The pastis of Provence: the revival of the aniseed aperitif
In the south of France, in and around the city of Marseille, a new generation of artisanal distillers are breathing fresh life — and flavours — into the region’s beloved aniseed aperitif.
It's like a magic trick: when the first drop of chilled water hits the transparent spirit, it turns an opaque pale yellow and a heady plume of aniseed aroma rises from the glass. Under an azure sky, with a row of palm trees in view, I gaze out to the sparkling Mediterranean and sip the drink that encapsulates Provence. Its name says it all: the old Provençal word for ‘mixture’, pastis draws its flavours from the region’s arid landscape and its melting pot of cultures.
Aniseed is a flavour found across the Med; in Greece, it’s ouzo; Italy has sambuca; in Turkey it’s raki. All are usually knocked back as a shot after a meal. Yet the ritual associated with pastis makes it stand out. This sweet aniseed spirit simultaneously awakens your senses and relaxes your mind; it’s an aperitif to sip after spending languid afternoons in golden-stone villages or on the beach.
Traditionally, the drink is associated with sleepy French village squares, and bars selling just one or two brands: Ricard or Pernod. Yet, thanks to a burgeoning movement driven by artisanal distillers, drinkers are discovering a new generation of pastis made with a wide range of botanicals for more rounded, flavoursome drinks.
I’m bound for the island of Bendor, off the coast of Bandol near Marseille. There, I’ll meet the grandson of Paul Ricard, the man who put pastis on the map. Ricard made the 45%-alcohol drink the tipple of choice among the Marseillais. However, the origins of its popularity lie with another aniseed-based libation: absinthe.
In the 1860s, France’s vineyards were ravaged by the phylloxera bug. With the wine trade in peril, people turned instead to the ‘green fairy’. Because absinthe is so much stronger than wine or beer, this development resulted in widespread alcoholism and nefariousness. The drink was banned in most countries worldwide, but by this time the masses had developed a penchant for aniseed-based spirits. The main producer of absinthe, Pernod Fils, switched to distilling aniseed to create an aniseed liqueur in Pontarlier, eastern France, and later in Avignon. Meanwhile in Provence, the rustic way to create a similar drink, pastis, was to macerate herbs in alcohol. Pastis had long been around, it had just never had a brand or a champion. Cue Paul Ricard.
I step off the tiny ferry and find shade from the scorching sun inside a small exhibition of Ricard memorabilia close to the quay. There I’m joined by Ricard’s grandson, Francois-Xavier Diaz. It’s a small room, but the collection is astounding; hundreds of objects emblazoned with the navy, white and yellow Ricard logo, designed by the man himself.
“My grandfather was the son of wine merchants,” Francois-Xavier tells me. “He wanted to be an artist, but his father insisted he join the family business, so he learned all the different roles and really got to know the culture.”
After being introduced to pastis by a local shepherd, Ricard began experimenting with his own concoction. “He would take his versions around the bars and they’d tell him if it was too strong, too sweet,” says Francois-Xavier. “By the time the ban on aniseed-based drinks was lifted in 1932 [absinthe would remain illegal in France for 80 more years], he had perfected his pastis blend and the market was ready.
“Another ban came during World War II, but when that was lifted, Pernod launched its own: Pastis 51. The two brands became archrivals until 1975, when the companies merged and became Pernod Ricard.”
The memorabilia collection really showcases Ricard’s talent for branding. When direct advertising of aniseed drinks was banned in 1951, material sent to distributors was exempt. This led to the creation of a huge array of items emblazoned with the logo, from ashtrays and coasters to posters; the most successful among them were the water jugs that still exist in their thousands and are found in bric-a-brac stores and markets across France. The drink’s rise was meteoric, and the resulting wealth allowed Ricard to buy both the Île de Bendor and the neighbouring Île des Embiez where, in 1966, he established the Observatoire de la Mer (now called the Paul Ricard Oceanographic Institute) to fight pollution in the Mediterranean.
Bendor is also home to a gallery of Ricard’s artworks — mostly portraits of family members — and a museum of wines and spirits. The latter houses a jaw-dropping collection of more than 8,000 bottles, including everything from Chinese wine with a dead lizard in the bottle to cognac given to Napoleon Bonaparte in 1811.
Back on the mainland I’m in search of a pastis brand that remains a little closer to its roots. In the hills above Marseille, the dry, rocky terrain known as ‘la garrigue’ doesn’t offer much by way of vegetation but, long before Paul Ricard commercialised pastis, the herbs that do grow there — such as thyme, rosemary, sage and mugwort — were being blended for medicinal purposes. As far back as the 11th century, the village of Forcalquier, at the foot of the Montagne de Lure, had a reputation for the healing of the sick, and for centuries the area was known for its pharmacists and apothecaries. By the 19th century, it was home to dozens of absinthe distilleries.
One of the few to survive to this day is Distilleries et Domaines de Provence, which creates the region’s most popular artisanal pastis brand, Henri Bardouin. Its blend includes more than 65 different herbs and spices, which are either macerated or distilled. As I enter, it feels like I’ve taken a nose-dive into a herb garden. The scent of warming liquorice and fresh aniseed sits a touch incongruously with the sight of the huge metal vats in front of me.
Henri Bardouin ran the distillery until the early 1960s. Today, I’m being shown around by the current owner, Alain Robert, who took the reins in 1974. “Bardouin loved to concoct different liqueurs from the herbs on Montagne de Lure,” he explains, before beckoning me over to a vat in which dull green leaves of dried mugwort, the base flavour of pastis, are macerating in alcohol. The spices used have travelled further: liquorice from Turkey, cardamom from countries in the Indian Ocean, tonka beans from Guyana.
In the distilling room, distiller Yves Raffatelli dashes around, checking dials and screens on the stills. Overhead, a huge poster of the old distillery — a dark, mysterious engine room, steamy and stained — shows Yves’ predecessor Jeannot Augier, whose weatherworn face topped by a flat cap has long been the product’s signature marketing image.
I try the pastis and am struck by its rounded flavour; the aniseed is strong but balanced by other herbs and spices. I like the Ricard, but this is more complex and interesting. Alain says that, like wine, Henri Bardouin can accompany any meal. “It brings out the flavours of the region,” he says. “The vegetables, the peppers, the fish, all work well with it.”
Of course, pastis isn’t just an accompaniment for Provençal dishes — many local chefs also cook with it. Among them is chef René Bergès, whose family-run restaurant La Table de Beaurecueil is located in Beaurecueil, a village at the foot of Montagne Sainte-Victoire. The mountain, which juts out of the golden landscape like a giant silver-grey ridge, is framed by the mulberry-tree-lined road up to the restaurant. Looking at it now, I understand how it inspired artists such as Cézanne, Picasso and Kandinsky.
René greets me on the terrace; not in chef whites as I’d expected, but in a bright Hawaiian shirt and tartan-framed sunglasses. While his attire is unorthodox, his cuisine is pure Provençale. “I’ve always liked to make connections between products from the region, be it lavender with fish, or thyme or rosemary in a soufflé,” he explains.
As we chat over a dish of fennel and red mullet with a pastis-infused sauce, he explains the trick to cooking with pastis. “You can’t let it dominate, so you use it lightly,” he says. “And to flambé with pastis is heresy! Restaurants do it for the spectacle, but it burns off the flavour.” René usually cooks with Ricard but, occasionally, he uses the P’tit Bleu pastis from the Liquoristerie de Provence (as well as its rosemary and thyme liqueurs). As for pastis pairings? “The best is fish; it’s good with bouillabaisse. When you add pastis at the end it enhances all the flavours. It works with desserts, too, in frozen soufflés or with apricots.”
In nearby Aix-en-Provence, David Gabrielian, the owner of La Pastisserie, is doing his best to represent the lesser-known pastis brands. In his small shop, he stocks pastis from all over France and he also creates his own blends, the star of the show being Lis Estrella (Provençal for ‘point out the stars’), which has gentle caramel notes alongside the aniseed. “I want to help people discover pastis beyond the commercial brands,” he says. “Most people start off saying they don’t like it because they’re used to the big brands, but then they try Pastis Henri Bardouin, they like it and that opens up their curiosity. Often they’ll leave here with three or four different bottles.”
As we chat, a steady stream of customers come and go, many of them in couples, many under 30. “The image of pastis is of old men with berets, but more women are discovering it — and young people too,” says David, who often runs pastis discovery evenings.
On his shelves, I spot a pastis from Distillerie de la Plaine, a tiny distillery in the backstreets of Marseille run by Guillaume Strebler. When I visit a few days later, I nearly miss it as I wander up the dusty, sun-bleached street from the cosmopolitan Noailles district. In his tiny shop, past a battered leather sofa by the door, I pass into the back room under a curtain of drying verbena leaves strung across the doorway. Here, a set of red stills trickle out pastis.
“I just wanted to do something else,” says Guillaume, whose previous career was in the construction industry. “I thought I’d make a whisky, but that takes several years, so I started making pastis first and it’s taken off so well, I haven’t got around to making whisky.”
Guillaume produces two different versions of pastis, the first a standard blend but the other more of a departure. “It’s more herbal and floral,” he says. “There’s still aniseed, fennel and liquorice, but I also use verbena and yerba-mate, an Argentinian herb similar to tea or coffee.” The result is delicious, the verbena lending a gentle spearmint note and the drink having an almost chocolatey smoothness to it. “This is one to savour, with just an ice cube. People who generally don’t like pastis, like this,” he explains. It’s certainly my favourite so far.
But I have one more to try: a pastis that’s designed as a digestif rather than aperitif. Guillaume Ferroni is the brains behind Maison Ferroni, a distillery at Château des Creissauds in Aubagne, near Marseille. Among a wide range of spirits produced there, he’s created a sublime version of pastis that he ages for two years before it’s released as a ‘vintage’.
I join him in the cool stone-arched cellar bar of his distillery, where I’m handed a glass of the Pastis Millésimé 2018, served neat. With its smooth, caramel notes this golden liqueur is nothing like any of the chilled pastis I’ve tried. It’s sweet, the liquorice not at all overpowering, and it has a rounded flavour from the numerous botanicals; Guillaume uses fresh leaves rather than dried, grown in the château’s sun-scorched gardens.
“To qualify as a pastis, there must be a certain level of aniseed and liquorice in the mix, but we use the minimum legal amount and enhance it with other flavours,” explains Guillaume, whose business runs pastis-blending workshops as well as pop-up cocktail events in Marseille. “But the lower level of anethol [the aniseed element] means it doesn’t go as cloudy.”
This delicious incarnation shows just how diverse the drink can be, but is pastis still pastis without the ritual, I wonder? Later that afternoon, on the balcony of La Caravelle bar on the harbour-side of Marseille’s Vieux Port, I order a glass of Henri Bardouin. As I pour the chilled water into the glass and the clear spirit swirls into clouds, I feel like I’ve got all the key elements I need: the taste of aniseed, the pastis ritual and, crucially, that all-important Provençal sunshine.
Five bottles of pastis to try
1. Henri Bardouin
With its rounded flavour, this Provençale brand is a great place to start. Created in the rocky hills of Haute-Provence, it’s made using 65 herbs and spices.
2. Combier Pastis d’Antan
This old-style pastis from the Loire Valley has a strong aniseed flavour, alongside cardamom, clove and nutmeg.
3. Ty Jaune
It isn’t just Provence enjoying the resurgence of artisanal pastis. This brand from Brittany uses marine botanicals to add lightness to its flavour.
4. Argala Pastis
Italian distillery Argala in Boves (near the French border) makes a deep amber-hued version. Whisky drinkers will like its earthier notes.
5. Cornish Pastis
Created by Tarquin’s Gin, the UK’s first pastis is created with gorse flowers picked on the Cornish coast. The result is a fresh, citrussy flavour.
Where to try pastis in Provence
1. Cristal Limiñana
One of Marseille’s few remaining distilleries, this family business, which dates back to 1884, creates pastis and anisette, a simpler version that also turns white on adding water. It also makes and stocks alcohol-free aniseed drinks, and other spirits.
2. Liquoristerie de Provence
The area around Taradeau-en-Provence is known for its wines, and this distillery is owned by the Château de Saint Martin vineyard. Visit the on-site shop for tastings of the various pastis made here (including Le P’tit Bleu), as well as a wide range of herbal and fruit liqueurs.
With cocktail bars in both Marseille and Paris, CopperBay has teamed up with Distillerie de la Plaine to make its own pastis. The company also creates cocktails based around the spirit.
Five pastis cocktails to make
1. Le mauresque
The sweetness of the almond syrup tempers the aniseed hit of this popular pastis cocktail. To make it, mix 20ml Pastis Henri Bardouin with 10ml orgeat syrup (try Monin), 20ml lime juice and 10ml still water. The name translates as ‘Moorish’.
If the aniseed isn’t refreshing enough for you, try this minty concoction. Difford’s Guide recommends making it with 30ml pastis and 7.5ml mint syrup (Monin) topped up with chilled water to taste.
3. Pastis whisky sour
Combine 50ml Dewar’s Old Scotch Whisky with 10ml Ricard pastis, 25ml lemon juice, 12.5ml cane sugar syrup, 15ml pasteurised egg white and three dashes of Angostura aromatic bitters and shake with ice. Pour into a jug, then strain back into the shaker to shake (this time without ice), before fine-straining it into an ice-filled old fashioned glass.
4. Jaune lemon Ricard
Created by Guillaume Ferroni (now of Maison Ferroni), this refreshing cocktail blends 20ml Ricard pastis, 10ml orgeat syrup, 20ml freshly squeezed lemon juice and 160ml chilled water. Garnish with fresh mint and a slice of lemon.
Strawberry works very well with aniseed, so mix 10ml strawberry syrup with 40ml pastis and top up with chilled water.
Eurostar trains run from London St Pancras to Marseille, changing at Paris or Lille. Airlines serving Marseille from the UK include British Airways, EasyJet and Ryanair.
How to do it
Base yourself in Marseille, then head east via Aubagne (for Maison Ferroni) and Bandol to visit Île de Bendor. Kirker Travel offers a threeday package to Marseille with flights and transfers, staying at the InterContinental hotel from £1,138 per person.
Published in Issue 11 (spring 2021) of National Geographic Traveller Food
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