Tuesday, September 13, 2011

L'Aperitif (Love Bade Me Welcome)

At my house, there is a ritual (are you shocked?) to the evening and the cooking of dinner. It is my favorite time of the day, save dinner itself.  Allow me to paint you a picture. My children are invariably seated at the marble table in the kitchen, on the center of which is a large fruit bowl often resembling a still life of whatever is best and freshest at the market, always organic and seasonal.  They are engaged in their homework, and chatting breezily about their day.  If I am especially fortunate, there will be no squabbles to punctuate this delightful chatter! I am invariably poised in my efficient kitchen, usually standing in front of my Viking range firing various courses, an aperitif nearby, preparing dinner.  The range faces into what was formerly a breakfast room, but the wall has been removed and now I am able to gaze directly onto the big marble table and banquette on the other side, making conversation easy and enjoyable, without sacrificing attention to detail as I cook (for the difference between good cooking and great is most often at the margins). If the hour is not late, this is usually preceded by a half hour to an hour of an aperitif interlude, where we go and sit out on the terrace in summer or in the living room or library by the fire in winter and talk of the day.  If dinner is more complex, the aperitifs will be served in the kitchen while I cook, on a long, thin, white Apilco platter.

Aperitifs are a splendid thing, in my book, for they are a means of slowing the day and breathing deeply, of reconnecting after what is often a high-paced and demanding string of hours that begin at five in the morning.    L'aperitif is more than simply a drink before a meal.  It is a deliberate set-aside of time to transition and to embrace a welcoming civility that speaks of home as a haven which offers rest, restoration, release and renewal. It is an inclusive custom that invites space to breathe, to stop and take stock. In my own case, I find that it often lends inspiration to other parts of my day, and I enjoy the opportunity to employ my imagination and creativity to effect a stage, a setting, upon which the members of my family or my friends may act.  By acting, I am not suggesting that there are masks which each may wear, but rather that in the dance of life, one is occasionally inclined to assume a part or a role that hearkens ancient archetypes and inclinations. If one is especially clever, or resourceful, there is a kind of peace or wholeness which comes of encouraging the natural acting from this deep place, rather like singing which comes from breathing from one's diaphragm rather than the breathless voice of the beginner. Perhaps as we grow wiser, assuming we do, it is the capacity for embracing our heritage without allowing it to smother us, that acts as Muse to the artistry of our lives.  At other moments in our lives, we may necessarily and purposefully assume many different roles, often, as in my case, worlds away from the traditional or archetypal. For surely if the archetype is to inspire, neither can it be a straight jacket.  But there is something reassuring about an interlude that reaches deep into our created images, if only for the briefest moment, and allows a kind of homecoming of spirit.  Rather like Dinner, to gracefully sip an "apero", as the French often refer to it, is just such an opportunity for the civility of sparkling conversation and the hint of "frisson", of being charming to those to whom one is closest and loves best.  I might flirt with my children, and tease them ever so gently and charmingly. Or pamper a Man in his own castle, such that he might feel well rewarded for a day fighting dragons. I know (Shhh), I fight dragons too, whether the same or of a different sort. Yes, that is true. But love manifest is never wasted. And grace extended is Heaven Sent.  It is the way of Love.

In earlier posts I have spoken about the woman as life's artist, and how she may draw upon her secret garden to subtly orchestrate beauty and pleasure and passion and release and restoration in the life of her family.  Of course, this does not preclude a man from doing similarly. My son will make some woman very happy some day, skilled as he is becoming in fashioning drinks and nibbles with a competence and artistry that matches if not exceeds his handyman skills, which are formidable already. I like to think of this family ritual as a prelude that sets the tone for what comes later in the evening, at dinner and after. A prelude hints at the themes that may follow, and in the best French tradition, can often be a playful suggestion of pleasures to unfold, tantalizing the taste buds and the imagination, enlivening both for what is to come. I will not elaborate on this playful aspect except to suggest that you might employ your imagination along these lines, recognizing that food and music can be symbolic and suggestive, and may be interpreted at various differing levels of meaning, depending upon one's age and inclination.  These pleasures certainly include the table, the menu of which might be foreshadowed, not so much in substance, as in style and counterpoint. The table will ideally have been set already, often by my daughter, with something inviting to recommend it such that we might look upon it with anticipated pleasure. As recently as a year ago, this might have been the catywampus manner in which she folded the napkins, delightfully askew, which was charming in that she was quite proud of her artistry and handiwork at nearly eight years old. But more recently, as she has mastered the art of the fold, it is her sense of fun and humor, and her growing artistry, her blazing candlesticks or soft tealight glow that engages and delights the senses. Despite the often demanding evening agendas of homework and sports practices and chores, for this brief and delightful interlude, I am hopeful that my family will sense that their pleasure for the time at table, and perhaps after, is in capable hands and that they might expect to be charmed, just a little, in the process. If I have done my work with competence and care, this sense of having been charmed might just stay with them as they greet the new day and offer them the strength that comes of its lingering ministrations.  This is Gift.

I try to think intentionally about the music for aperitif hour, just as I do at dinner.  There are so many choices, the selection of which depends upon the weather, my own mood, what I hope may come after, and the demands of the day and my best judgment as to how to best soothe the world weary.  Often, I fall back on baroque music and the charms of Lully or Haydn or Vivaldi, the Bach Brandenburg concerti, or, if slightly more lyrical in mood, a Mozart Sonata. This is not the time for dark and turgid or heavy-laden programmatic music. The mood should be light, but sensual. Perhaps it is a warm night, in which some cool, sultry jazz just fits the bill. Or if I am in a reflective mood, I might play a collection of ballads, those which call to the deep without resorting to extravagance.  Many nights I like to listen to Neil Young or Alison Krauss, or a collection of old crooner favorites. You get the idea.  Perhaps my favorite are string quartets, as they were designed for just this sort of intimate gathering. Just as I match the dinner music to the menu and the mood, the music for the aperitif interlude is the prelude to dinner, and might be best described this way.  Escoffier once said that "like music, the structure of gastronomy is built upon the harmony and sequence of its elements," and it is this graceful flow of an evening that can be mastered over time, with a little practice.  To that end, while allowing for natural digressions and an uninhibited flow, successful evenings are orchestrated according to a strategy that is deliberate at the same time it is attentive: a series of little preparations that become almost second nature over time, and add up to an evening marked by serenity.

Usually, the nibbles are rather simple.  Often, it might be a plate of my house cured olives, which I like to make from high quality olives and to which I add orange peel and thyme and other herbs as well as garlic to flavor and perfume the olive oil into which I will put them for a time.  They are delicious and make a wonderful palate teaser, or amuse bouche.  We also make canapes at The House which shall be Unnamed,  often utilizing the "restes" of the previous night's dinner: little bits of salmon, or chicken, or a pea puree, which can be artfully combined with chevre, or a leaf of arugula or basil, or chopped herbs or fromage blanc and set upon grilled levain toasts cut into bite sized pies. A tiny bit of grilled lamb with a dollop of olive tapenade, or a shaved slice of steak with a little horseradish aioli.  Nothing is wasted this way. It does not require a bank roll to make lovely appetizers, and, in fact, the French are experts at this. Sometimes I make a remoulade sauce and use it to complement a little fresh shrimp, purchased from the fish market on my walk.  There are endless variations. My son, who is 12, has now largely taken over this task, and is very skilled at transforming bits of restes into delectable morsels, complete with fresh herbs as a garnish, gathered from the second of our herb gardens, which he has recently reclaimed from a rather unappealing corner of the service garden off the kitchen as a gift for his mother. My favorite nibble is the gougere, a delightful little mouthful, which perfectly complements wine, made from pate a choux and gruyere cheese, although there are endless variations of this as well. If you haven't made this, teach yourself to do so and you will always have an elegant and simple appetizer.  In the main, the offerings should be modest and serve only to whet the appetite, not to sate. They should not overpower the meal to come, but suggest its contours and hint at its pleasures.

As to the drink itself, the aperitif, of this I have decided views. When my husband was CEO of a sawmill company with mills on the west coast, his investors, who formed the Board, flew in from Montana quite regularly to dine with us.  Noticing the malts and liqueurs on a butler's table, and being inclined towards malt, they requested various single malts. I declined their request (cheeky of me), suggesting that their palates would be happier if they were to forgo this pleasure at the outset and have it instead for a libation after dinner, because the strong flavors would begin to dull what came after. We drank champagne and they enjoyed themselves rather a lot over the course of the evening, I think, especially as the first course was two platters of fresh oysters on the half shell served with various savory sorbets, which the champagne perfectly complemented . Champagne is my favorite of all aperitifs, and I adore French champagne, which is often one of my birthday gifts, if not sometimes the only one. I love it with abandon. But for a weeknight aperitif, I often drink Cremant, which is a wonderful substitute at a fraction of the price, and has, if not the cache of champagne, often the equal to its quality. Sometimes, I might add a drop or two of Creme des Fraises des Bois, that wild strawberry liquor, or Creme de Cassis, and make a kir, with a twist of sliced berry on the rim.  But mostly I like it pure and unadulterated.  Also good is a little sip of Vin Maison, that amazing alchemy of home-made pleasure for which nearly every French bonne femme has a proprietary recipe.  In Provence, a glass of chilled Beames de Venise, that splendid muscat wine that for me is summer in a glass, often preludes dinner.

I will offer some more suggestions for some classic as well as inventive aperitifs in posts to come, as well as some recipes for delectable nibbles, but for now, the challenge is on, non? Come play with me, and be my love, says an invitation to share the dance for a half hour before dinner. "Love Bade me Welcome", in the words of the great poet George Herbert, the parish priest, who wrote so well of the call of Love:

LOVE bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack'd anything.

I think that often it is these simple gestures of love that open the door to more. The aperitif is just such an invitation that can open hearts, even as Love Himself, sweetly questioning, observes us quick-eyed (reading the day and the heart) and offers us the first entrance in such that we may draw nearer yet. It is the way of Love. Are you game?

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