Drinking is integral to the French culture – so much so that the art of good eating and drinking, or French gastronomy, is recognized as one of UNESCO’s world’s intangible cultural heritages. Indeed, what could be more enjoyable than gathering people together around a beautifully-set table to enjoy a “carafe” of your favorite “rouge” paired with food that complements it perfectly?
Whether you’re dining at a Michelin-starred restaurant, feasting at a wedding or patronizing your local bistrot, here’s a guide to essential French vocabulary to help you drink like a native in France.
First thing’s first: the apéro is sacred. A pre-dinner drink and snack period which has become a social and cultural institution, the apéro often begins with une verre de blanc – usually a glass of Sancerre, Chardonnay or Chablis. If you happen to be traveling to Marseille, why not try une verre de pastis? It’s an aniseed-flavored spirit diluted with water – don’t forget the glaçons (ice cubes).
A bit of historical background: pastis was invented after absinthe, a high-proof liqueur, was banned in the US and Europe for 100 years as people thought the thujone molecule it contained had psychedelic, mind-altering effects. The ban was lifted after studies proved that l’absinthe, also known as “la fée verte” (the Green Fairy), like any other really strong alcohol, only has adverse effects when consumed in large quantities.
Not a fan of the strong stuff? Order une pinte de cidre (a pint of cider) or whatever else is good en pression (on tap, on draft). If you’re the fancy type, you already know that une verre de champagne goes with everything. Don’t neglect the most affordable option on the menu, a kir vin blanc, which consists of table wine topped with crème de cassis (blackcurrant liqueur) that comes from Bourgogne. Your wallet will thank you later, if you haven’t misplaced it in a kir-fueled rage afterwards.
Note: beware of the apéro dinatoire which refers to a pre-dinner drink and nibbles with no dinner to follow. This is also a French tradition – just grab a bowl of cherry tomatoes and hold on for dear life – it may not come around for a second round.
With the formalities of the apéro out of the way, it’s time to passer à table (sit down at the table). This act may be accompanied by une bouteille de rouge (a bottle of red wine) to keep things flowing. If you’re dining out, a visit from the sommelier may elicit a debate: would you like to order une bouteille (75 cl), un pichet (a small pitcher) or just un verre? Bouteille it is!
Following large, multi-course dinners, there may be a break taken after the first or second course – enter the classic French ritual known as le trou normand, consisting of a hefty shot of Calvados meant to cleanse your palate and make room for further courses.
Dessert provides yet another opportunity for alcohol, this time paired with a sweet dish. You may even combine the two: a crêpe Suzette is a moist pancake flambée with Grand Marnier, an orange-flavored Cognac, while cannelés are small pastries flavored with rum and vanilla.
After the eating is finally over, it may be time to move on to the strong stuff, in order to facilitate digestion, of course. Common digestifs include Cognac, a type of brandy from the Southwest of France and Armagnac, Gascony’s answer to Cognac.
The French are traditionally very particular about which drink pairs with a particular meal, at what time of day and under what weather it should be enjoyed. With enough practice, you’ll learn it too, you little pompette (tipsy), you. But, please remember to eat and drink responsibly!
French Drinking Glossary:
- Bistrot: casual neighborhood restaurant that offers typical French cuisine
- Apéritif a.k.a. apéro: pre-dinner drink and snack period
- Pastis: aniseed-flavored spirit diluted with water originally made in Marseilles
- Kir vin blanc: table wine topped with blackcurrant liqueur
- Apéro dinatoire: pre-dinner drink with finger food, which lasts much longer than a regular apéro
- Trou Normand: shot of Calvados meant to cleanse your palate from the previous course, and make more room for the rest of the meal. This is usually served between courses of a large meal.
- Calvados: apple brandy produced in Normandy
- Crêpe Suzette: decadent dessert consisting of moist pancake flambéed with Grand Marnier, an orange-flavored Cognac
- Cannelés: small French pastry flavored with rum and vanilla originally from the Bordeaux region
- Digestif: alcoholic drink enjoyed after a large dinner. Some say it facilitates digestion
- Cognac and Armagnac: brandies from the Southwest of France
This article has been adapted from the original, which appears in the Frantastique blog.
Read our review of Frantastique French courses HERE.