In recent reviews, including Cocochan and Jamie’s Fifteen I have criticised the lack of nibbles served with pre-dinner drinks. Equally, I have praised Benares and Brigade Bar and Bistro for the opposite.
Since my visit to Cocochan, where the downstairs bar was empty before dinner, I have been reflecting upon how the aperitif seems to be dead. I was heartened at Benares to see a full bar full of people enjoying some smoked almonds and a cocktail before dinner; so maybe all is not lost, or maybe they are just one of the last bastions of this grand tradition.
Vero, the (very French) restaurant manager at l’Auberge, attached to my local, The Hare and Hounds, in Claygate, says that “the aperitif is more than a tradition, its in her blood”. My ex-wife was Walloonie (French-Belgian) with family in Italy, and Vero’s comments are right – it is part and parcel of their whole being. Whenever you stop or pause for a drink, you are always served a small bowl of something – crisps, nuts, olives, dried fruit. It costs pennies; easily absorbed in the cost of the drink without your patrons noticing, but it adds so much more to the experience. It also adds salt-heavy snacks to the drink, which encourages repeat custom, so a loss-leader isn’t a silly idea either. Colloquially the French call it “apero”, which means drinks and snacks before dinner and is not just a casual affair. Well, strictly it is, because you’re lounging around in conversation, but the drink has to be good, and the amuse bouche that arrive are often works of art. My ex mother in law would spend as much time, I swear, preparing this part of family dinners than the rest of the meal. I’ve collated a group of stock images, which actually are very reminiscent (if not identical) of her culinary works at the bottom of this piece, to demonstrate how seriously they take it!
Of course, you could argue that the continent has more food that lends itself to this; more charcuterie, more cheese, more pate and of course foie gras; but so do we! I mean, Stilton repeatedly beats anything the French can throw at it in cheese competitions around the world on a regular basis without considering the array of cold and dried meats we have to offer.
On top of this, another of my rants is that the traditional basket of artisan bread being offered to patrons in restaurants seems to be a dying tradition too. (Not at l’Auberge; Normandy butter and fresh french bread still feature!). Is it cost cutting? Maybe, but Chefs are an ingenious bunch and could far more easily effect cost cutting with the ingredients in their dishes than a few pennies of bread or nuts, I am sure. Has our cuisine moved on? Not really…. unless we are that desperate to differentiate ourselves from our continental cousins we overlook the positives. I can only conclude it’s naivety or laziness – and given that some restaurants still uphold the traditions, I am going to conclude its the former.
Which is an easy problem to solve; I need to encourage you all to engage in this time honoured tradition which’ll create the competitive pressure on proprietors to do things properly!. Next time you have friends around, or just want an intimate night in, instead of launching straight into a starter, splurge £10-15 on the aperitif (you can recover a bit of this by being smart with the rest of the meal). That’ll buy you a decent bottle of Prosecco (which I prefer to run of the mill Champagne to be fair) and have change for some nuts, olives and maybe some mini-crackers topped with smoked salmon or pate or anything. Some breadsticks and hoummous could feature, crudites and dips – doesn’t have to be that expensive. Sit down, relax, enjoy the conversation, the good fizz and the nibbles. And don’t worry about those images below; that’s all equipment and presentation – the food itself can often be assembled from shop bought prawns, cured meats etc, in advance!
And you know what? As a cook, you’ll appreciate this. It slows down the service and takes the pressure off the kitchen. I have been saved before by my guests being distracted by an appero and have been more relaxed and calm and therefore enjoyed the evening more myself as the host…. so if anything, it’s a little insurance policy for the budding host which should justify its inclusion regardless!.
Images courtesy of “zole4” / FreeDigitalPhotos.net