend’s home, the first thing you should do is say hello to everyone that is already there. Many anglophones underestimate the importance of saying bonsoir, and as such, risk being perceived as rude by giving a general ‘hello’ to the whole room.

There are some other faux-pas to keep in mind while eating in a French home, like keeping your hands on the table rather than in your lap. You can learn more from The Local’s guide on table etiquette:

READ MORE: Cheese knives, hands and wine glasses – French table manners explained

Step 1: Aperitifs

This initial step typically involves a light alcoholic beverage before food is served. Apéro has its own culture and  if you’re invited to apéro don’t expect food beyond a few little snacks. Apéro generally takes place between 6pm and 9pm, though certainly before dinner.

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

But before your big meal with your French friends or family, you will likely be offered a glass of something – whether that be champagne, Kir (or Kir Breton, if you find yourself in Brittany), Pastis (for those in the south) or a light cocktail. This is the time of night where people are chatting with a drink in their hand, and that drink will likely be influenced by the region you are visiting, so if you are in the south west you might enjoy an Aperitif of sweet wine or a Pinneau if you’re in Charente.

In terms of snacks, the relatively universal trend is light and salty – so you might expect to see olives and nuts, and perhaps even some raw vegetables with a dip. 

For those looking to avoid alcohol, soda or sparkling water, like Perrier is often the go-to alternative.

Step 2: The Entrée

The entrée – not to be confused with the main course, as it often is in the United States – is the first course – the starter or apetizer. In French, the verb entrer means “to enter” and this is the symbolic start of the meal.

As with most parts of your French dinner party, the food and drink offered will depend on regional tastes, as well as what is in season. For example, during the winter, you might have an onion soup. 

The first course is often cold or room-temperature foods – like Œuf mayonnaise. Some other common appetizers are smoked salmon canapé and escargot, the latter most common in Burgundy.

If you are along the Mediterranean, you might be offered tapenade – a purée of chopped olives, capers, and anchovies, and if you are on France’s western coast you might eat oysters.

If you are given a specific utensil to eat with – for instance a special fork for snails or a long pick for bulots (whelks) – then that should be used. If you’re having oysters they are traditionally slurped, all in one go, straight from the shell.

At this point in the meal, there will likely be  bread on the table to accompany the food but remember to save some room, because there are lots more courses to come. 

Step 3: The Main Course

Now it is time for the plat principal. Hopefully you are still hungry.

Tradition dictates that you should let your host serve you with wine, and old-fashioned French households would say that this rule applies specifically to women, who should wait for a man to come pour their wine. That being said, times have changed and most younger French people cheerfully ignore this. 

The wine poured will be paired with the meal, and the French abide by the general rules that red wine goes with red meat and tomato-based dishes, while white wine goes with fish, seafood, and dessert.

One for Americans – in France it’s considered polite to keep your fork in your left hand, and your knife in your right, and try to avoid the temptation of switching as you cut through the meat.

While it is considered polite to finish what is on your plate, if you find yourself getting full you can always say “C’était délicieux, mais ça suffit” (It was delicious, but that’s enough). While it may be tempting to tell your host “Je suis plein” (I am full) – be careful of false friends, you might be accidentally telling your host that you are pregnant. 

READ MORE: From rude to mince: 21 French ‘false friends’ that look English

Step 4: Dairy

This step in the French dinner timeline is not for the lactose-intolerant. After finishing the main dish, your French host will likely take out a cheese platter.

As there are hundreds of different types of French cheeses, it would take a long time to list all of the possible options you might encounter. The main thing to remember is not to use your hands (or your fork) when eating cheese. That might sound a bit tricky, so you can consult The Local’s cheese etiquette guide to prepare for this part of the meal.

READ MORE: Best Briehaviour: Your guide to French cheese etiquette

In some households – especially with children – your host might offer you a yogurt instead of cheese. This will likely be a small pot (cup) of a plain yogurt that you can add fresh fruit or compote (cooked fruit) to.

Step 5: Dessert

Dessert in France comes after cheese (not before as in the UK) and is generally quite small. Do not go into the meal expecting to leave lots of space in your stomach for a huge, sugary banana split ice cream or a sticky toffee pudding and custard. Instead, dessert might consist of some light pastries, chocolate, or small crème brûlée (when eating crème brûlée it’s considered elegant to tap the burnt sugar layer to break it first, rather than just shoving your spoon into the dish).

While eating dessert, you might be offered a sweet wine, like one from Sauternes.

Step 6: Coffee

At this point, it might be pretty late at night, but you will likely still be offered a coffee. Typically, this will be an espresso. If you want a little dash of milk in your short coffee, you can always ask for a noisette

Step 7: Digestif

This is the true end to the meal. Now that you have finished eating, and you’ve likely had a few glasses of wine, your host might put away the wine and take out a bottle of Cognac, Amagnac or similar.

The digestif is meant to settle your stomach, and they’re usually pretty strong so be careful if you have to be up early the next morning. Depending on where you are in France you will often be offered a local speciality like a Calvados (apple brandy) if you’re in Normandy.

Digestif: Do France’s after-dinner drinks actually help to settle your stomach?

Children

If you’re invited for a family meal, expect that the children will eat with you and will probably eat the same thing.

Depending on the age, the children might go away and play while the adults have the cheese and dessert courses and continue to chat but it’s usual for even young children to sit at the table and eat the first course and main course with their parents.

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