Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Whisky a go-geurgh

Saturday is the feu de la St Jean, a pagan festival, which like various ancient rites, has been appropriated by Christianity, in this case by using the cunning theological strategy of adding the St Jean bit to the end, in the hope that that will do the trick. It is in fact a fire ritual, which marks the Summer Solstice, which in reality was last week. No matter. One of the best things about it is that we don’t have to spend all night having to listen to hippies banging drums a la Stonehenge.

Like most events in the region, it is really an excuse to do some serious drinking. The tipple of choice here is pastis. It really is poky old stuff. We maybe drink three or four per year; more than one before dinner and you risk waking up dressed as one half of a  pantomime horse and covered in tattoos. People round here drink them by the dozen. Several have died since we moved here.

The evening starts at the bar, of course, where you order your meal, normally merguez*frites, and in our case, a bottle of wine. People circulate the tables set up in a field and chat and drink, and drink. When night falls and the atmosphere has become relaxed and emotional, a large pile of wooden pallets is set on fire. As soon as possible everyone starts to jump the flames. It really is quite remarkable how fields full of drunks, all across the region, manage to escape self-immolation year in year out.

The consumption of alcohol here is astonishing. A popular event is the apero, a ridiculous euphemism for inviting some friends over to get drunk. The French like to drink whisky as an aperitif, a bit weird in itself, but their choice of whisky is weirder still. They sometimes produce bottles with names such as ‘Sir Pitterson’ or ‘Hamsted.’ An occasional small single malt can be pleasant, but this is neither occasional nor a single malt, nor pleasant. Some bottles actually say: ‘Spirit de whisky,’ a sort of ‘fool’s whisky.’ 

France has a justly deserved international reputation as a producer of quality food and drink. It seems all the more strange that it also seems to be the dumping ground for alcoholic beverages which few other countries would approach with a barge-pole. The Irish are always amused by the so-called ‘Traditional Irish Ales,’ so common here, but unknown back in Ireland. ‘Adelscot’ is a sinister mix of whisky and beer in a can. Gin and Coke is also quite popular.

The reason it seems shocking, I suppose, is that in their role of arbiters of good taste in things both visual and culinary, we don’t expect to see French people being taken in by such inferior products. We kind of assume that in a country which produces Cognac, Chateau Pétrus and Romanée-Conti that everyone has gourmet tastes. We tend to forget that KFC and the burger people are as popular here as anywhere else. No Burberry baseball hats though. The equivalent here is Louis Vuitton.

*North African, mildly spiced, lamb sausages. An originally Islamic dish for a pagan event.


  1. We stayed at a friend's house in Maumussan near Ancenis (by the Loire) a few times in the late eighties. He still lives in our road - he'd grown up in France and it was his parent's house. His house keeper Marie-Joseph and her husband Serge always invited Emile's visitors for apero. We were astonished at how much alcohol they would ply you with. And, as you say, whisky is taken in quite vast quantities. There was very little food - we'd assumed they were going to feed us too. They'd talked us into visiting a vineyard the next day but we had to go early. I remember one or two of us were a little green the next morning. The second time we went we were aware and took it a (little) more carefully.

    The year before we first went some other friends went to stay there. They were given so much that the wife reached a point where she couldn't take any more and promptly threw up all over the table in front of everyone. Funny enough they never rented the house again.

    1. This region is the largest wine-producing area of France. Until about 20 years ago, it was famed for producing lakes of undrinkable wine, but now the quality has improved to the point where the local wines are some of the most up and coming in the World. If you're feeling flush at Christmas, try Daumas Gassac, a domaine which set out thirty years ago to produce a wine to rival Lafitte Rothschild. It will probably set you back about £50 for a relatively recent vintage - Millie's sister in America paid $250 for a bottle in a restaurant there. Ian McEwan starts his novel 'Enduring Love' with the line: 'I was opening a bottle of Daumas Gassac.......'

      The 'apero' doesn't often include food, strange, as food is treated almost religiously here.The French hardly ever seem to get ill from the effects of alcohol, they just do a lot of staggering about, but rarely get aggressive. However, since we have lived in Sauve, the first wave of piss-heads, who hang out at the Café du Commerce, three doors from our house, have all died. Every night we hear a drunken sing-along to 'YMCA' on the jukebox, (they have no idea that it is a gay anthem), along with 'We are the champions.'

      It is a problem here, even for us. With all the best will in the World, it is very hard to not drink every day. We try, not always successfully, to have two days off every week. I've started drinking beer as it can be taken in relatively large quantities without too many ill effects. The Brits, who like their beer, have a much smaller rate of alcoholism than the French, who admittedly top the league in that respect. We always give visitors three tips: don't sit in the sun, always hold the bannister rail when taking the stairs in our house, which has a central staircase going up four stories, with stone stairs and never try to keep up with the locals when at the café.

  2. While Adelscot is, indeed, vile, there are an increasing number of excellent artisinal French microbreweries springing up: I've been very impressed by several I've tried recently.