Advertisement for Janot pastisEnjoyed on a sun-drenched café terrace by the sea, if possible while watching or playing a game of pétanque, pastis is the essential - indeed stereotypical - apéritif of Provence.

booking.com logoClick here to book a hotel in Provence

In his best-selling book Toujours Provence, Peter Mayle evoked the virtues of pastis in these words: "For me, the most powerful ingredient in pastis is not aniseed or alcohol but ambiance, and that dictates how and where it should be drunk. I cannot imagine drinking it in a hurry.

"I cannot imagine drinking it in a pub in Fulham, a bar in New York, or anywhere that requires its customers to wear socks. It wouldn't taste the same. There has to be heat and sunlight and the illusion that the clock has stopped. I have to be in Provence."

Pastis belongs to a family of anise-based liquors that includes ouzo (from Greece), arak (from the Arab world), raki (from Turkey), sambuca (from Italy) and mastika (from the Balkans).

There is a resemblance between all these beverages. But pastis tastes quite different from its Mediterranean cousins.

A bouquet of provençal herbs including thyme, rosemary, savory, sage, verbena, hyssop and melissa (lemon balm) lends a distinctive, tang to the basic mix. This consists of liquorice root, star anise from Asia and, less often, Mediterranean anise. It's macerated in alcohol for between two weeks and several months.

Producers guard their recipes jealously and the exact brew can vary widely; the market is dominated by Ricard and 51 but boutique brands from small producers are becoming increasingly popular.

Certain of the more upmarket pastis, such as Henri Bardouin, manufactured in Forcalquier, are much herbier than others. Prized by connoisseurs, Henri Bardouin commands about 1% of the huge French pastis market.

Neat pastis is usually a transparent amber (the colour is produced by caramel), though some makers, like Charbay in California, produce a "white", clear pastis and there are even some sky-blue brands on the market, such as Janot or Pet't Bleu.

In the kitchen, pastis pairs surprisingly well with a wide range of both savoury and sweet recipes. Click here to read our introduction to cooking with pastis.

 

PASTIS TOURISM

Where to buy pastis: In Marseille the place to buy (and taste) pastis is La Maison du Pastis, on the Old Port. Founded by a Belgian, Frédéric Bernard, the company distills its own prize-winning brand and sells dozens more types of pastis, the odd absinthe and accessories such as jugs and carafes as well as other miscellaneous gifts. 108 quai du Port, 13002 Marseille. (+33) 4 91 90 86 77.

Mama Shelter, one of Marseille's hippest hotels and hang-outs, has a pastis bar with around 40 different varieties to choose from.

Buy pastis, find pastis-related gifts, plus further reading and drinking on Amazon

Ricard Pastis (70 cl bottle)

Pastis 51 (70 cl bottle)

Henri Bardouin Pastis (70 cl bottle)

Pastis Janot (70 cl bottle)

P'tit Bleu (blue-coloured pastis) (70 cl bottle)

La Cuisine au Pastis, Absinthe et Liqueurs de Provence (a book of recipes for cooking with pastis)

Paul Ricard et le vrai pastis de Marseille by Jean Domenichino

La passion de créer by Paul Ricard

Henri Badouin pastisVisiting a distillery or factory: Several distilleries in Provence are open to the public, such as Henri Bardouin in Forcalquier or Janot in Aubagne.

In Marseille, the Cristal Limiñana pastis factory is a tiny, very long-established family-run business that offers small-group tours and a fund of fascinating stories. Click here to read about our visit.

Just outside Aix en Provence the Liquoristerie de Provence has a selection of absinthes, pastis and specialist local liqueurs (as well as pastis-flavoured perfume) and offers tastings and a factory visit.

On the trail of Paul Ricard: In 1950 the pastis manufacturer Paul Ricard, purchased the island of Bendor and, eight years later, another island, Les Embiez, both of them off the coast by Six Fours les Plages, just west of Toulon.

On Bendor you can visit the Exposition Universelle des Vins et Spiritueux (Universal Exhibition of Wines and Spirits), set up by Ricard in 1958. A celebration of the industry that made his fortune, it encompasses 8,000 (unopened) bottles of wine and spirits from around the world, along with crystal, glassware, labels, restaurant menus and drink lists dating back to the 1860s.

Les Embiez is devoted to the sea. In 1966 Ricard founded the Paul Ricard Oceanographic Institute, with aquaria, exhibitions and an extensive research and educational programme.

Ricard's grave can also be found on the island, while a permanent photographic exhibition, Nul bien sans peine (No Pain, No Gain, one of the man's favourite mottos), commemorates his life.

 

 

HOW TO DRINK PASTIS

Like ouzo and absinthe, pastis contains a compound, anethole, that is derived from anise and precipitates when it comes into contact with water, causing the liquid to turn a soft, milky yellow.

It should be drunk diluted: the classic proportion is five parts water to one part pastis, although some Marseille bars serve it much stronger. Others bring a jug of water to the table for you to make your own mix.

Fun fact about pastisThis said, the hard-drinking singer Serge Gainsbourg liked to order a "102", being a double measure of 51, while the actor-comedian Fendandel (pictured below, sporting a hat, with Paul Ricard) famously said "Le pastis, c'est comme les seins : un, c'est pas assez, et trois, c'est trop" (Pastis is like breasts: one is not enough and three are too many").

Fernandel and Paul RicardWhatever you think of that sentiment, Fernandel has a point: pastis is highly intoxicating, especially when sipped in the hot midday sun, so beware.

Indeed there has been something of a tendency for pastis to be seen as an old men's drink and younger consumers, especially women, have been turning to alternatives: rosé wine in particular has been replacing pastis as a popular apéritif.

In February 2011, Ricard unveiled a new bottle for the French market with a more elegant, streamlined silhouette and a rectangular base. It was the first time it had been redesigned since the pastis was first launched. The recipe, however, remained unchanged.

51, by contrast, regularly produces "limited edition" bottles in an effort to encourage people to order pastis as a refreshing drink in summer. Its lemon pastis, briefly launched in 2005, was a disaster.

But since then it has had some success with the piscine (swimming pool): pastis served in a specially designed large glass, which enables it to be "drowned" in plenty of water (seven parts water to one part pastis) and lots of ice cubes.

In 2013 the company unveiled a pink version of pastis: the 51 rosé, which has "a nose of red fruit with notes of strawberry and raspberry".

Less alcoholic than traditional pastis, it still goes cloudy when water is added. It was followed in 2014 by yet another version, 51 Glacial, a slightly stronger mint-infused pastis in a frosted bottle.

Some people swear that you should add the ice cubes afterwards (if at all: purists don't) otherwise they may cause the anethole to crystallise, though in practice may bartenders seem to ignore this. When ordering it, Marseillais sometimes ask for a pastaga, or a jaune (a "yellow one").

Pink pastis Pernod roseWhat's in a name? "Pastis", in provençal, means a mixture or mess, as in "Quel pastis!" ("What a mess!") or "Je suis dans le pastis" ("I'm in a mess"). Some believe that pastis, with its pungent medley of flavours from around the world, reflects the melting-pot culture of Marseille itself.

It's worth remembering, though, that Northerners drink even more pastis than their provençal counterparts. And Ricard, whose slogan proudly trumpets "le vrai pastis de Marseille", is not, in fact, manufactured today in Marseille.

Its factories are in Lille, Bordeaux and Bessan in Hérault, 200 km (124 miles) west of Marseille. Ricard's highest production is at its Lille plant.

PASTIS COCKTAILS

Especially in summer, the French often drink pastis mixed with fruit syrups. One of the most common combinations is with orgeat, an almond-flavoured syrup, and is called a mauresque (Moorish woman).

Mixed with bright green mint syrup, pastis becomes a perroquet, or parrot. With strawberry, it's a rourou. With grenadine, it's a tomate, or tomato. With banana, it's, even more puzzlingly, a cornichon, or gherkin.

Pastis can also be married to another alcoholic drink, or drinks, to make a much more lethal cocktail, though none of these has become a classic. A diesel in Marseille is pastis plus white wine.

And two legendarily heavy drinkers invented cocktails based on absinthe, for which pastis might be substituted if you were so inclined. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec devised the tremblement de terre (earthquake), a mix of absinthe and cognac, while Ernest Hemingway was the author of death in the afternoon (inspired by his own book of that name about Spanish bullfighting), which combines absinthe and champagne.

A THUMBNAIL HISTORY

L'Absinthe by Edgar DegasIn the beginning was absinthe. This potent, bright green spirit was flavoured with anise including the flowers and leaves of the herb artemisia absinthium (grand wormwood). It originated in Switzerland and reached its height of popularity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Extremely high in alcohol - up to 74% - absinthe gradually achieved huge notoriety. Writers like Emile Zola (in his 1877 novel L'Assommoir) and painters such as Edgar Degas and Pablo Picasso chronicled its mind-numbing effects (pictured left: L'Absinthe by Edgar Degas, 1876, Musée d'Orsay, Paris).

Other artists enthusiastically enjoyed the "Fée Verte" ("Green Fairy"), as it was known: Oscar Wilde, Charles Baudelaire and Aleister Crowley were reportedly among its fans. But absinthe was rumoured to turn its addicts mad, to have inspired Vincent van Gogh to lop off his ear and Paul Verlaine to shoot at his lover Arthur Rimbaud.

Opposition to it gathered force, and on 16 March 1915 absinthe was finally adjudged detrimental to the war effort and banned in France.

By 1920, things had eased up and the State authorised mild, anise-based drinks that did not contain wormwood and had less than 30% alcohol. Two years later, this threshold rose to 40% and by 1938 it was 45%.

Soon anisette was flowing freely in the bars of Marseille. Every local distiller - including Pernod, who had previously produced absinthe - was furiously developing his or her own formula.

Some, such as Félix Pernod, were blatantly marketed as absinthe taste-alikes which "revived the green fairy" (as in the classic advertisement, pictured, designed by Raymond Ducatez).

Among them was Ricard, a colourful and fascinating character. Born just outside Marseille, the son of a wine merchant, Ricard defied the family tradition to devote himself to pastis.

Advertisement for Felix PernodHe concocted his own recipe, test-marketing it illegally in bars, before launching it publicly - in 1932 - as a centuries-old provençal tradition. His was the first use of the word "pastis" on an anisette label.

There was a hiccup during the Second World War, when Marshal Pétain's government banned pastis in Vichy France. Ricard temporarily moved to the Camargue to pioneer rice-growing and you can still visit his ranch, the Domaone Paul Ricard, there.

After the war his pastis took off and dominated the market, partly thanks to a trail-blazing policy of sponsoring sports events, including Formula One, cycling, pétanque, and the arts: you can read more about all this in Ricard's autobiography, La passion de créer.

In 1975 Ricard's company joined forces with its former arch-rival, Pernod, the better to confront competition from overseas.

Today their stable includes Ricard and 51 as well as many leading non-anise based spirits, including Chivas whisky, Absolut vodka and Havana Club rum. Meanwhile absinthe became legal again in 1999.

RELATED ARTICLES

Main Menu