How to celebrate the pre-dinner drink the French way or your own.
It’s 5 o’clock somewhere doesn’t translate to French.
The words do, of course, but the meaning would be fearfully lost on most of our French-speaking friends. Perhaps only the Canadians, who are constantly exposed to English and its idioms, would truly appreciate this lushy message conveyed by their anglophone counterparts.
No, telling most native French speakers that it’s 5 o’clock somewhere - meaning it’s perfectly alright to pour yourself a drink, regardless of the hour - makes no sense culturally speaking because 5 p.m. is both too early and too late to justify a glass of wine (or two).
It all comes down to the notion of savoir vivre: knowing how to live - and what times to live by.
How can it be too late?
Well, for starters, old-school French culture dictates that it’s never too soon in the day to drink wine. That’s right, from the factory workers of old who would have dried saucisson and red wine mid-morning on their break, to the bourgeoisie who considered Sancerre perfectly acceptable to imbibe before noon, those living in France (and perhaps other Francophone countries) aren’t necessarily shocked by opening a bottle that early in the day. But neither do most condone it.
The same goes for enjoying a glass of wine with lunch, a tradition that had even school teachers sipping their favorite vintage in the school cantine until a decade or so ago. No one would bat an eyelash at you enjoying wine at lunch (nor would most families be upset if you had a pre-meal drink before you sat down to lunch during, let’s say, the holidays or vacation). But, alas, the pace of daily life in French-speaking countries seems to have become as fast-paced as it is here in the United States, and the time for such a lavish midday meal (and the nap that would be needed afterwards) is a luxury most no longer allow themselves.
Day-drinking, perhaps invented by the French, has been left behind in the name of progress.
With all that being said, how can 5 o’clock be too early?
Well, quite frankly, it’s because you’re supposed to be eating and drinking something else at that time. Between the hours of 4 and 5 p.m., it’s l’heure du goûter, the French version of the after-school snack, an hour that most adults still consider sacred. School-aged children reach for the juice boxes, madeleines, fruit, pastries, cookies, and bars of chocolate that their parents have packed away in their school bags at this time. Adults, who have a lifelong sweet tooth because of this tradition, usually have a quick coffee (and by coffee, we mean a shot of espresso), or a cup of tea, accompanied by one small cookie or square of dark chocolate. Or cigarette.
Again, the only person who would find it absurd for you to stop and have a glass of wine at 5 pm would be your boss, particularly if you lived in a large city like Paris and were expected, most likely, to work for a few more hours.
So what’s the French version of 5 o’clock then?
To be honest, the time is not as important as the actual ritual… because l’apéritif, your pre-dinner drink, is an important one. But taking it at 6, 7, or even 8 pm is completely reasonable depending on where you live. And once you settle in for your apéro, quite a few bets are off.
The first thing to understand about the French art of the apéritif is that you don’t have to drink alcohol. This is due to the fact that the apéro should be enjoyed by all members of the family, children included. No matter your age, if you don’t want a boozy start to your evening, you’ll likely have juice (the French go bananas for pineapple juice, for some reason), or “un soft,” meaning a soft drink. That’s right, this is likely the only time of the day that you’ll see someone knocking back a Coca-Cola (we’ve yet to witness anyone drinking a Mountain Dew, but who knows?). If you do want something with a little kick, you’ll want to stick to a white or rosé wine (or a lighter red, if you insist). This would be the perfect time to enjoy a cocktail or beer, as well, since neither of those drinks are commonly served during a meal. You can also just double down and have a glass of whiskey (true story, this is a French Grandpa favorite).
The idea here is to “open” your appetite and thirst, not satiate it. That means accompanying your drinks with something small, like olives, nuts, cherry tomatoes, or chips (yes, this is when you’ll see French people eating potato chips - like we said, most bets are off here). Something rich like cheese, sweet like chocolate, or heavy like fries, would be considered inappropriate.
The television should be off but music should be playing. You should be sat in the living room or backyard or anywhere that isn’t the kitchen table. You can have petits fours, dips, and several glasses of whatever you’ve settled on...but don’t get too full, because the night has just begun.
We explained the apéritif and its rules to our incredible members last week for our very first French Collective Apéro on Zoom. And once we had explained the rules, we told them what we’ll tell you - feel free to follow them or chuck them out. Because, sure, there’s beauty in tradition and fun in sharing certain cultural norms. But as always, at The French Collective, we want everyone to feel free to celebrate themselves and their own preferences while learning about French-speaking culture.
So if you want a healthy pour of Merlot to start your evening off with, or some chocolate-covered almonds on your snack board (yep, that happened last week, and we are not ashamed), then allez-y. And if you want to start at 5 pm (or 4 or 6), you do you.
We personally enjoyed gathering together virtually, making a delicious Cali Spritz with California ingredients, sharing screenshots of our nibbles, and getting to know one another through conversation. Because the only rule to be followed at apéritif is to relax and start your evening off right.
And we followed that one to a T.