Drinking Through Dinner

Enjoying a drink with dinner is one of life’s simple pleasures.  A drink before the meal, or one following with dessert, can transform even the most basic of meals into a royal experience.

With the Thanksgiving holiday meal just around the corner, what better time to add a little something special to the menu.  Yet you don’t have to wait until the food is served: apéritifs are meant to be enjoyed prior to eating, as a means to prepare yourself to eat. (Of note, “‘apéritif’ is a French word derived from the Latin verb aperire, which means ‘to open.’”)

Apéritifs and digestifs have long been enjoyed in European capitals for their purported assistance with digestion.  Today, these pre- and post-dinner drinks are now a part of the meal itself, a fitting introduction and conclusion to a delicious culinary experience.  So to get you thinking of a fine holiday meal addition – Thanksgiving, Christmas, or even New Year’s – here are a few of my favorites.

Before:

Pastis – An anise-flavored liqueur mixed with ice cold water and usually poured from a clay pot bearing the insignia of Pernod Ricard, the Frenchman responsible for commercializing and popularizing the milky white drink.  Refreshing on its own, or best before a meal of traditional French fare.

Lillet – Fortified wine that comes in blanc and rouge varieties.  Like its cousin vermouth, it is marvelous poured on its own over crushed ice or used alongside a spirit in a cocktail.  As in, how James Bond preferred his Vesper Martinis: Lillet, gin, and dry vermouth.

Dubonnet – A darker and more mysterious fortified wine than Lillet, Dubonnet’s flavors of cinnamon, herbs, and quinine make for a moodier, more brooding drink than the lighter flavors of pastis and Lillet.  (I prefer it after dinner instead, with a small piece of dark chocolate.)

After:

Absinthe – Once spooky and prohibited, absinthe can now be freely enjoyed without fear of hallucination.  Perhaps that takes a little fun out of it.  Regardless, enjoy a glass as well as the process – the slotted spoon, the sugar cube, the fountain, and emulsification – of preparing the drink.

Becherovka – Though Prague is known for absinthe, it’s this drink – a spicy-sweet cinnamon liqueur sometimes enjoyed neat or mixed with tonic water – that Czechs truly enjoy.  Originally made with a combination of secret ingredients by the Becher family in a small Bohemian town, Becherovka still remains largely unknown outside the Czech Republic.

Fernet – Another near-unknown outside Argentina and Italy, this surly, dark, and bitter amaro is enjoyed by both young and old alike.  Here in the states, enterprising bartenders and adventurous drinkers have helped Fernet’s popularity quickly grow in places like San Francisco, New York City, and even here in Washington, DC.

Published in: on November 20, 2012 at 11:47 pm  Comments (3)  
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Dinner with la Fée Verte

Following a wonderfully delicious meal of French cuisine, my wife decided on a second Kir Royale for dessert.  The restaurant – a relative new-comer to Capitol Hill tucked into a row house along Massachusetts Avenue – was slowly emptying out.  Old salon music quietly mingled with the few remaining conversations.

I looked around and pondered whether I wanted an after dinner drink.  Candlelight shadows danced on the dark and patterned wallpaper, gently illuminating neatly framed pictures of dancing Parisians dressed in tuxedos and tight red dresses.  I had already enjoyed two glasses of lightly sweet Côtes du Rhône Domaine Ferraton 2007; perhaps I should say no to dessert.

However, my wife is a persuasive woman; when she encourages another round, I’d be a fool to say no.  “Why not try some absinthe, you’ve always wanted to.”  She was right; on our most recent trip to Europe – Prague in early 2009 – I discovered the locals drink becherovka rather than absinthe.  On trips prior – to Paris, Berlin, Warsaw, Amsterdam, even Moscow – I focused more on local beer selections rather than the mysterious green spirit.

So an order for Vieux Carré absinthe (made by Philadelphia Distilling Company, which also produces the fantastic Blue Coat Gin) was placed.  And another Kir Royale, of course.  In short order the waiter returned with hands full.  With complete pomp and circumstance, he carefully lit the sugar cubes atop the thin, slotted spoon, which itself was perched above the translucent yellowish-green liquid.  Tiny drops of water emerged from the slow drip fountain, slowly melting the sugar and turning the drink a milky, cloudy color – the louche.  Per the waiter’s recommendation, I allowed the fountain to fill the glass until there were roughly equal parts water and absinthe, though I may have erred on the side of slightly less water.

Now at this point I could regale you with my hallucinogenic visions, of feelings of flowers growing from my legs, as wrote Oscar Wilde.  Or I could describe the tiny green fairy I saw as I sipped the drink.  But alas, I felt nothing other than the sweet, fragrant taste of the ice cold drink.  Interested, my wife took a minuscule sip and immediately claimed she saw Mr. Hankey floating above my head, which elicited a good chuckle.  The spirit’s psychotropic qualities have a long history of references in both art and literature, much of which was created by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (one of my favorite artists) amidst Parisian bohemian culture during the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries.  Unfortunately the thujone – a component of grande wormwood, one of the ingredients of absinthe – produced no such affects.

No, I was only left with a pleasant, calming, even refreshing drink as my dessert.  I very much enjoyed the preparation experience as well as absinthe’s taste. It was not something to be enjoyed every day; no, like its cousin, pastis (which is enjoyed before the meal), it was a treat to be appreciated only occasionally, when slowly and carefully appreciating fine cuisine, apart from life’s daily responsibilities and repetition.  Absinthe was a unique experience, whether or not I actually dined with the Green Fairy herself.

Published in: on October 22, 2011 at 10:06 am  Comments (1)  
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