A book dedicated to French drinking culture may not be the first thing you’d expect from David Lebovitz. The former member of the Chez Panisse pastry team has been one of the food world’s most visible writers, and one of its earliest and most successful bloggers. His bestselling cookbooks—The Sweet Life in Paris, My Paris Kitchen and The Perfect Scoop—have made him a household name.
Lebovitz is perhaps best known for his pastry prowess, but his new book, Drinking French, is proof of his deep interest in drinks and drinking culture. For me, that interest is no surprise; Lebovitz and I became friends over our shared love of Boulevardiers at The Long Island Bar, and while he was researching and writing Drinking French, I had the privilege of acting as unofficial consigliere during his visits back to the States.
The book was published in early March just before the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the cancellation of a multi-city book tour, Lebovitz found a way to stay connected with his fan base by hosting a virtual Apéro Hour on Instagram Live from his Paris kitchen. His charming, French-speaking partner Romain has become the Jeffrey to his Ina and has been promoted from occasional cameo to an in-demand co-host. Lebovitz has also hosted special guests, including celebrated bartenders Ivy Mix, Jeffrey Morgenthaler and Margot Lecarpentier, as well as wine importers, distillers, brewers and coffee roasters.
When I recently made a guest appearance on his Apéro Hour, we talked about the world of French amer and Italian amaro and where the traditions of one country’s apéro and another’s aperitivo run parallel and diverge. The time went by too fast, so we decided to continue our conversation on Franco-Italian drinkways and how each is interpreted here in America via WhatsApp video call. The below is a transcript from that conversation, condensed and edited for clarity.
France and Italy's Spirited Bond
There are similarities between café culture and the traditions of France’s apéro and Italy’s aperitivo, but how one drinks is still driven by tradition and regional customs. One thing in common: Each country shares an aversion to being generous with ice.
BTP: When did you decide to focus on French spirits and drinking culture as a topic for a book?
DL: It seemed like a subject that hadn’t been explored enough. There had been books on Cognac, there had been books on wine and other aspects of French beverages, but nothing that sort of explained the culture. What are in all those weird bottles behind the café bar? What are people drinking in cafés and what do these drinks mean to French people? French cuisine has been talked about over the years, seasonality and gathering around the table and so forth, but French drinks to me had that same appeal.
BTP: There seems to be a bond between French and Italian drinking culture, starting with coffee. When I travel to Italy my first stop upon landing is the closest café [for] a stand-up espresso and a cornetto. Very different than walking around New York with a giant latte in a to-go cup. But there’s apéritifs and aperitivi, digestifs and digestivi, and the connection between vermouth and wine and herbal liqueurs. How do you feel about these similarities or where they diverge in tradition?
DL: I think France has always been influenced by Italy. The Medici, the Savoy. There was a thing in Italy called the monzus, where professional French chefs would cook for wealthy Italian families. There’s certain things the French admire about Italians and vice versa. Part of it also is that a lot of France was once part of Italy, like the Savoy dukedom. You have a major part of France that was making vermouth. Then you have the north which was close to Switzerland where absinthe came through. And I hate to use the term “sun-baked,” but in that whole Mediterranean coastline, in Italy, in France and in Spain, people were making wine and turning those into apéritifs with local herbs. That’s something that’s shared by the French and Italians.
BTP: With French apéritifs in particular, would you say they’re more wine-based than their Italian counterparts?
DL: I would say now they’re more wine-based in France. In France, certain apéritifs just aren’t popular here anymore. It’s hard to find Byrrh or Lillet at a café. They’re very regional. I could be wrong, but in Italy, you have big brands like Martini & Rossi who have a big bottle behind every café bar in Italy, whether you’re in Turin or Sicily.
BTP: In Italy, aperitivo is about that transitional period between work and dinner, but there’s different levels of it. For students or young workers it’s a way to have inexpensive drinks with friends and load up on free snacks versus more high-end offerings. And the food offered ranges from potato chips and olives to little sandwiches and more elaborate fare. And what you drink could be a glass of wine or prosecco or a beer, or the more classic spritz or Campari and soda. Does aperitivo and its custom of refreshing drink and little bites translate directly to the tradition of apéro in France?
DL: It does diverge a bit. One thing in France is they don’t serve food at a café with drinks. They might serve peanuts or popcorn, but you’d never get anything like a sandwich. It’s gratis but it’s pretty frugal.
BTP: At Bar Basso in Milan, which I love, you order your drink and then you’re given your aperitivo plates based on what you order, whether you’re by yourself or with others. Do the French have a drink and then move to somewhere else for dinner? Is that sense of momentum there like you see in Italy?
DL: I live in Paris and Paris is very different than the rest of France. Generally, in Paris people start as soon as they get out of work and they have a drink with a friend; they’ll have a glass of wine or a beer. I live in the 11th [arrondissement], which is very trendy, so 70 percent of the people are drinking beer. It’s more economical and it lasts longer. They drink these giant draft beers. [The French] style of drinking is much more relaxed and it’s a much longer period of time. Whereas in America, happy hour is 5 to 6 and dinner is at 6:30 and everybody’s home by 8:30.
BTP: I remember Katie Parla telling me that an Italian-influenced bar or café in America will never be a truly Italian experience. It’ll always be an American interpretation because we don’t live by the same set of rules, like drinking espresso quickly while standing up at a café counter or no drinking cappuccinos after 10 a.m.
What do you think about the interpretation of French restaurants and cafés in the States, especially when it comes to French drinks?
DL: As Katie mentioned, when things travel to America they have to adapt to American culture and systems. People think they want to have the French or the Italian experience but they really don’t. They want to live in Italy but they want their cappuccino after lunch, or to sit down and eat their gelato. You have to temper that. That’s how Italian-American cuisine came about, by Italian-Americans adapting ingredients. No one in Italy or France would eat that much garlic.
BTP: You often bring up the subject of France’s aversion to ice because of the small space of most cafés and even apartments and the smaller refrigerators used. You’ve also talked about the French belief that cold beverages can poorly affect digestion. In Italy, too, ice comes at a premium. I remember driving for several hours on my way to Rome and stopping at a gas station for a fountain drink. I just wanted an ice-cold Coke Zero but there was no ice, just a big tepid cup of soda right from the spigot. What is the aversion to ice?
DL: The joke here is if you want to get a lot of ice in France you order a cocktail. Ice is cheaper than liquor. In America I worked in restaurants and the worst thing that can happen is when the ice machine breaks. People will flip out if you don’t have ice for their water. Here there is an aversion to ice. I’ve heard people say it freezes your stomach, you’ll get pneumonia from it. I’ve had people tell me, “Don’t eat the tip of the green bean because that’s where the radiation collects,” and that’s why in France they cut off the tip. There’s a lot of these myths or lore. The reason I talk about ice a lot is because Americans are fascinated with ice. They don’t understand why they can’t get ice in France. I have to explain it over and over again. It’s funny that Americans have this very myopic view: We have ice, why don’t you have ice? And don’t get me started on the subject of Americans and air conditioning.
BTP: You have an ice maker in your refrigerator now, right?
DL: Yeah, I didn’t realize it had one when I ordered it. Oh my god, I have an ice maker! Now my partner Romain loves ice.
A Spritz Divided
Bitter and bubbly is open to interpretation as France and Italy’s apéritif/aperitivo traditions diverge. The traditions of the past remain strong in each country, with pockets of contemporary flair taking hold.
BTP: The spritz, served in its omnipresent stemmed glass, is considered an iconic aperitivo drink in Italy. A light and refreshing, low-ABV blend of a wine- or alcohol-based bitter element, sparkling wine and splash of soda water. Is the French interpretation of the spritz similar to what you would encounter in Italy?
DL: I would say that the French version of the spritz is pastis. That’s the universal apéritif. That became popular in the 1930s when French people got their first vacations. They’d want to go to the beach and they discovered this drink and when they got back home they wanted that drink. Like people in New York or Paris who want to pretend they’re in Venice and order a spritz. A lot of French apéritifs died because of everyone drinking pastis.
BTP: How were they drinking it?
DL: Plain in a glass over ice and you add cold water to it. In some places you could add sugar syrup or mint syrup or orgeat. You had a glass with a small amount of it served with a bottle of tap water. It appeals to people’s frugality; you order one and sit there for four hours drinking it. I’m not a big pastis fan, so it’s not my thing. But now the spritz has taken over Paris. When I first moved here [in 2003] all the young people in every café were drinking Mojitos.
BTP: What are some updated French-inspired interpretations of the spritz in your book that you love?
DL: One of them is by the Fédération Française de l’Apéritif. They started a Facebook Group with that name as a joke and it sort of caught on. They eventually opened an apéritif bar. They have a drink called Suze in Paradise … which has grapefruit juice and Suze in it. It’s very popular.
BTP: There’s been a wave of Italian bartenders shaking up their approach to modern cocktails, especially in cities like Milan and Rome, but it’s a country that remains loyal to its classics, especially the tradition of classic, red bitter aperitivo drinks. In the spritz family I’m drawn to the Negroni Sbagliato. It’s not as spirituous as a Negroni but still represents la dolce vita and a sense of Italian sophistication. Bar Basso in Milan is the birthplace of the Sbagliato and is purported to have created it by mistake (hence the name) when the bartender reached for sparkling wine instead of gin while making a guest’s Negroni.
DL: The hole in that story is no bartender would grab a bottle of prosecco mistaking it for a bottle of gin. [Laughs.]
A Bittersweet Finish (With Cocktails)
Sipping a bittersweet herbal liqueur after dinner has its tradition, but the landscape is changing as bartenders lead the charge in adapting historical digestivi and digestifs into contemporary cocktails.
BTP: In Italy, amaro falls under a pretty broad umbrella, but there are many other herbal liqueurs and spirits like limoncello and grappa and sambuca, génépi and anisette, mirto and nocino. Does France have many herbal liqueurs that run parallel with those styles?
DL: Depending on region, I would say the French are more into Calvados or Cognac after dinner. Whiskey is something that’s big in France now as well. But things like eau de vie are often considered old-fashioned now.
BTP: Is it driven by where you are—the countryside versus the city?
DL: There’s more regional pride. Paris is sort of the melting pot, like New York, so you have all these people from different places and they become Parisian. They’ll have an affection for where they’re from but it’s mostly the older people back home drinking what the region is known for.
BTP: In the States in the last few years, the availability of amaro and knowledge on the category have increased, and American bartenders have led the charge applying amaro in cocktails. It’s been interesting to see a traditional digestivo transformed in a modern way. The Manhattan template has become a very popular one when creating amaro cocktails. One of my favorite takes is the Little Italy. That’s my go-to nightcap.
You have a drink in Drinking French called the French Manhattan. Did the Manhattan spec call out to you as one readily adaptable for French spirits?
DL: You have to open your mind when you’re inventing drinks and say, “What do different spirits have in common?” Cognac is so uniquely French and the way to make it into a Manhattan is to add vermouth to it, but change the template a little bit. Maybe a little bit of French orange liqueur will help temper the Cognac. To me, the Manhattan is a very sophisticated drink. It’s not fancy, but it evokes drinking at a bar with an elegant stemmed glass. You shouldn’t be sitting curbside talking with your friends having a cigarette. You should be sitting at a bar. It’s a proper drink. Like a Martini. You don’t just have one and chug it back while making dinner at home.
BTP: You talk a lot about Amer Picon in Drinking French but, unfortunately, we can’t get it here in the U.S., which makes it even more desirable for bartenders. When I travel to Italy I have what I call “suitcase bottles,” and bring back bottles I can’t get in the States, like Braulio Riserva or Amaro San Simone. Picon is a popular bottle to bring back when traveling to France. Do you have any American suitcase bottles you bring back to Paris?
DL: Rye [whiskey] is something I always bring back, along with St. George Spirits’ Bruto Americano. Now I’m into Forthave Spirits’ Red aperitivo from Brooklyn. The new aperitivos are very interesting to me.
Amer Picon is something you buy at the supermarket. It’s fun to have and worth bringing it back from France as a conversation piece. It’s really good in beer. The thing about Picon is it’s not as strong as it used to be, it’s more diluted. When you put it into a cocktail like a Brooklyn it’s fine, but Bigallet China-China is closer, I would imagine, to what an old Picon would taste like. That’s available in America so you can use that instead of Picon. There is a new French company called Audemus Spirits that makes a Sepia Amer that’s delicious. That’s something I would tell someone to bring back from France. There’s a really good Amer Gentiane made by Distillerie de Grandmont. You can get green and yellow Chartreuse in the U.S., but I love the Chartreuse 1605 Elixir. It comes in a big bottle and is meant to replicate the old-fashioned style of Chartreuse which is absolutely delicious. I love that.