The Frogmarch

"I've got to pull up my stakes and roll, man." --Jean-Jacques Libris de Kerouac

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Drunkblogging: Biere Picon

I've gone on at some length about the importance of the apero, that late afternoon/early evening drink that is so important in the French psyche. It signals the end of the day's labors, whether during the working week or on the weekend, and begins the preparations for the upcoming dinner meal-- the most important 2-4 hours in a Frenchman's day.

Now, if you'll indulge me a moment, a few words in praise of the cafe, where a great many of these aperos are taken: This is something America is sadly lacking in. We've got bars, sure. But get a load of the sad bastards in your typical American bar on a Tuesday at 6PM: pathetic drunks, mostly; sometimes office workers from Accounts Receivable across the street, in for their weekly pitcher of Bud Lite before going home to a Totino's pizza and CSI: Indianapolis.

Every town in France has at least one cafe, and no matter where you are, it's easy just to plop into a chair at a sidewalk table (note for cheapskates: bar prices in France are according to where you sit--highest prices at the sidewalk tables, less inside, cheapest sitting at the bar) and wait for the waiter to come take your order.

A lot of Americans think French waiters are rude. This is a common misconception. French waiters are professionals. In the US, waiting tables is something done by out-of-work actors or college students to pick up a few extra bucks; in France to be a waiter is a metier, a calling. A single French waiter will cover 30 tables, where his American counterpart will cover eight. As a result, he is very rushed. He does not have time to nurse you through deciding what you want to order (though if he gives you advice, take it, always), and if he does not stop to chat, to ask you how you are finding Petitmerde-sur-Nowhere, you should not feel insulted. If you snap your fingers at him, or, Lord help you, call him "garcon" ("boy"), then yes, your food will get spit in. Better to accept that your waiter is a busy professional and would appreciate your help in accomplishing his duties as efficiently as possible.

Probably so he can go have a smoke. But anyway.

Perhaps you have decided that this evening you would like a Biere Picon. This is a glass of beer with a shot of orange-flavored liqueur mixed in; fruity and ideal for a spring or summer apero. Not too heavy, not too strong.

You'll need a bottle of Amer Picon, of course. According to the label, M. Picon invented this liqueur as Amer Africain in Algeria in 1837 and began distributing it under his own name on his return to France (Amer = "Bitter"). Since one only uses a single shot at a time, the one-liter bottle I picked up at Monoprix for EUR10 probably represents a lifetime supply.

Pour roughly one shot of Picon into the bottom of your glass. (Yes, I know my trappist beer glass is totally wrong for this, but almost all my barware is in North Carolina. Use a pilsner glass if you have one.) Then add cold beer on top of that. The idea is that you use a beer that is light-bodied and not strongly flavored. I'm using Stella here because it's my everyday fridge beer, but you could just as well use Kronenbourg (the Budweiser of France), Heineken (the Budweiser of Europe), Pabst Blue Ribbon, Rolling Rock, etc. If you were to actually add Picon to a Westmalle Trappist, an elite team of Belgian monks would be helicoptered in from Brussels to combat-drop to your table and take turns beating you about the face and head.

Notice how it turns your pale-gold lager a very dark color. [Photo: Note also Converse One-Stars, $20 at the Durham SuperTarget, unobtainable and much-envied in France] The flavor is bitter, herbal, aromatic, and complex, with orange peel being the dominant overtone. It seems to somehow neutralize the hop flavor of the beer, reducing the beer to the role of substrate or carrier. It's quite drinkable, yes. Do I like it? Well, it's not bad, but I probably wouldn't go out of my way to order it. You might like it, though. Tell you what, next time you're at my house, ask me for one... I'm sure to have most of a bottle sitting around.


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