Greetings from France, Where It's All About Aperitifs: How to Host Your Own French Appetizer Hour

Hear from Melissa as she shares the beauty of the French tradition of convivial snacks before suppertime.

I’m writing this from the (hot) countryside of the Provence region of France, where my family spends a few weeks a year at my in-laws’ house. Our girls love seeing their grandparents, and we spend long, lazy days swimming in the pool (mostly out of necessity, to be up-front — it’s so hot!), catching up with our French family and with friends Philippe and I have known for years, long before any of us had the kids who now count each other among their extended family.

The South of France is famous for doing summer right, especially when it comes to food. We only half-joke that by the time we spend a few hours eating one meal, we barely have time to clean up and start prepping for the next one. Food brings people together, and no one knows this more innately than the French, in my experience.

As a former expat living in France, but also a fiercely proud American, I can’t help but create in my mind the fantasy of a perfect hybrid of both cultures — a deeply complex nirvana where I would have cheese and tangy green salad after every meal and have starchy, buttery carbs for breakfast while also starting my day with a decidedly American protein-and-veggie smoothie. The truth (and a subject for another, longer, non-food-related discussion another day) is that it’s nearly impossible to merge just the best of two cultures, because the cultural gems that we see, and perhaps even envy, are linked inexorably to the rest of the culture’s quirks and characteristics — an iceberg is but the tip of a very large mountain.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t adopt some traditions we experience while overseas.

One of my favorite French eating traditions is the aperitif, a convivial and family-friendly version of cocktail hour. An hour or two before dinnertime, we gather around some tiny nibbles, and sip on anything from sparkling water to lemonade to pastis on ice with a splash of water. An aperitif brings family and friends together, luring us gently out of our day and into the evening. If my in-laws are any measure, the aperitif is the unofficial neighborly moment in France — not quite the five-hour commitment of a French dinner, but a perfect way to spend an hour or two with casual friends from across the street. And even if we aren’t invited to an aperitif, or hosting one at my in-laws’, the large tray of beverages heading out to the back patio means dinner is about an hour away.

The food that is served at an aperitif varies widely — it can be as small as a bowl of olives or nuts, or a near-buffet of heartier finger fare. Some favorites: pissaladiere (caramelized onion tart), tapenade, small gazpacho shooters, pate and toasted country bread. Last night at the apero (as it’s often called), the chatting kept on, the neighbors lingered, and we found ourselves tossing handmade merguez sausages on the grill at about 10 p.m., turning our aperitif into nearly a full dinner, also called aperitif dinatoire.

As we head back to Coronado to finish our summer at home, I’m upping the aperitif frequency in our home. Inviting neighbors over an hour before mealtime (in case you are inclined, aperitifs can even happen at lunch — usually around 11:30, ending at 1 pm for the meal) is something I’d love to do more.

Inspired too? Here are my recipes for tapenade and pissaladiere to start you off. No time to cook? Don’t forget: Even a bowl of peanuts and a carafe of iced tea make a perfectly acceptable aperitif.

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