We all have triggers that bring back memories, often those associated with childhood. For Marcel Proust it was madeleine cakes that took him back in time and enabled him to remember things past.
The merest sniff of fresh oregano creates visions of the Mediterranean for me, most of them concerning plates of simple pasta, all of them redolent of olive oil, garlic, and oregano, with a generous sprinkle of parmesan.
Summer is the season I like least of all, mainly because I can’t take the heat. In my ideal world I’d spend the summer in the northernmost Orkney island, or perhaps in the north of Finland near the border with Siberia. That way, even if Finland were having a heatwave I’d be able to slip into Siberia to cool down for a few days.
For me, the dreaded harbinger of summer is the thermometer as it starts its irrevocable ascent towards the 30C mark in June — and sometimes earlier.
There is, however, a drink that spells summer for me: pastis, the cloudy aperitif from the south of France and especially associated with Marseilles and the surrounding areas.
Even a slight whiff of pastis sends my memory careening down to Toulon where I spent most of my first holiday in France when I was 13. Until that holiday, alcohol had never passed my lips except for an occasional stolen sip from some adult’s drink on New Year’s Eve, or when I was given a hot toddy to help combat a touch of the flu.
I was staying in Toulon with Tante Maria, a tiny but tough Italian woman who was permanently dressed in black from head to toe and who would have been a casting director’s first choice for the part of a Mafia family matriarch in a Martin Scorsese movie partly set in deepest Sicily.
She had a wineshop in a parched square from which she sold a white and a red from the barrel as well as bottled beer and lemonade. On one side of the shop there was a long communal table at which pensioners drank wine and played cards all day long.
They were joined by the neighbourhood’s clochard who made a bit of money doing odd jobs for nearby shops and other businesses. He brushed out my aunt’s shop and watered the desert-dry approach for which he received a litre bottle of red wine. But my aunt served it to him by the glass over a period of about three hours so he wouldn’t down it in one big slug.
Tante Maria was up at five every morning and was at the wineshop by 6.30 at the latest. Some of the old boys would breakfast at the shop on a glass of wine and a cheese or ham sandwich they brought from home.
As I was on holiday, there was no need for me to get up so early, so I used to wander in at around 9am to have breakfast. Tante Maria sometimes shook her head in disbelief at this red-haired nephew from the north who got up so late in the day.
Breakfast was always warm baguette from a next door bakery, lots of butter, gruyere cheese and homemade cooked ham from a nearby charcuterie. Tante Maria wouldn’t even have considered making coffee so late in the day (well, it was late for her) and tea was something the French drank only when they were feeling somewhat sickly.
So my breakfast drink was neat ice-cold lemonade. My aunt was a strict old southern Italian mama and there was no question of giving young teenagers lemonade with a splash of wine or beer.
But when she was busy in the back shop, or deep in conversation with a customer and with her back to the communal table, some of the old boys used to flavour my lemonade with a dash of wine or beer from their glass. That was my first taste of shandy and even today, so many decades on, a shandy is still one of my favourite quaffing drinks during the hot weather. At about 9.45, having breakfasted like a prince and listened to the old boys slamming cards down on the table with a force that must have done some kind of stress damage to their knuckles, I bade farewell to my aunt, the old boys and the clochard and made my way through town.
My first stop was at a tree-lined square where I bought the Continental Daily Mail or the Paris Edition of the New York Herald Tribune which I read while munching on a slice of pissaladière with its topping of meltingly soft sliced onions. My eventual destination was the bar of a cousin, the son of Tante Maria, where they had lunch at just after midday.
My cousin, with the mafioso type name of Alfredo Figlioni, had an amazing ability for inventing words and he gave new names to everyday objects, aways in the Toulonais patois. These words became the accepted version in the bar and among his family and friends.
I wasn’t as interested in language as I am now, and I didn’t pay enough attention to this facility he had for the impromptu invention of new terms when the conventional word was one that didn’t appeal to him. Alfredo and his wife Marcelle weren’t as strict as Tante Maria on letting the young have a spot of wine mixed with their lemonade. So a very pale pink lemonade was my drink during lunch in the big kitchen at the back of the bar.
When I arrived at the bar it was always full of workmen dropping in for an aperitif. And all of them had pastis. The regulars didn’t have to ask for one: as soon as they walked in the glass was on the counter, the pastis was poured in and and a splash of water from an ice-filled jug turned the pastis cloudy.
The Toulonais drank small shots of pastis and it was downed in two sips at the most. As soon as a glass was emptied it was automatically refilled. I was a mature 13-year-old and could easily have passed for 17. Because of that I was allowed to have an even smaller pastis before lunch. My Tante Mari would have had a furious southern Italian fit if she had known my cousins were allowing me to have wine-flavoured lemonade and a splash of pastis.
That was partly because the latter is based on absinthe, the other cloudy drink also known as the ‘fée verde’ (green fairy), a high-octane tipple once favoured by writers and artists such as Baudelaire, Rimbaud or Van Gogh, some of whom were said to have gone quite made through its abuse. It was banned from 1915 because of its “mad and criminal” effects.
Many people might think a person introduced to pastis at the early age of 13 must surely have ended up as a drunk and an alcoholic. In my case, that deduction couldn’t have been more wrong. When I drank wine or any other kind of alcohol as an adult, I’ve always had a natural cut-off point: my palate rejects any more alcohol long before the stage when others would be somewhat tipsy. When the brake goes on I switch to water. The result is I have never been even slightly inebriated and I have never ever had a hangover.
One legacy of those far-off days is that pastis is one of my favourite summer drinks. A pastis before lunch still seems like something rather exotic and extra special. One of the attractions of pastis is that it is packed with the flavours of dozens of herbs and spices — anything between 60 and 70 in the most famous brands. The word pastis in Provençal means a mixture.
The predominant flavour is anise which comes from three distinct plants: green anise, fennel and star anise, the latter being a popular flavouring in dishes from northern China. Among other well-known herbs in pastis are hyssop, coriander and mint.
One difference between the pastis I later drank in Toulon and today’s summer tipple is that I now prefer it as a long drink. The pastis in Toulon was served in a small flute-shaped glass more suited to a sweet after-dinner drink.
Nowadays I have pastis in a biggish Bordeaux Riedel glass, all the better to capture the lovely pastis aromas. I always take the glass from the freezer and use water from an ice-filled Ricard jug.
You must never put ice cubes into a glass of pastis because as the ice melts the drink quickly becomes watery. An over-diluted pastis is insipid and is a most disappointing taste sensation.