You cannot go to the South of France without lingering at least one midmorning at an outdoor café in the shade of a plane tree, reading Le Figaro or the International Herald Tribune while alternately sipping an espresso and a glass of pastis with a side of water.
Pastis, I think, is the “soul drink” of the French Mediterranean, a part of its cultural DNA, even though it was invented only 80 years ago in 1932.
So I found myself a few weeks ago at the Café de la Poste in Olonzac on a sunny market day with two fellow passengers from the Caroline, a three-bedroom barge hotel that provides pleasure cruises between Carcassonne and Beziers along the Canal du Midi. We had just strolled through the town square and along a twisting side street lined with dozens of produce stands, helping Caroline’s owner, captain, and tour guide, Uli Weber, choose cheeses and sausages and ripe tomatoes for feasting later on board. Then we came out onto a much busier street, where there was a newsstand to buy the morning paper, and then the café with its dozen or two round tables strewn across the broad sidewalk like lily pads across a country pond. The place was jammed, but we found a table in back in the shade of a tree, unfolded our papers, and admired the green-checkered façade of La Poste.
Although we happened there by serendipity, I later found posts about La Poste’s local popularly on the web. “I’ve been using the free wifi at the Café de la Poste in Olonzac for the last month,” wrote Elaine at Aude France. “I now think of the bar as my office. In fact, I think I’ve spent more time in a bar this month than I have in my whole life to this point.” Perhaps Elaine and her wifi friends were there that morning. Soon a waitress appeared, and a few minutes later, the espresso and pastis were before me. Because it was still morning, I diluted the shot of pastis by about half, the cool water turning the fiery liquid a creamy white. I sipped. Just the right amount of lightly chilled anise flavor and a slight brace of alcohol that mere caffeine can never replicate.
Pastis is one of many Mediterranean drinks flavored with anise and licorice, and it came as a replacement for the wormwood-laced absinthe, also anise-flavored, which was banned in France and most other countries for purportedly driving people to do mad things that they now only do on Jerry Springer. So Paul Ricard (the Ricard part of the Pernod Ricard spirits conglomerate) invented pastis in 1932, and southern France has been sipping it ever since, usually with cool water, no ice, please.
A half-hour later, refreshed and having caught up with the news of the world, we made our way back to our mooring a few kilometers away and were afloat on the Canal du Midi, the flavors of the South of France still lingering on my palate.