GRAPEVINE with LIZ SAGUES: A surprise from teacher

PUBLISHED: 13:56 30 July 2008 | UPDATED: 15:16 07 September 2010

Interesting, isn t it, how a little knowledge and understanding can change dislike into appreciation. That s just happened to me, with pastis, that most French of aperitifs (more of it, says the boss of one company which makes it, is drunk there than any

Interesting, isn't it, how a little knowledge and understanding can change dislike into appreciation. That's just happened to me, with pastis, that most French of aperitifs (more of it, says the boss of one company which makes it, is drunk there than any other beverage, though I can't quite believe that).

I still have unhappy memories of my introduction to its liquorice, aniseed and herby flavours years back on a reporting job in France when it was a compulsory start to the interview. Each time I surreptitiously emptied my glass over a handy pot plant it was immediately refilled.

But, wiser and more broad-minded now, I couldn't resist the temptation of a masterclass on the history and making of pastis, matching it with tempting nibbles from the excellent Ransome's Dock restaurant in Battersea.

Initially, the flavours were still something of a shock, but as Alain Robert, the man who heads the company which produces Henri Bardouin Grand Cru pastis (Waitrose, £17), poured and talked I began first to appreciate and then to enjoy them.

The bigger shock came as some members of the Guild of Food Writers, who organised the event, urged Alain to open a bottle from a rival manufacturer. The comparison was like drinking an old-style, over-oaked Australian chardonnay after a fine burgundy - brashness drowning delicacy.

There's a long and intriguing history to pastis, going back to the time when its main purpose was to take away the unpleasant taste of less-than-pure drinking water. It used to be a cottage or even individual industry all over Provence, but, after a war-time ban on production, in 1949 the French government insisted it was made only by licensed companies, with minimum ingredients of liquorice and star anise plus sugar and alcohol. The result, said Alain, was that in most cases the recipes became much simpler and the drink less interesting.

It was only to be expected that he would argue that Henri Bardouin - where the recipe includes more than 65 different herbs and spices, slowly infused in alcohol before the final blending process - is different and in the old tradition. But the tasting was pretty good proof that he wasn't exaggerating.

He also showed how the drink must be mixed: a measure of pastis, five or six of chilled water (it's better to leave the ice in the water jug, but if you must have it in your glass, add it last). Pour pastis straight over ice, and you lose much of the aroma.

Matching it with food was intriguing: while savoury combinations (Provencal delicacies of onion tart and tapenade) were fine, it went wonderfully with a sweet poached pear served with pastis-flavoured custard. And, impressively, I came away still savouring the lingering, green, clean taste of a drink I'd previously disliked.

For another long, cool summer aperitif, consider this: a measure of white port poured over ice in a tall glass, topped up with tonic water plus a slice of lemon and a leaf or two of mint. I've been using Cockburn's Light White (Sainsbury's, Morrisons, Somerfield, £7.50 for 50cl) and Fever Tree tonic (Waitrose) - the citrussy edge of the port is just right, and experiment has suggested a good-quality tonic water is worth the extra.

Both these drinks give you a good deal of volume without a huge dose of alcohol, perfect on a sunny evening.

Liz Sagues

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